Column: NFL's 'last real anarchist' still on top
There's something about Bill Belichick that rubs people the wrong way.
Not Patriots fans, of course, nor most of the guys who play for him. That's because he's taken their teams to four Super Bowls, won three, and has them back in the AFC title game this Sunday for the sixth time in his 11 seasons. It's how he does it that riles most everyone else.
Take last weekend. Plenty of NFL fans without a team in the playoffs tuned in awaiting the next twist in the serendipitous saga of Tim Tebow. Belichick squeezed all the romance out of the game in a hurry, punishing Denver's overmatched quarterback with well-disguised defensive schemes and piling up points as Tom Brady ran an offense so varied and efficient that you wondered where he was hiding the video game controller. Then Belichick did what he always does in such situations: He rubbed it in.
Leading the Broncos 45-10 with just three minutes left, Belichick not only kept his front-liners in, he had Brady quick-kick from his own 43, pinning Denver back at its 10-yard line. Much pushing and shoving ensued after the kick, most of it begun by the frustrated and embarrassed Broncos, but quickly joined by a handful of Patriots only too happy to show off their abrasive side.
When other coaches run up the score, they mumble an apology and dread what might happen if the shoe ever winds up on the other foot. Belichick does neither. It's rarely personal with him, save, perhaps during the 2007 season after the Patriots got caught videotaping opponents' practices and would have run the table were it not for a handful of highlight plays the New York Giants pulled off in the Super Bowl. Belichick is so consumed trying to run it up against everyone — he often seems more interested in what's possible rather than practical — that there's no point in trying to keep track of grudges. Even more surprising might be that he's managed to convince a growing list of superstars and spare parts alike to follow him over to the dark side.
If Belichick has charisma, he's done a masterful job of hiding it. In a wonderful piece at Grantland.com, writer Charles P. Pierce calls the coach "the NFL's last real anarchist," which may be as good an explanation as any of Belichick's appeal inside the locker room. He routinely — and unapologetically — thumbs his nose at all manner of NFL conventions, a stubborn streak he first displayed in its fullness at the 2002 Super Bowl, when the Patriots slowed a St. Louis offense billed as "The Greatest Show on Turf" by deploying as few as two defensive lineman and dropping as many as seven defensive backs into pass coverage en route to an upset 20-17 win. Since then, Belichick has monkeyed with just about everything else in the game.
The Patriots' weekly injury report, for example, has been a running joke in the league for years. It's always packed with familiar names, followed by "doubtful" and "questionable" during the week, and almost always empty by game time. Belichick demands that nearly everyone on the squad learns to play more than one position and cuts long-serving regulars the second they start to slip. To play for him is to live in fear of having a job, but also to enjoy almost unmatched success.
At the end of what might be the most offensive-oriented season in NFL history, three of the four teams still playing — NFC finalists New York and San Francisco, and AFC rival Baltimore, which visits New England — survived on the strength of their defenses. Belichick long ago established his credentials as one of the finest defensive minds in the league. But as the rules gradually shifted over the last few years to open up play and protect glamour-boy quarterbacks like Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, he jumped ahead of the curve with a spread offense. The Patriots' current set is built around a pair of versatile tight ends who can run and catch like wide receivers, but are also big and tough enough to shake off defensive backs determined to bump them off routes.
The spread offense isn't revolutionary; it's a variation on the scheme some college coaches have been employing for a decade or so. Belichick cut out the option portion of the scheme, but likely because he was convinced it wouldn't work in the NFL rather than spare Brady the hits. After all, he's had his QB still playing at the end of blowouts, and unlike some coaches who lost their jobs when their star got hurt — Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell got fired Tuesday, another victim of Peyton Manning's lost season — Belichick worries only so much about devising contingency plans. It's worth noting that when Brady was lost for the 2008 season in the first game, the Patriots still managed to finish 11-5. It's also worth noting that Brady got his start when Drew Bledsoe, New England's veteran All-Pro quarterback, went down with a chest injury and Belichick refused to change starters even after he came back.
Decisions like that tear some teams apart, but Belichick maintains such a tight grip on his that any dissension rarely finds its way outside the New England locker room. His players have learned to mimic his non-answer answers, to say little when they win and less when they lose. He likes swollen heads inside helmets, but once the helmets come off, not so much.
You can argue whether insecurity is the right tone to set for an entire organization, but not about who sets it or the results Belichick has produced. Question his methods if you want, but for the better part of a decade, he's convinced a team that's accomplished more, that's at least as talented and better prepared than its opponent every week, to play like an underdog for 60 minutes and then seethe about the result until kickoff the following week. Whatever else it might be, that's coaching.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.