Belichick Puts His Plan To Work

Bob George
February 19, 2000 at 1:59 pm ET

People are amazed at how accessible Bill Belichick is these days.

In Cleveland, his media relationship was a cut or two below that of Ted Williams. Here in New England, he is much more lucid and willing to talk to those who will listen.

Berj Najarian is doing his job. Dude. Get me my Super Bowl tickets, pronto.

Is this what Patriot Nation really thinks? Give me a break.

Who cares how good or bad the assistant coaches Belichick hired are? Who cares if the team sacrificed three or four free agents at the hands of Lawyer Milloy? All anyone cares about is that Belichick is much more than the dour, monotonous, Wellington Mara-esque figure he was on the shores of Lake Erie.

If Belichick’s personality and media appeal are all you care about, go move out to Hollywood and become one of those brainless human wastes who cover Oscar night and do nothing but say the words “fashion statement” seventy times in the span of two hours. If you’re a football fan, how Belichick presents himself means nothing, especially if he’s winning.

Is Belichick headed in the “winning” direction? From the staff he has assembled, most likely. From a free agent standpoint, the jury is still out. The latter is more Andy Wasynczuk versus greedy players, but you know that most everyone will blame Belichick if Troy Brown walks. Right?

Belichick completed his coaching staff today with the hire of Rob Ryan as linebacker coach. Ryan, the son of former Bears’ defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan (his work in Chicago means a great deal more to Patriot Nation than his two unremarkable head coaching stints in Philadelphia and Arizona), is an advocate of the 46 defense his father pioneered. What Patriot fan who remembers Super Bowl XX wouldn’t just kill to see his team’s defense inflict on their opponents what the Bears did to the Pats on January 26, 1986. The Boston Globe used the words “superbly brutal” in describing the elder Ryan’s defense that day. Such a defense in Foxborough suits everyone just fine.

Belichick has brought in a bevy of defensive coaches who come highly recommended, including Ryan, Eric Mangini, Randy Melvin and Dwayne Walker. The interesting twist here is that none of these men hold the title of “defensive coordinator”. It appears that Belichick is going to try and run the defense as well as being the head man, something that is usually not advisable.

The hiring of Charlie Weis may help if Belichick insists on being defensive coordinator. If Weis can be trusted to handle the offense with a goodly amount of autonomy, Belichick could then spend much of the game working the defense and be able to give that position enough focus. Belichick was always a sideline coach anyway (as opposed to a press box coach), so there would be no transition on Belichick’s part.

But as head coach, Belichick would have to have final say on benching players, calls on third and fourth downs, timeouts, and replay challenges. He would have to be able to overrule Weis when necessary. He would need to show some presence to the offense and not totally alienate them.

Besides, the Patriots once went with co-coaches in a game. 1978. They lost at Miami, 23-3. You’ll have to ask Chuck Fairbanks for the rest of the ugly details.

Belichick is continuing his attention to the running game. He signed Raymont Harris as a free agent this week and released Terry Allen. He is thinking about bringing Derrick Cullors back and releasing Lamont Warren. He is considering bringing on either Karim Abdul-Jabbar or Adrian Murrell. It’s not the same thing as a complete recovery from Robert Edwards, but it’s something.

With the coaching staff set, the biggest headache for Belichick now is retaining the high profile Patriot free agents. Brown remains at the center of this problem, but his asking price and structure demands may break the hearts of Patriot Nation.

If Brown prices himself out of New England, and if the Patriots let Chris Sullivan walk, Tedi Bruschi then becomes the center of attention. If Belichick does indeed want to go to a 3-4 defense next year as is rumoured, Bruschi then becomes a vital signing. Bruschi is on record as saying that he does not want to break the bank, and there has not as yet been real serious interest in the former Arizona linebacker. Bruschi should be signed quickly if Brown leaves the team.

And if Brown does indeed leave, it will be because someone ghastly overpaid for him. Brown’s talents on punt returns add to his wide receiver value, but $3 million a year is awfully pricey for a man of Brown’s abilities. He turned down a $2.5 million per deal from the Patriots that was backloaded, and Kansas City could very well give Brown what he wants. Blaming Belichick or Wasynczuk for Brown’s departure on these terms will be totally unfair, but don’t bet against it.

The top offensive lineman free agent, Jon Runyan, is off the board. Ruben Brown is now the center of attention in this area. The chance that Bruce Armstrong could return at a lower salary is also a possibility. The Patriots literally gave up a blue chip offensive lineman for Belichick, as their first round pick would likely have gone in this area. Finding a good offensive lineman will also become more of a focus if Troy Brown walks, but signing someone of Ruben Brown’s stature may have to be weighed against signing Bruschi, or making other personnel cuts.

Whatever Belichick decides, how the free agent scenario plays out will go a long way towards predicting how the 2000 season will go for the Patriots. Under normal conditions, Belichick would be given a two to three year grace period to allow him to build the team through draft picks and free agency. But Patriot fans, especially those who wanted Dom Capers and Tom Donahoe, will show absolutely no patience whatsoever. Belichick has to win right now to appease the myriad of fans who would love that first round pick back.

It would be nice if that faction of Patriot Nation would take some valium and undergo stress reduction therapy. Belichick should be given the chance to lay his plan into place. He has already hired a decent staff, good people to help out in the front office, and good people to help out in the War Room. He has brought in two new strength and conditioning coaches (Mike Woicik, Marcus Paul), and is already taking a more proactive stance on player attendance at workouts than Pete Carroll ever did.

Belichick may make most of his early hay in the War Room. On Draft Day, he will have to do two things: he will have to make quality picks with each selection, and he will have to establish that he, and not Bobby Grier, is the ultimate judge of talent on the ball club. Grier, who is still hanging around despite being a popular choice for the unemployment line, has been rumoured as merely being in an advisory role with Belichick, and that the latter has that final say in personnel matters he so dearly coveted when he resigned as Jet coach last month.

So far, Belichick has made sound decisions, and has also made gutsy decisions that have made sense. Letting Johnny Parker, Raymond Hamilton, Ben Coates and Armstrong go were not popular decisions. The deposed coaches have been replaced, Rod Rutledge may flourish in Weis’ offense, and Army may actually come back some day. Things may work out. Belichick has to be given the chance to let this all happen.

And lots of folks think so. But they think so mostly because he now speaks to the media more often. Ugh. Next thing you know, you’ll see Rona Barrett or Judith Crist as the newest Patriot beat writer.

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