Now, The Real Coaching Job Begins

Bob George
March 9, 2002 at 4:00 pm ET

Next in a series of articles on the 2001 positional analysis of the New England Patriots. Today’s feature: Coaching

Genius.

He is the Albert Einstein of pro football. If there was an E=mc2 equivalent to football, he’d discover it.

He is the Wolfgang Mozart of pro football. As Mozart was known to compose symphonic masterpieces before age 10, he probably concocted a killer cover-two defensive scheme at that age.

He is the Thomas Edison of pro football. The invention of “how to shut down the St. Louis Rams” is the football equivalent of inventing the light bulb.

He is the Michelangelo of pro football. What’s more awe-inspiring, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or a similar ceiling with a painting of the defensive alignment that resulted in the Ty Law Super Bowl pick?

What had been said for so many years about Bill Walsh now will be said about Bill Belichick. Walsh’s biggest contribution to pro football was something called the West Coast offense. Walsh won four Super Bowls, which in and of itself is historic and monumental. But in no case did Walsh have to defeat a team like the St. Louis Rams on its way to a Super Bowl victory (Dan Marino had his record-breaking passing year going into Super Bowl XIX, but he didn’t have Marshall Faulk in his backfield).

Belichick has his signature on two of the greatest defensive displays in the history of the league. In Super Bowl XXV, his Giants put the clamps on a high-powered Buffalo Bills’ K-Gun offense. And in Super Bowl XXXVI, his Patriots held down the offensive equivalent of the 1985 Bears just enough for his team to prevail by three points.

Right now, Belichick is on top of the pro football world. His trophy acceptances with Bob Kraft standing alongside of him are worth a million bucks. Kraft proudly proclaims that giving up a first round draft pick for Belichick was the best deal he ever made. The two men adore each other, which right now is great for Patriot Nation considering what happened to Bill Parcells. Belichick is incredibly happy, very satisfied, and absolutely giddy that he came to New England and won a championship in just two years.

But Belichick’s work has barely begun.

Quick, what’s the hardest thing about getting on top? That’s right. Staying there.

And Belichick will have all he can handle with a bunch of guys who now have had a taste of a championship, and who may not be as hungry in 2002 as they were in 2001.

Worse, they will have to deal with a league that will no longer overlook them. They will come at them hard in every game this year. The Patriots are now the champions, and their 2002 opponents will be obsessed with sticking it to them.

One of those opponents will be Oakland. The game will be at the Black Hole. And the league refused to change the tuck rule. Hoo boy. If Belichick wins this game, forget the Super Bowl. This one would be even more amazing.

Another of those opponents will be Pittsburgh at home. This is rumoured to be the likely inaugural game at CMGi Field. The Patriots are 1-0 at Heinz Field. This will be a team with a huge chip on its shoulder. They will not need Kevin Henry to make things difficult for Belichick and his team. What a better revenge motive than to come into the Patriots’ new crib and stick it to them like the Patriots did to the Steelers last year in their new crib?

Fortunately, Belichick deals chiefly in X’s and O’s, and doesn’t let emotion get in his way. One of Belichick’s strong points is that he is a tireless film watcher, and eventually knows his opponent better than the opponent knows itself. Belichick was rarely outcoached in 2001, versus 2000 where in some games he looked like a doofus. Now that Belichick has a championship under his belt and much better people skills, he can squarely focus on the brainwork that it will take to defeat any opponent in 2002.

His players respect him more than any coach in team history, and maybe on a broader scale than that. Belichick proved that this year in dealing with now former wideout Terry Glenn, who is now the problem of the Green Bay Packers (and naturally, the Pack plays the Pats in ’02, in Foxborough). The players appreciated that Belichick refused to placate Glenn, and it made them play that much harder.

Belichick also perhaps won over the entire team in his dealing with the death of quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein. Belichick never hired a replacement, and has gotten more into the offense thanks to his taking over the position. It looks like Belichick will continue as quarterbacks coach in 2002.

One thing that helped Belichick greatly in 2001 was the hiring of old friend Romeo Crennel as defensive coordinator. Belichick served in that capacity last year, and found that he was unable to be a real head coach and deal with all the problems that a head man deals with. But with Crennel aboard, Belichick could entrust the defense to someone else, someone who was exactly on the same page as Belichick.

Crennel was another Parcells disciple, coaching mostly defensive line under the Tuna in the halcyon days of the Giants. Crennel followed Parcells to Foxborough in 1993, then followed him to Exit 16-W in 1997. Crennel finally broke away from Parcells when he became defensive coordinator of the new Cleveland Browns. Belichick would break away himself, and obtained Crennel when he became available in 2001.

It’s strange that Belichick gets so much credit for his defensive game plans, yet Crennel is perhaps the real main cog here. Belichick may be providing the inspiration while Crennel provides the perspiration. In his Super Bowl analysis, Will McDonough of the Globe singled out Crennel as the key to the Patriot victory over St. Louis. Crennel executes what Belichick creates, and the two in tandem make for the finest defensive coaching duo in the league.

Still another Parcells disciple bolted the Tuna to achieve glory elsewhere. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis followed much the same path as Crennel and Belichick. Long stint with the Giants, came to Foxborough in 1993, went to Joisey in 1997, followed Belichick to Foxborough in 2000. Weis pulled a terrific fink job in the hearings to determine if the Patriots could sign Belichick without compensation due the Jets. It was no surprise that Weis easily moved up to Foxborough to join Belichick.

Weis could still wind up as Oakland head coach at press time, but the Raiders have not shown an interest in him. That’s a good thing for the Patriots, as Weis enjoyed a great 2001 season thanks in part to an upgraded offensive line and running back corps.

Weis would perhaps love to open things up and put up 35-40 points a game like the Rams do. But Weis had to be conservative this year, what with Tom Brady learning the ropes as an NFL starting quarterback. As it turned out, Weis never really needed to be the second coming of Air Coryell, and the Patriot won-loss record speaks for itself.

Belichick has reaped a lot of praise as a premier “game manager”. Part of that skill is keeping a tight rein on the offense, and not putting them into positions of doing stupid things that lose ball games. The brand of football may not be exciting, but a win by two points is no different from a win by 22 points. Weis was likely directed to run an offense that would be just enough to get a win. Whereas Weis sometimes comes off looking inept, in reality he is game-managing according to Belichick, and hasn’t really needed to open up and take chances.

And when they do open up, great things happen. The two Colt games were offensive marvels, and the huge win against New Orleans was equally stunning. You can’t count the Carolina game in that category, as that team was pitifully weak and special teams and defense did much of the scoring.

That said, look for Weis to open up just a little bit more in 2002 with a quarterback who has a year’s seasoning and a Super Bowl MVP under his belt. Belichick may still want his offense to play it close to the vest, but the Patriots may actually need to put more points on the board in 2002, and Weis will have to be ready for it.

Belichick, Crennel and Weis form the best NFL coaching trio at the moment. All three have bloodlines to Parcells and the Giants’ old regime. Now, they are building a new regime in Foxborough. The future for the Patriots looks perhaps brighter now than it did on the evening of February 3, 2001.

If Belichick can prevent his troops from being lazy and complacent, if Crennel can keep his squad’s intensity up, and if Weis can trust Brady to handle a little more firepower, 2002 ought to be another great year for the Patriots.

You already know that the Patriots can beat the best.

And it took the best coaching staff to pull it off.

A staff led by a genius.

Next feature: Front office

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