Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots, and the end of an NFL era
Some thoughts as Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots part ways after 24 years at the NFL zenith:
- I’m only a casual football fan. Baseball is my most fervent passion. But I have always had a peripheral – and growing – interest in the NFL. I started watching games – rather dispassionately – in the mid-2000s, amid the unprecedented pomp of Belichick and the Patriots. Their dynastic domination of that era forever colours my view of the sport. As I learned football, the Patriots were indomitable, and in retrospect, it was a privileged to witness their metronomic success.
- Between 2000 and 2023, Belichick led the Patriots to 17 division titles, nine AFC championships and six Super Bowl rings. All during an age of stultifying parity in the NFL. We will never see domination like that again.
- There was always a sense of mystery surrounding Belichick, and that aura survives to this day. He is insular, calculating, introverted and cunning – a Svengali figure who leaves no stone unturned in the cold pursuit of victory. In modern sports, we hear so much about ‘marginal gains.’ Well, Belichick is the greatest hoarder of marginal gains I have ever encountered.
- Beneath the headline plaudits and eye-popping records, we often forget how it felt to watch the Patriots’ tireless churn to glory during Belichick’s peak. There was an inevitability to it all. A resignation. Belichick oversaw a relentless machine of nondescript, interoperable, unheralded cogs that produced formulaic success – week after week, year after year. When all seemed lost, and when the league looked to have caught up, Belichick would find – out of nowhere – a new, unwanted peg to be plugged into his quiet juggernaut. It would invariably work a treat, for a relative pittance, and keep New England humming along. It was death by a thousand papercuts. Death by a conveyor belt of Edelmans, Welkers, Gronkowskis and Amendolas.
- Belichick and New England was a rare melding of place and philosophy. Indeed, beyond the X’s and O’s, Belichick shaped a largely ineffable culture around the Patriots. He set the tone – and the expectations – for their greatness. In sports, few managerial figureheads have so emphatically transcended the capricious realm of day-to-day minutiae as to become a metonym for their respective teams. Belichick achieved that with the Patriots, joining an elite echelon that includes Vince Lombardi with the Green Bay Packers; Sir Alex Ferguson with Manchester United; Red Auerbach with the Boston Celtics; Nick Saban with Alabama; and Casey Stengel with the Yankees.
- Belichick always had plenty of detractors. People who attributed the Patriots’ dynasty more to Tom Brady. People who said Belichick bent the rules too much, from deflated footballs to overzealous reconnaissance. Those criticisms are certainly valid, and warrant extensive debate, but the undergirding proclivity – to win at all costs – is what differentiates Belichick. Most people say they are obsessed with winning. Belichick actually is.
- Sure, the Patriots have sucked in recent seasons. They went 4-13 this year, and have not been to the Super Bowl since 2019 – an eternity in New England. Some say Belichick lost his way; that, aged 71, he struggles to remain relevant. Others say he simply misses Brady. However, Bill Belichick is still a legendary coach, and after watching him win ad nauseam for two decades, I cannot herald his demise. This guy has been ubiquitous in my lifelong football experience, and I will always respect his phenomenal achievements.
- This does not feel like the end for Belichick, though. He needs 14 wins to surpass Don Shula and set a new all-time head coaching record. At least one team will give him a shot. Personally, I would love to see Belichick win one final Super Bowl and go out on top. It would be a fitting end to an esoteric career governed by his own rules. One last hurrah for football’s autonomous Einstein.