Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL.
After an offseason that saw accomplished, Super Bowl-winning coaches leave the sidelines – Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, Tony Dungy, Mike Shanahan – Belichick is the unquestioned dean of coaches. With three rings, he already has a Hall of Fame resume.
But Belichick’s legacy, at least outside of New England, is growing cloudy. In a league where who you know determines where you coach – as our coaching trees project demonstrated – being a Belichick protege is turning out to be a disadvantage instead of an asset.
And it’s because Belichick’s system has a shadow side.
Belichick is a bit of a mysterious figure, wrapped in a heather-grey hoodie and telling the media only what he absolutely must. He has made Foxboro a land of secrets, a land where loyalty is more important than the truth, a land where Spygate could happen.
The success of this shadowy style of running a franchise has, naturally, given his lieutenants – Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini, Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel – chances to go out on their own to run their own teams.
But none of them has had great success. Mangini was fired by the Jets after compiling a 23-25 record. He now moves on his second head-coaching stop in Cleveland replacing Crennel, who went just 24-40 in four years there
Weis’ tenure at Notre Dame has been tumultous and undistinguished. He is 29-21 (after a 19-6 start) and doesn’t seem to have the Fighting Irish any closer to national-title contention than Tyrone Willingham or even Bob Davie did.
And McDaniels, who has yet to coach a game, has already had an extremely public, extremely messy divorce with Pro Bowl Jay Cutler. His reward for “winning” this fight is the right to put Kyle Orton under center for his first NFL game.
In sum, it’s fair to say at this point that these coaches, all of whom come from a super-successful system, have failed. None of them is an abject failure, but we can’t call any of them successes.
The reason for this failure? It’s because these proteges have emulated Belichick’s system without acknowledging or avoiding its shadow side.
Belichick is a system coach. In other words, the system – not the players – is what creates wins. In this view, players are disposable. Coaches are disposable. Front-office execs are disposable. The system – i.e., whatever Belichick believes, says, or wants – is the constant.
That stern view works for Belichick. We need no other example than the success of Matt Cassel replacing Tom Brady last season. Even Brady, the golden boy quarterback and former league MVP, was disposable, because the system created wins.
So when Belichick makes a strange move, no one flinches. Trade Cassel for what seems like minimal value? OK. Get rid of Mike Vrabel? Whatever you say, Bill. What Belichick says, goes, and it almost always goes unquestioned.
But this approach works for Belichick only because of his success. Remember, after his first year in New England, he churned a huge portion of the roster (signing 17 unrestricted free agents) and went on to win the Super Bowl in his second season. And once he had put a Lombardi in the lobby, most players were willing to buy into his system. That created a locker-room culture that bought Belichick’s propoganda and spread it even to former malcontents like Randy Moss or Corey Dillon.
But we’ve seen in Belichick’s proteges that this approach doesn’t work without a the trophy. Without early wins, the Belichick-esque system comes across as know-it-all arrogance.
We have seen this arrogance among Belichick’s NFL proteges all offseason. It started with the McDaniels/Cutler tete-a-tete. McDaniels went after Cassel to replace Cutler – remember, it’s the system, not the players. (We wrote about this in much more details previously.)Cutler got his feathers ruffled, but McDaniels continued to assert the preeminence of his system. (Which has no wins in Denver, by the way.) Now Cutler is gone, and McDaniels must prove his genius with Kyle Orton. The shadow side won.
Or consider Eric Mangini’s offseason. He has caused a kerfuffle by “inviting” (aka “obliging”) rookies on his roster to take a 10-plus hour bus trip to appear at a charity event. Meanwhile, Mangini flew out to the event — you have to take care of the system-keeper, after all. No amount of P.R. spin can make this event shine, and it will damage Cleveland’s ability to recruit free agents in the future. Again, the shadow side wins.
Perhaps the shadow side’s proudest moment was in the first round of the NFL draft. McDaniels eschewed huge defense needs to take RB Knowshon Moreno. The system will take care of the defense, after all, even though the defensive personnel that faltered in a 4-3 last year is even less prepared to run the system’s 3-4. Shadow side.
Mangini, holding the fifth overall pick, gained just two fifth-round picks, an old defensive end, a potential starting safety, and a third-string quarterback to move all the way down to No. 22. Then he used to pick for a much-needed talent infusion – a center, Alex Mack. Mack will start, but to expect an impact from that position is foolhardy – unless you have a system, apparently. Shadow side.
We can even consider former Belichick right-hand man Scott Pioli, now the team president in Kansas City. Holding the No. 3 overall pick, Pioli picked a player who fit the system – DE Tyson Jackson – even though there were perhaps 10 more highly rated players on the board. Pro Football Weekly quotes a scout who said, ” How come everyone let Scott Pioli off the hook? Tyson Jackson is a Toyota. (The Chiefs) spent 60K on a Toyota. It’s OK if you spend it on a Mercedes. I don’t care if it’s an Avalon (high-end model Toyota). (Bill) Belichick looked like a genius trading out of the first round and picking up picks for next year so he does not have to pay anyone first-round money who is not a first-round talent. Pioli traded one pick in the sixth round, and he overpaid (for) Jackson.” Another victory for the system – and the shadow side.
There are even complaints with the way Mangini is working his assistants, who apparently are putting in 80-hour weeks even in June. Sounds like the system – coaches are disposable, so work them hard and run them off. Shadow side.
The shadow side works for Belichick, but that’s because his system won. Without that kind of street cred, though, it’s hard to see players embracing his proteges Mangini, McDaniels, or even Pioli. That could lead to difficulties this year, difficulties recruiting free agents, difficulties retaining coaches, and ultimately difficulties winning game.
The system can win. The problem for these proteges is that the shadow side is the odds-on favorite to win first.