The Two-Decade Flavor of Bill Belichick
ATLANTA (973espn.com) - Imagine taking 17 years to get another opportunity at the most important prize in professional football and when you get there, the same hurdle exists.
In many ways, the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady dynasty comes full circle on Sunday, 17 years after the greatest coach/quarterback combo in NFL history first faced the Rams on the game's grandest stage.
Super Bowl XXXVI was the Patriots first of five championships, a 20-17 upset win over the then St. Louis Rams of Mike Martz and Kurt Warner, a coach who now calls the Alliance of American Football home and a signal caller who is already in Canton as Brady prepares for his ninth Super Bowl performance at age 41, an almost unthinkable level of success, especially in the free-agency era where there is massive turnover from year to year.
Consider that while it's taken the Rams those 17 years and two cities to get back to this point and waiting for then is the same Belichick/Brady dynamic they dealt with the last time, Sean McVay, the Rams' current head coach, was 16 at the time of SB XXXVI and Jared Goff, the new star signal caller, was 7.
The Pats' ability to manage the salary cap and turnover meaningful pieces on the roster every year should be the case study every NFL team undertakes but the league has gone in the opposite direction, choosing McVay as a flavor of the month, a young, offensive wunderkind who was the template for the recent hiring cycle.
The thought around the league seems to be you can't duplicate Belichick and Brady so let's choose the other option at the fork in the road.
“Roster building in the NFL is a very challenging task, and there are so many talented players in this league," Belichick explained Tuesday. “Ultimately you have to try to find the right mix for your team. That can be long- and short-term because there’s a development aspect to younger players and then with the longevity and productivity of older players."
There have been a couple of core principles you can hang your hat on when explaining Belichick's success. On the field, it's about taking away the opposition's top playmaker and forcing others to beat, exemplified by the Pats' "cloud coverage" of Tyreek Hill in the AFC Championship Game against Kansas City. Off the field, it's the mentality that it's better to give up on a player a year early than a year late as evidenced by the organization's jettisoning of more than a few big-time contributors over the years.
“When you put all of that together, it all becomes cloudy, I would say. If it’s clear, it’s easy," Belichick explained. "Usually it’s not that clear, you have three or four options and you try to pick the right one and prioritize all of those things. There are multiple correct answers.”
This time the Patriots built a Super Bowl team for the third straight year with the key additions form the team that lost Super Bowl LII to Philadelphia being rookie running back Sony Michel, the first-round pick who has a bell cow in the postseason, as well as star slot receiver Julian Edelman, who missed last year's big game with a torn ACL.
“What’s important on this year’s team is they’ve worked hard and they’ve tried to improve every day,” Belichick said. “Each year your roster is comprised of different players, and you evolve into this slightly or moderately different team every year. We’ve tried to adapt to our strengths and our weaknesses and to find the right combination to make our team the best it can be."
On defense, the Belichick stamp is the ability to morph philosophies from week to week and the focus is on high football IQs and cornerbacks who like to play a physical brand of football.
“Everything doesn’t always go perfect or right, but we go back to work and we try to get it better the next time," the coach said. "And they’ve done that relentlessly since the middle of April last year. We’ve been really demanding of those things, and they’ve really responded day after day, week after week, month after month.”
And now you can add year after year as Belichick prepares to send the flavor of the month on another 17-year hiatus.
“Right now, I’m just really focused on trying to help our team prepare for the Rams,” Belichick said. “I’m not going to worry about anything else. As far as the future goes, the future for me right now is Sunday night against the Rams.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen