Perhaps it seems like a damning question to ask about one of the most successful, iconic and catalyzing coaches New England has ever seen. He is a football institution, but all good things must come to an end. Is it possible that we are witnessing his decline?
Looking at his body of work as an NFL coach, it is incredibly hard to criticize him or doubt him in any capacity. It is even harder if you're from New England and have witnessed what he has done here for this football team.
Bill Belichick, along with Tom Brady and Robert Kraft, helped launch the New England Patriots from a perennially pathetic team whose rare time in the spotlight only ever ended in embarrassment, to one of the most respected and flourishing franchises across American professional athletics.
Belichick is 196-96-0 in the regular season and 15-6 in the postseason for a career winning percentage of .635, which puts him 10th all time in winning percentage among those who have head coached at least 10 seasons. His 71 games over .500 ties him with John Madden for 8th all time behind Don Shula, George Halas, Paul Brown, Curly Lambeau, Tom Landry and Marty Schottenheimer.
He is one Super Bowl win behind the great Chuck Noll, who led his team to four AFC Championships and four Super Bowls titles to Belichick's four AFC Championships and three Super Bowl titles. His current 167 wins puts him 11th all time in wins, and depending on how much longer he coaches, he could finish in the top five. His playoff win/loss percentage of .714 is second only to Tom Flores among modern NFL coaches (those who coached in the league after the NFL/AFL merger in 1970.) Don McCafferty had a playoff W/L % of .800 going 4-1, but he also only coached for four seasons.
Not only has his success spoken for itself, but he has also embedded himself in the character and pop culture of New England and the NFL with the way that he coaches, manages and handles the media and his personal life. There are many things that are described now, within the context of the NFL, as "Belichick-ean." After 26 years of coaching in the National Football League, Bill Belichick is a bona fide Hall of Famer.
Yet as the Patriots continue to falter in the playoffs since their collapse against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, it seems there is a personnel issue. Presumably you look to the Krafts, general manager and coaching staff to discover the root of developing systemic problems. But since the departure of Scott Pioli in 2009, Bill Belichick has been given almost free reign over all of the Patriots' football operations; making him the acting general manager in addition to head coach. Since then he has experimented at times with not having official offensive or defensive coordinators, effectively making himself responsible for those positions as well.
Additionally, Belichick is one of the oldest head coaches in the league. At age 59, he's about the same age as Chan Gailey, Norv Turner and Mike Shanahan. Only Pete Carroll ( 60) and Tom Coughlin (65) are older. The oldest coach to ever win a Super Bowl was Dick Vermeil who did it with the 1999 St. Louis Rams when he was 63. It's very possible that even one of the greatest football minds of our time is having a hard time adapting to the NFL of 2011, especially with all of the roles he has taken on.
The NFL has, over the past decade, gone through one perhaps it's largest institutional change in terms of the way the game is played. Even the early Brady/Belichick Super Bowl offenses were nothing like the high-powered ones that they and the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and (pre-2011) Indianapolis Colts now possess. Rules put in place over the course of that time to protect the quarterback, wide receivers and what are now referred to as "defense-less players" have created a league dominated by high scoring, pass-oriented offenses; offenses could never have existed in older incarnations of the NFL. Players and offenses like Dan Marino with the Miami Dolphins and Brett Favre with the Packers used to be the exception. Now it has become the rule in order to be considered offensively elite.
With this change has come an obvious concurrent difference in the way that defenses are built and successfully function. The secondary is becoming the most important defensive unit on the field, along with the pass rush. Stopping the run and jamming the line of scrimmage is easier than ever as the number of elite running backs, style of running and type of running backs in the league, have all changed.
The declined production of LaDainian Tomlinson is due in part to his health and gamesmanship, but the change in the position itself has more to do with it than people realize. More crafty and elusive backs like LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte thrive in this "new" NFL; they have far less power but more finesse and ability to double as receivers on play action and in the slot, as extensions of the passing game.
Taking all of this into consideration, it is obvious that Belichick has been able to make the offensive adjustment. His 2007 offense stacked with Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Kevin Faulk and co. was the true catalyst for the change, not only here in New England but across the league. They went undefeated that year not just because of the fact that they were incredibly talented and firing on all cylinders, but because defenses had never seen a passing game that dynamic before. Belichick spotted the trend early, and teams across the league were not prepared to defend them.
Yet for all of his innovation defensively in the 80's and early 90's with the Giants, Belichick has not been able to make the defensive transition with the Patriots as easily as he did the offensive one. His constant trading-down for multiple draft picks has produced generally mediocre defensive talent. Guys like Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham have consistently underperformed within his system, and even former defensive stars from Belichick's drafts, like Devin McCourty and Jero Mayo, have lost their way in this year's mess of a defense.
Bill has inexplicably dismantled the secondary all year, beginning with releasing starting safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, only to go on and eventually replace them with players like James Ihedigbo. McCourty's drop off from last year would have been hard to predict, but the drafting of Ras-I Dowling became somewhat of a bust for this year as he has been injured and unable to play all season. Belichick then went ahead and released Leigh Bodden last week, removing even more depth from the cornerback position. No name players of the practice squad like Phillip Adams and Ross Ventrone have been signed and released so many times this year that most have lost count.
Besides nose tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, the best player on Belichick's defense has been veteran defensive end Andre Carter, a former first round pick that was brought in as a free agent in the off season. He has put better consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks by himself than all of Belichick's draft selected defensive lineman from the past two years combined.
So why does he still insist on drafting the way he does? Why is he weakening the secondary while pedestrian quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mark Sanchez throw like Pro-Bowlers against his defense? Why does he refuse to bring in high profile, successful coordinators to help him map out a better defensive plan while he clearly remains overwhelmed with his head coach/general manager/offensive and defensive coordinator duties? How is it possible that a man of his pedigree has lost his marbles enough to not have challenged that no-touchdown call on Gronkowski last week with 3 timeouts and the two minute warning left?
The combination of age, juggling too many responsibilities, insistence on remaining in charge of all in-game and operational decisions and planning, and having no help in learning how to evolve his defense has left Bill Belichick in a disorienting place that we've never seen him in before.
It's bound to happen to even the greatest. Belichick can be and still is great. If he wants to, he can be the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl. He is talented and innovative enough to do whatever he wants to do in this league, and you're wrong if you don't think he's still the best coach in football. But nobody can do it by themselves, and if he does not start to accept the changes that the he and the league are going through. as well as start to trust his personnel and his players to help him, this may be the beginning of the end for one of the greatest coaches ever.