There were stories about an obsession with details. Not legendary. Just odd. Even by NFL obsessive paranoia standards, they were, well, odd.
Bill Belichick, a 39-year-old Giants assistant, was coming to Cleveland as a rookie head coach in 1991. He was the defensive mastermind with two Super Bowl rings and a seriousness that then-Browns owner Art Modell used to describe by saying, “Well, he’s no Don Rickles, but …”
What Belichick lacked in people skills, which essentially was everything at the time, he compensated for with football IQ and work ethic. It was the kind of work ethic that’s both obsessive and rewarding. Still is at age 62 and one week from leading the Patriots into their sixth Super Bowl in 14 seasons.
One particular story from nearly a quarter of a century ago comes to mind eight years after “Spygate” and smack dab in the firestorm that’s being called Deflategate. Those are the two troublesome “gates” that tarnish Belichick’s reputation but certainly don’t define the Pro Football Hall of Fame résumé that belongs to one of the greatest coaches in the history of any sport.
In this story, the young Belichick was climbing the ranks from team to team after his first NFL gig as a $25-a-week gofer with Ted Marchibroda’s Baltimore Colts. As more responsibilities were added to the shoulders of this bright young man, it was discovered that he had a remarkable eye for talent and how it all could fit together on a football field.
Eventually, he spent more and more time evaluating and coaching players at venues where other teams had people doing the same thing.
Belichick, the story went, would be the last person to leave a player workout or a coaching press box. When the last person had left, Belichick would gather all of the garbage from the trash cans and take it with him. Then he’d sort through it to see if the competition had discarded any notes or papers that could be helpful.
Belichick never confirmed this, of course. But let’s just say picturing it didn’t take a great imagination once you saw how Belichick commanded with complete control over everything from cutting starting quarterback Bernie Kosar at midseason to how the practice field grass was to be installed and cut.
A master at making adjustments, Belichick would learn from his mistakes as a sub-.500 coach in Cleveland and use that failure to build a dynasty in New England. He has done so walking side by side with a legendary quarterback, as most of his fellow legendary coaches had done before him. (And lest we forget, Belichick did coax 11 wins out of Matt Cassel the year Tom Brady went down in the season opener because of a torn ACL.)
Belichick’s flexibility and creativity as an X’s and O’s schemer who legally pushes the envelope — think four offensive linemen vs. the Ravens — is fascinating. His eye for projecting, acquiring and cultivating hidden talent to fit a particular role in a specific system — think drafting a Kent State quarterback named Julian Edelman to be Wes Welker’s clone as a receiver — is invaluable.
But there also is a blurry line between the strengths that make Belichick legendary and the primary character flaw that will tarnish his legacy beyond its footnotes but currently short of its headline. Belichick is obsessed with controlling every variable, even when it’s unnecessary. It’s inherent and probably was enhanced by Modell calling to fire him on Valentine’s Day 1996.
In longtime NFL reporter Gary Myer’s book “Coaching Confidential,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he asked Belichick on a scale of one to 100 how much Spygate — the scandal that caught the Patriots taping opponents’ sideline signals in violation of NFL rules — helped the Patriots. According to Kraft, Belichick said, “One.”
In “Deflategate,” ESPN reported that the Patriots used deflated footballs to illegally gain an advantage in last Sunday’s 45-7 victory over the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
On Thursday, Belichick and Brady categorically denied having any knowledge of or connection to the footballs being deflated. Belichick repeated that denial Saturday.
The NFL is investigating after announcing that evidence shows the Patriots did play the first half with deflated footballs.
Naturally, most people don’t believe Belichick or Brady, or both. That, of course, is the price to pay when there’s a track record of arrogant disregard for rules.
Yes, you can argue that everybody spies or that deflated footballs weren’t the reason the Colts lost by 38 points. But then we also can’t assume that these were isolated instances of cheating.
Earlier this season, Don Shula, the NFL’s winningest coach and one of its most graceful ambassadors, was asked a question about Belichick. His response was “Beli-cheat?”
How sad is that on a scale of one to 100, Bill?