If somebody told you to trust your money to Bill Belichick to invest, would you? Now turn the question around. Why would you trust football decisions to a mall developer? It’s that time of year again, the NFL hiring cycle, when billionaire superegos confuse their industrial or inherited wealth with locker room expertise and go haphazardly shopping for a new head coach who will establish “a winning culture.” Instead, what most of them will get is what they deserve: organizational misalignment.
Football is not business, and business is not football. The job of NFL coach has no real managerial parallel. It’s a mix of hard technical proficiency and pervasive authority, in which basic managerial precepts are turned on their heads. Predictability is death, unpredictability is a virtue, and the competition is equally protean. The roster changes not just seasonally but within seasons; injuries mean combinations are constantly reshuffled. Familiarity with co-workers is ever in flux. And that’s before you’ve addressed the opponent. One man has prevailed over these peculiar instabilities better than any in modern league history, Belichick. Yet the most unstable fact of all in his profession is this: He will be fired by an amateur, if not now, then someday. That’s the nature of this strange nonbusiness.
At 71, Belichick still has ambition and energy left, and the Patriots’ Robert Kraft is right to hesitate to fire him. Relationships can run their course, and maybe this one has, but cutting Belichick free would be handing a gift to one of a half dozen heat-seeking owners looking to hire a new coach. For all of Belichick’s idiosyncrasies, he’s still the surest shot in the field, winner of a record 31 playoff games and one of the strongest bricklayers of locker room culture the modern game has ever seen, in no small part because he’s one of the few men in the league who knows what culture really is and how to foster it. Drab, hooded, laconic, withholding, he personified it even in his worst season, adhering to his own precepts, resisting the narrative of the moment and the corrosions of star coddling.
“If I favor one, I don’t favor 52,” he once said. “I try to give everybody what they earn.”
The narrative of the moment is that the Patriots’ 4-13 record was a mess of Belichick’s own making, his insistence on control and penchant for underpaid overachievers biting him with failed drafts and staff dysfunction. That’s a gross oversimplification. The Patriots are still paying the tab for a run of three Super Bowls in five years through 2019, when they aged out with that crew of all-time greats, the Julian Edelmens and Devin McCourtys, not to mention Tom Brady. They began this season with 32 players who had two years or less experience in the league, and without an established quarterback, and they lost their offensive line coach to illness in November. Sometimes it’s as instructive to follow a struggling team as a winning one — what they do when they’re down on a collective knee is as telling as what they do on the trophy platform. The Patriots played with such weekly commitment that they lost seven games by a single score. Somehow, Belichick coaxed his players to pour their hearts into the job with little or nothing at stake into the 17th week, when they lost to the hottest and most surging team in the league, the Buffalo Bills, by just 27-21.
It’s as difficult to find a head coaching great as it is a dynastic quarterback: Just 13 quarterbacks have ever won multiple Super Bowl rings, and just 14 head coaches. They come along only generationally, say, every 10 years out of a hundred.
Here is what the Patriots would be giving up: a coach who combines diagnostic perception with strategic maestro-dom, and most importantly, with a persuasive touch with aspirational young players. Who has an appreciative eye for the integral player who competes as much for a life-altering sense of accomplishment as for generational wealth, and can help undervalued strivers to vault to unexpected heights. Whose teams from 2000 to 2019 were continually considered undermanned by experts, yet who won a higher percentage of games than any other American franchise, in any sport, and racked up a record of 31-13 in the playoffs, along with those six Super Bowls. Part of Belichick’s rebellion against social media he calls “Instaface” is based in the fact that it’s the height of absurdity — and insult — to attribute such a run to a singular talent, whether Tom Brady or him.
The game as Belichick coaches it is too interdependent for that — and it’s exactly that interdependence that made his best teams so intimidating and difficult to beat. When the Patriots played well, the opponent simply couldn’t find a crack in the wall, and a sense of inevitable doom steadily encroached. He defeated the sheer fluidity of the game, the variables of behavior and reactiveness, and made fools gold out of probabilities with the Patriots’ wing to wing executioner’s excellence. It’s said that Belichick can proficiently coach every single position on the field. How hard that is to do. How much harder than simply X’s and O’s. How nonaccidental. How rare.
Wrapped up in the stony demeanor come impressions not necessarily true: that he is merely a controlling utilitarian, chilled and ungenerous at his center. Belichick is certainly a supreme machinator. But withholding and strategic does not mean cold. He has a deep if buried loyalty for players, especially the most selfless and deprecating ones like longtime special teams captain Matthew Slater. When he chooses, he can be courtly and reflective and show flashes of the educated man he really is, who grew up reading the New Yorker. He is constitutionally incapable of kissing rings, and that can wear out his connections, as it did with Brady and perhaps with Kraft. Mostly, he simply despises “verbal vomiting” and doesn’t believe in exhibiting his insides.
It’s a kind of proof of Belichick’s deep suspicion of popularity that a single low sequence after 23 years would result in such doubt and indictment of his abilities. Lately, you sense that Kraft tolerated Belichick more than appreciated him. The Patriots are in a bad cycle that ownership has every right to bemoan, and they surely need a front office fix and a quarterback. And yet the franchise Belichick served so well for so long might learn that a coaching search is a dive into murk, if not blackness for owners who are out of their elements.
As Belichick has always known better than anyone, the real answer to the vagaries of the league — salary caps, rule changes, injuries, constant change — is a strong locker room culture. It’s the story your people tell themselves about who they are in the arena as they execute your decisions. Strategy designates actions, but it’s Belichick’s culture that inspirits them. So many NFL franchises flounder because coaches, owners and executives internally contradict their stated culture. For instance, it does no good to identify your workplace as a “meritocracy” if you reward paycheckers over passion players.
Belichick has never done that — there is no internal crack between his stated beliefs and actual practice. That the Patriots refused to gear down their effort this season even in the dregs was a sign that his culture is largely intact, even as other factors are in high churn. It’s his real, abiding strength and the owner who realizes it is the smart one.