Coaches always will be tempted to take risks when the reward is winning. Successful coaches find themselves having far greater license to do it.
For Patriots coach Bill Belichick, three Super Bowl wins in four years and the ongoing presence of one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history have empowered him to take chances. After all, Belichick isn’t and for the foreseeable future won’t be on the hot seat.
And if he’d ever get fired by the Patriots, someone else would be willing to hire him immediately.
Hints of a greater willingness to embrace risk came in 2007, with the drafting of safety Brandon Meriweather in round one, and the trade that brought receiver Randy Moss to New England from Oakland. Meriweather kicked an opponent in the head during an on-field fight at the University of Miami, and Moss’s tombstone will (or at least should) read, “I played when I wanted to play.”
The habit accelerated in 2010, with the two-tight-end dice-roll on Rob Gronkowski (round two; back problems) and Aaron Hernandez (round four; failed drug tests). Both looked great through their first two seasons.
In 2011, Belichick took risk-taking to a higher level, using a third-round pick on much-maligned quarterback Ryan Mallett and then, after the lockout, sending mid-round picks to the Redskins and Bengals, respectively, for defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and receiver Chad Ochocinco. That same year, the Pats spent a fifth-round pick on Marcus Cannon, an offensive lineman who was diagnosed with cancer in the weeks preceding the draft.
In 2012, a seventh-round flier was taken on cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was charged with assaulting a police officer only days before the draft. During the 2012 season, Belichick traded for cornerback Aqib Talib, a former first-rounder who had more than a few off-field predicaments in Tampa.
Then came the unexpected (but in hindsight brilliant) waiver claim on tight end Jake Ballard (ACL) and, most recently, a trade for running back LeGarrette Blount and the decision to bring Tebowmania to town.
It’s not that Belichick is harboring reputed bad guys. Instead, he’s generally buying low — whether due to injures, health problems, off-field issues, or perceived distractions from a nationwide army of fanatics and the overly zealous media horde trying to serve them.
In some cases, Belichick’s willingness to take risks has worked. In other cases, it hasn’t. For some players, it worked initially but then went the other way.
Regardless, Belichick has opted to take risks because he’s far more focused on cementing a legacy than keeping his job. While it has yet to deliver a fourth Super Bowl win, there’s no reason to change, because he won’t be on the hot seat any time soon, if ever.