Bill Belichick is a genius.
I know, I know, I’ve lost half of you because you don’t like Belichick personally and half of you think it’s ridiculous to call football coaches geniuses. As Joe Theismann once said, a genius is a guy like Norman Einstein. But as I look at everything that Belichick has accomplished in his coaching career, I really do think he has a genius for coaching football, to an extent that we haven’t seen in professional football since Paul Brown was coaching the Cleveland Browns in the 1940s and 1950s.
We saw that on Saturday in New England, when the Patriots, trailing the Ravens by 14 points in the second half, did something that just isn’t done in professional football: He sent out an offense featuring only four offensive linemen and one running back lined up as an ineligible receiver, confusing and infuriating the Ravens. Baltimore’s John Harbaugh is a good coach, too, but he had just been out-coached and he was so angry about it that he ran onto the field to yell at the officials, drawing a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Nobody’s ever seen that before,” a still-angry Harbaugh said after the game.
When Harbaugh says no one had ever seen it before, what he really is saying is that no one had ever thought of it before. Harbaugh certainly hadn’t thought about it before, and neither had any of his assistants or his players, and that’s why they were completely ill-equipped to handle it. Belichick had out-smarted them.
I’m not exactly saying anything shocking when I say that Belichick is a great coach. With Saturday’s win, Belichick tied Tom Landry record for the most postseason victories in NFL history. The Patriots are favored to win the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, and Belichick is favored to break the tie with Landry and get the postseason victory record all to himself. When you own a record like that, it goes without saying that you’re a good coach.
But I know I’ll get plenty of pushback on this from those who dislike Belichick. Some people don’t like him because of his gruff demeanor, and I don’t particularly like that aspect of his personality, either. But so what? Good football coaches haven’t always been swell guys. I’m calling him a great coach, not Miss Congeniality.
The other thing people don’t like about Belichick is a legitimate issue: He got caught cheating in the 2007 Spygate scandal. The NFL fined Belichick and stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft pick, and that was appropriate. He broke the rules and deserved to suffer the consequences.
But when people suggest that he was somehow exposed as a coach who only wins by cheating, well, that’s just plain silly. After the NFL put a stop to Belichick’s prohibited videotaping in Week Two of the 2007 season, Belichick won 17 consecutive games. The next year Belichick went 11-5 despite losing Tom Brady in Week One. He’s made the playoffs every year since then. Since he got caught spying he’s 99-28 in the regular season, 7-6 in the playoffs. His winning percentage of .757 post-Spygate is better than his .598 winning percentage pre-Spygate. The idea that Belichick needed to spy on other teams to win is just not borne out by the evidence.
What the evidence does show, quite clearly, is that Belichick is not just a good coach but a great coach. If his team wins its next two games, it may be time to proclaim Belichick the best coach ever.
Here are my other thoughts from this weekend in the NFL:
The Seahawks remain the best team in football. The Panthers went to Seattle and played a tough, spirited game of football, but there was never really any doubt that the Seahawks were going to win that game.
Seattle’s defense is insanely good. It was the best defense in the NFL last season in both the regular season and the playoffs, and it was the best defense in the regular season, and seems to be just as good in the playoffs again. The Seahawks forced Cam Newton into three turnovers on Saturday, and Seattle is now on a seven-game winning streak in which it has allowed a total of just 56 points. That just doesn’t happen in today’s NFL.
So can the Seahawks keep it up? I think they can. I like Seattle to beat Green Bay on Sunday, and I like Seattle to win the Super Bowl as well. If that happens, we’ll look at the 2013-14 Seahawks defense as one of the greatest in the history of the sport.
A bad rule negated a great play. I don’t like the way the NFL defines the word “catch” because I think it too often negates the most spectacular plays made by NFL players. What Dez Bryant did on the crucial fourth down in the fourth quarter in Green Bay on Sunday was a wonderful catch — he leapt impossibly high into the air, grabbed the ball, controlled it, rolled over and then held it up to show that he still had it. But under the rules of the NFL it was technically not a catch. Although the official on the field ruled it a catch, Packers coach Mike McCarthy challenged, and the referee (in conjunction with head of officiating Dean Blandino) correctly overruled the call on the field. Dallas fans can’t complain about the officiating, because the officials got it right. But they can complain about the NFL rulebook, because it needlessly complicates the meaning of the term “catch,” and takes away some of the best football plays that football players make.
Peyton Manning is old. I hate saying this, since Peyton Manning and I were born only a few months apart, but the guy is ancient by NFL standards. He was the oldest quarterback in the NFL last season. He’ll be 39 in March. Even the greatest quarterbacks are usually done by the time they’re 38. Dan Marino was 38 in his last season. So was John Elway. So was Joe Montana. So was Steve Young. So was Kurt Warner. And plenty of great quarterbacks don’t even make it that long. Roger Staubach was 37 in his last season. Terry Bradshaw was 35. Troy Aikman was 34.
Can Manning play in the NFL in 2015? Yes. But can he play at the level he demands from himself? I’m not so sure.
Gronk is great. No player impressed me more this weekend than Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught seven passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in helping New England beat Baltimore. When it comes to creating matchup nightmares because of his physical presence, I put Gronkowski in the same category as Jimmy Graham and Calvin Johnson: They’re almost impossible to cover because it’s almost impossible to find someone who’s both fast enough to keep up with them and strong enough to tackle them. Gronkowski often hasn’t been completely healthy, but when he is, he’s among the truly elite players in the entire league.
If the 25-year-old Gronkowski can stay healthy, he may be headed for the Hall of Fame some day. His coach will be there with him.