PHOENIX (AP) — He’s been called the Evil Genius, and he’s been fined for spying on an opponent. And now there are questions about deflated footballs.
Any visual portrait of Bill Belichick likely has him wearing a hoodie — and a scowl. Many of his media duties are marked by terse answers or outright stonewalling.
All of which masks the impact and longevity of the New England Patriots boss, the winningest coach in postseason NFL history.
Belichick is about to lead his team into its sixth Super Bowl in 14 seasons. No one, not Chuck Noll or Tom Landry or Marv Levy or Bill Walsh — all Hall of Famers — managed that. Since Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000 after a five-season flop as head man in Cleveland, there have been 119 coaching changes. In the AFC East alone, which the Patriots have won 12 of 14 seasons, 17 coaches have come and gone, according to STATS.
Belichick is the constant.
“I think Coach is always pretty consistent with how he’s dealt with our team,” Tom Brady said. “You don’t ride the highs and lows of the season. Whether it’s one win or one loss, you just try to get better and make improvements, and you’ve got to play your best at the end.
“It’s hard to make our team. Coach Belichick puts a lot of pressure on guys in training camp. If you make the team, you know that you have the confidence of the coaches that you can help us win. Everybody’s got a skill. Everybody’s got a skill set. Whoever is on the field has to be able to go out there and perform their job.”
In the face of the controversies and criticisms the Patriots have faced during his tenure, Belichick’s approach remains the same. Yes, he often comes off as ornery, but that’s because he’d rather be coaching, rather be teaching, rather be dissecting film.
But according to Vince Wilfork, other than Brady the longest-tenured Patriot, Belichick has changed somewhat. Out of necessity.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the difference in Bill in the 11 years that I have been here, and I tell him he is getting soft,” the defensive tackle joked. “But this is a different era of football now with how the team is shaped up, and how a lot of guys are younger guys. You don’t really have that veteran team that he used to have. When I first came in the league, he had a veteran team that didn’t take much to get those guys going.
“But he’s more understanding now. I think when you get so used to having a certain quality of players and it changes, it’s hard for you to adapt to change. And I think Bill had to do a good job of that ever since I’ve been in the league because we’ve changed so much.”
Pretty much every successful Super Bowl coach had to follow that path. Certainly Noll did as Pittsburgh evolved from the Steel Curtain-dominated squads to a high-scoring bunch. So did Landry, several times, depending on if he had a Doomsday Defense or a potent attack built around Roger Staubach.
Belichick’s first Super Bowl team back in 2001 was fundamentally sound on both sides of the ball, but far more aggressive on defense, his specialty. Indeed, Brady was almost a caretaker that season.
Belichick knew he had something very special in Brady, though, and when the quarterback rapidly developed, the coach loosened the reins. When they won their consecutive titles for the 2003 and 2004 seasons, Brady was a budding star.
When Belichick recognized that, he built an unstoppable offense around Brady. In some ways, he was ahead of the game, again. While the NFL was evolving into pass-crazy league, the Patriots already were there with Brady throwing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
By 2007, Brady was the best quarterback in the league, breaking records and guiding New England to a perfect regular season.
Don’t think other coaches around the NFL haven’t paid attention. His counterpart in this Super Bowl, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, actually was replaced in New England by Belichick.
“I know that when (owner Robert Kraft) was making his choice to hire coach Belichick, I had one opportunity to say something to him about that,” Carroll said. “And I thought that was really a unique hire, a special hire and a guy that would really fit in well if (Kraft) let him do what he was capable of doing. I think Bill is a very open, free-thinker and a guy that needs that kind of control to be at his best.
“It’s worked historically and in extraordinary fashion.”
To Wilfork, nothing has changed, yet so much has changed.
“We were a veteran team, (then) it was a younger team; at one point we were the youngest team in the league,” said. “So I think he had to try to find the identity in what works for that team. And I think he’s done a great job over the years of doing that.
“But at the end of the day, he is still Bill. He coaches the same way. He demands everything the same way. But I think he’s got a little soft heart now. Over time, he got a little softer, though.”
Even if he is loath to show it publicly.