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Born to win

Belichick's background helped forge a flexible and thoughtful coach


Sometimes, writing for a magazine, everything you learn can't make the printed page. At Sports Illustrated, we only have about 60 or 70 people vying for the space in the magazine, and so, with apologies to Mick Jagger, when you set out to write a story, no matter how chock-full of information it is, you can't always get what you want.

I am infamous at the magazine -- I think -- for writing long. That's why this column is good for me -- I can basically regurgitate many of the things I think I think that I can't get in the magazine. Early this offseason, I told my pro football editor, Mark Godich, that I wanted to write about Bill Belichick. I wanted to find out who he is. Mark got it approved, and so I set off on my mission. In SI parlance, I was supposed to write about 450 lines, which, with photos, is about a six-page story. Of course I wrote 900. I whittled and whittled some more, and most of the story made the magazine a couple of weeks ago (Aug. 16), the one with Joe Namath on the cover.

But I thought: Why not let some of the stuff that didn't make it see the light of day in MMQB?

I know what you're thinking: We're getting sloppy seconds. Well, you be the judge. If you think it's hackneyed, let me know.

First, a summary. Bill Belichick, as much as any subject I've written about, is his parents' son. Jeannette and Steve Belichick raised their only child to be extremely smart and inquisitive (Mom), and hooked on football (Dad). Jeannette, a former professor at Hiram College, used to read with young Bill, and their love of reading continued through high school, when she'd read 50 pages of the The Godfather and he'd have to catch up at night before he fell asleep.

Steve, a career assistant coach, mostly at the Naval Academy, wrote the book on how to scout an opponent. Seriously, he really did write a book on scouting, a book Paul Brown thought was the bible for young assistants and scouts.

Steve got young Bill so into the game early that the Navy offensive coaches would share the gameplan with this 10- and 11-year-old kid, and he'd chime in with his thoughts. He knew game-planning and formations and schemes before he was a teenager. I mean, he really knew them. At the same time, he had his first couple of idols -- Heisman winners Joe Bellino (1960) and Roger Staubach (1964). While America knew these players from TV and the papers, Belichick knew them from being on the practice field with them, chumming around, catching passes from Staubach. In other words, it was the perfect background for a future football coach.

Along the way, he learned from a bunch of coaches and players. That's one of the things that's made him a winner -- he's not afraid to listen to anyone and everyone. By knowing he didn't invent football, he can accept ideas from assistant coaches. Like the one I described in the story, briefly.

Last year, before the Super Bowl, he was paranoid about not letting Carolina's Stephen Davis beat the Patriots. So he told his defensive staff: "I don't want to play our sub all day." That means he didn't want to take his base defense off the field, because it was the best run defense. So Ted Washington, even though he'd only played 30 percent of the snaps all season (at 37, he's got to take some breathers at the nose, and he also missed six games with a broken leg), would play the vast majority of the game. Romeo Crennel, Belichick's trusted defensive coordinator, told Belichick he wasn't sure that was such a great idea. Maybe Ty Warren could give him a blow now and then.

Belichick thought about it and changed his mind. He gave his old warhorses, Washington and defensive end Bobby Hamilton, some plays off in favor of young turks -- Warren, at the nose, and Jarvis Green, at end. It worked. Davis ran for only 49 yards.

Belichick befriended Jimmy Johnson and kept in touch with his old Cleveland defensive coordinator, Nick Saban, while in New England. Saban has become a college genius now, and I'm only slightly exaggerating. Belichick got a new view of how to make a Cover 2 scheme (two deep safeties, each taking half the field) morph into a Cover 4 (four deep DBs, each taking a quarter of the deep secondary) from Saban ... because he's not afraid to change, and thus, not afraid to fail.

"Not changing ruined Buddy Ryan," CBS analyst Phil Simms told me. "He wouldn't change from the 46 defense, even when people figured it out. Not Bill. He changes every year."

Belichick's done pretty well with big decisions. Think of Belichick's three huge personnel changes in nine head-coaching seasons, and the results. Can you remember any coach who has whacked two legends and an All-Pro player and lived to tell about it?

He cut Bernie Kosar in mid-1993; the Browns went 11-5 the next season and made the playoffs. He played Tom Brady over a healthy Drew Bledsoe late in 2001 and the Patriots won the Super Bowl, with Brady earning MVP honors. He cut defensive captain and team leader Lawyer Milloy five days before the 2003 opener because Milloy wouldn't take a pay cut -- rookie Eugene Wilson, a career corner, moved to safety and fit in. New England won the Super Bowl again.

If Brady ever asks for the moon, don't be surprised if Belichick shakes his hand, wishes him well, and announces: "We're going with Rohan Davey this year at quarterback." Why not? The book on Davey is that he's accurate, tough, mobile and strong-armed. If he and Patriots personnel czar Scott Pioli were right with Brady and Wilson, why wouldn't they be right with Davey? That personnel and coaching trifecta -- knowledge, fearlessness, ruthlessness -- is why the Patriots are an NFL-best 40-14 over the last three years. And why they probably have the best chance of any NFL team to stay good over the next five to seven years. Or as long as Belichick and his staff are coaching the players and Pioli and his staff are mining for them.

The common view in football today is that it's a crapshoot every July. No one really has any idea who's going to be good from year to year. There's evidence to support that. In the last six years alone, five teams (Atlanta, St. Louis, the Giants, New England and Carolina) have risen from below .500 one year to the Super Bowl the next. But why wouldn't the teams that regularly have made cap and draft mistakes over the past few years -- Arizona, Chicago and San Diego, for instance -- be more inclined to stay down and the teams that handle the cap and drafting with aplomb -- say, New England, Philadelphia, Green Bay -- stay up?

Belichick is only 52; retirement might be a decade away. If Pioli, 39, ignores the offers that are sure to come his way to run an organization, then second-day draft picks like Brady, starting center Dan Koppen, wideout David Givens and Jarvis Green should keep coming. Barring Pioli's departure and an ego explosion (and you can never predict when either will come), it's hard to fathom the Patriots falling to earth anytime soon.

"Bill and Scott are two of the best in the league at what they do," Johnson told me. "If a coach and his personnel staff are good, and they can run the team without interference -- and Bob Kraft is a good owner -- they will stay on top every year. They might have a clunker now and then because of injuries, but they won't stay down."

Belichick also benefits now from having an owner who believes his personnel decisions are gold. It wasn't always this way. To give an indication of how poor Belichick's relationship was with Art Modell, Belichick told Simms in recent years that Simms is lucky he didn't come out of retirement and play for the Browns -- who were coming off a playoff season -- in 1995. What probably severed the Belichick-Modell relationship was when Belichick thought he had the 38-year-old Simms ready to come out of retirement in May 1995 to quarterback the Browns. Simms traveled to fact-find in Cleveland and to meet with Modell. "When I got on the plane to go out there," said Simms, "I thought it was almost 100 percent that I'd sign with Cleveland."

When he landed, he discovered Modell had arranged a press conference -- when Simms and his agent still hadn't negotiated the final contract. Simms felt like he'd be joining a circus, not a playoff contender, and backed out. On the way back to New Jersey, he told his agent, "I feel like I just got my pants pulled down."

"Bill and I have never talked about it to this day," said Simms, "except for one little thing he said to me a few years ago: 'You are so lucky you didn't come.'"

Six months later, with eight games left in the season, Modell announced he was moving the franchise to Baltimore. After the 5-11 season, Modell fired Belichick -- over the phone. I bet he'd like to have that one back.

The Patriots still live on the edge. The highlights I saw from their 31-3 loss at Cincinnati Saturday (don't think that was a second-half, get-out-of-hand game; it was 28-3 after two quarters) show they got their lunch handed to them by a team no one's sure about. It reminded me how many close games they played during their 15-game winning streak last year, and how they haven't built a team to dominate. Domination's impossible. They've built a team to win. But the overriding impression I'd like to leave you with on Belichick is this: He'll figure out a way to win. He'll do some weird stuff along the way because he embraces change -- weird stuff like playing wide receiver Troy Brown as a nickel defensive back. He will fear no holdout, no contract snafu. Once his players figured out that every decision he makes is to try to win (and none are to play favorites, or show a soft side to a player who used to help him but can't anymore), they knew his motivation was pure. That's why they'll play for him when bumps in the road come.

"I talk to him every day. I know what he's going to do. The man says he's not coming.''

-- Baltimore defensive back Corey Fuller, a friend of Deion Sanders, on whether Sanders will attempt a comeback at age 37 this year.

About an hour after the Giants' last team bus left the Westin Hotel in Charlotte late last Thursday afternoon, the John Kerry motorcade invaded the hotel. Kerry supporters flooded the hotel, with placards and enthusiasm. The atmosphere of the lobby a couple of hours apart was the opposite of what you might think. In mid-afternoon, Giants Michael Strahan and Shaun O'Hara huddled with their agent, Tony Agnone, on a lobby couch. No one bothered Strahan. The place was quiet. Three hours later, the politicos were whooping it up for their guy. Interesting. Quiet football environment. Whoop-de-do political environment.

With ... Detroit center/guard Damien Woody, who earned two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots before joining the Lions as a free-agent.

MMQB: Is there a little part of you that is unhappy that the Patriots let you go?

Woody: "I didn't have any hard feelings. Not at all. We had a disagreement on terms. That's all. The heart and soul of that team is the middle-class player, so when I became a free-agent, I figured they probably wouldn't offer me as much as other teams would. To me, this is the American way. I've got two Super Bowls from five years of very hard work and dedication, and this contract I signed with Detroit is my reward.''

MMQB: Can a team stay good for a long time if guys like you leave every year?

Woody: "Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli have done such a good job of establishing a base there through the draft and through lesser spending in free-agency. How long that can last, who knows? But they're the model right now. They built a team that won two Super Bowls and still looks like a Super Bowl team to me. The thing I like about Bill is he was straight up with me through the whole process.''

MMQB: How long will it take the Lions to be good?

Woody: "Well, it looks to me on offense that the pieces are in place. If we come together quickly, there's no reason why we can't be really competitive this year.''

Tom Coughlin Rule of the Week: The Giants' traveling party is not allowed to wear white socks on road trips.

When I find out a good reason for that one, I will let you know.

Don't count on me ever letting you know.

Well, well, well. Hit a nerve with a few of you out there on my rankings of the NFL's top 15 quarterbacks. In fact, I hit some nerves with NFL people too. One personnel guy I talk to all the time said to me, a little put out, he hoped his guy would play well enough this year to make my list. Easy, everyone.

MANNING OVER BRADY? YOU ARE, LIKE, SICK. From Lisa Keenan of South Portland, Maine: "You have Peyton Manning on top of your quarterback list. Where were you last season? Where were all of you? The Patriots -- and Tom Brady -- ate his lunch last year! The question isn't who has the most yards and completions, it's who do you want out there at crunch time? Stop drooling and genuflecting and take a hard, objective look, my man!''

If there were a draft of every player in the NFL today, an open draft, you think the majority of GMs and personnel guys would take Brady over Manning? Maybe some would, but I doubt it'd be many. Troy Brown has been a really good receiver for the Patriots, a gamer and a big-play guy. If I gave you the choice between Troy Brown and Marvin Harrison, who would you take? This is not to diss Brady, by the way. I did call him the second-best quarterback in all of football -- four years after being selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft. One other note about this. The other day, Belichick was asked by someone in his local press corps what are the components he looks for in a quarterback. (The Patriots, and a few other teams, e-mail me their press conference transcripts.) He said, "Well, I think the first thing is production. The second thing is accuracy. The third thing would be a combination of intelligence, game management and decision-making. It could be separated but it all kind of comes back to a little bit of the same thing, the game from the neck up.'' Over the last two years, Manning has played more downs and thrown for more yards than any quarterback in football. He's gotten a team with a porous defense into the playoffs twice. There are quarterbacks, like Brady, who are in Manning's league for sure. I just think Manning is state of the art right now.

WALTER BELIEVES I NEED TO BE IN A PADDED ROOM. AND HE'S NOT ALONE. From Walter Czekay Jr. of Stowe, Pa.: "I think you need a week off. What would cause you to rate Peyton Manning, Trent Green, Jake Plummer, Daunte Culpepper, and Chad Pennington above Donovan McNabb? We could argue about Manning's playoffs underachievement until the cows come home. The other guys are a joke. Trent Green is a nice QB in Dick Vermeil's system, but what has he ever won? Rating Jake Plummer in front of McNabb is just an outright insult. McNabb has been in this league almost 10 years and looks like he will be another Jeff George. It would be almost impossible to find a QB who has done as much as McNabb has in the last four years without any quality talent around him.''

McNabb is one of the best leaders and teammates in recent NFL history, and he is a good quarterback. But I don't believe you call a quarterback great when he plays in a quarterback-friendly offense like Philly's West Coast and completes 57 percent of his passes. That's his career number. He has never completed more than 58.4 percent of his throws in one season, and the NFL average -- the average -- was 58.8. I may be proven wrong this year, if McNabb completes in the sixties with a very good receiver like Terrell Owens on the team.

We'll see.

IT WOULD BE NICE IF HE DID IT FOR LONGER THAN A YEAR. From Tracy L. Judy of Lexington, S.C.: "Although I do agree with most of your selections, including Jeff Garcia (I think he's dangerous as hell) I have to ask what about Jake Delhomme? How about giving us a list of all 32 starting QBs and perhaps some who should be starting and aren't and vice versa?"

Tracy, I was in Charlotte the other night, watching Delhomme go a very sharp 11 of 13. You may be right. I may have underrated him a tad. But I think I'd like to see what he does for an encore. A repeat performance this year and he's definitely a top-10 guy.

OK. Here we go. You should have one through 15, but in case you don't, here's that, plus 16 through 30:

Even after leading Carolina to the Super Bowl, Jake Delhomme only checks in at No. 16 on King's list.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

1. Manning

2. Brady

3. Steve McNair

4. Brett Favre

5. Green

6. Plummer

7. Culpepper

8. Pennington

9. McNabb

10. Mike Vick

11. Garcia

12. Matt Hasselbeck

13. Marc Bulger

14. Brad Johnson

15. Mark Brunell

16. Delhomme

17. Aaron Brooks

18. Rich Gannon

19. Kerry Collins

20. Jon Kitna

21. Patrick Ramsey

22. Drew Bledsoe

23. David Carr

24. Tommy Maddox

25. Byron Leftwich

26. Tim Rattay

27. Vinny Testaverde

28. Quincy Carter

29. Kyle Boller

30. Joey Harrington

I notice Gannon is feeling A-OK, throwing with no shoulder pain after his 2003 shoulder surgery. I figure he and Delhomme ought to be moving up once October rolls around.

AARON BROOKS HASN'T EARNED HIS WAY INTO TOP FIFTEENNESS. From John of New Orleans: "There is no way you can convince me that Jake Plummer, Jeff Garcia, Mark Bulger, and Mark Brunell at the very least should be on a top 15 list that does not include Aaron Brooks. That Brooks is not listed makes even less sense to me when you claim that your rankings are based on resume and bright future. Brooks' statistics compare very well in the last three seasons with your top five.''

Well, I'm not sure they do, which is why he's not in the top 15. Though Brooks had his best season last year, I'm still not a total Brooks believer yet. The top 14 guys on my list have quarterbacked in the playoffs at some point in the past three years; Brooks has not. My top five guys are all winners; Brooks is 24-24 since 2001. And let's see if he can take care of the ball a little better than in the last three years when, in 48 games, he's thrown 45 interceptions and fumbled 38 times.

WHAT CAN I SAY? I LIKE JAKE'S HEAD, LEGS AND ARM. From Jason Romportl of Denver: "Could you explain why Jake Plummer is ranked ahead of Culpepper? Daunte's resume is better than Jake's and his future is just as bright if not brighter?''

You might be right. Culpepper's really good. I like him a lot. I just think Plummer is in the right system with the right coach and has the kind of tools people in America never had a chance to see until he went 9-2 last year in Denver. More of that is coming.

1. I think the Bears got the better of the Adewale Ogunleye trade. I like Marty Booker, but a good second receiver to Chris Chambers is not what the Dolphins needed. They need a running back. And I would have waited for a pass-rush-desperate team to come up with the best back possible, or I would have told the Bears to think about it for a week and the only way this thing's getting done is if you give up Anthony Thomas.

2. I think I have one request for Willis McGahee, but this is if and only if he really did say he wanted to be traded if he wasn't starting the other day: You've got some nerve. Two weeks ago, you told me you were fine with whatever role the Bills had for you, as long as you weren't going to be a blocking back every play. The Travis Henry rib injury muddies the water here, but Willis, hear me please. You are lucky that the Bills took a horrendously injured player in the first round of the 2003 draft, and you should show your gratitude by showing up for work every day and saying, "What can I do to help the Bills get better today, coach?"

3. I think, based on two preseason games, that it's going to be an awful hard sell for Tom Coughlin to pick Kurt (Feet of Stone) Warner as the Giants' starting quarterback.

4. I think it will be interesting, but hardly difference-making, if Deion Sanders plays for the Ravens. He's 37. His career was built on speed. He left the game three years ago because injuries slowed him. Let's not get all excited about a nickel back.

5. I think Carolina has had its share of dubious characters in its star-crossed 10-year history (Rae Carruth tops that leaderboard), but there is no team now with more stand-up, high-character, just-plain-folks guys up and down the roster -- from Jake Delhomme to Mark Fields to Stephen Davis to Mike Minter to Matt Willig -- than the Panthers.

6. I think, speaking of Delhomme, that he has this in common with his high-school idol, Brett Favre: Both men live in the Deep South on property bordering state highways, and they cut their own grass with riding mowers. I mean, you can't hope to learn that information anywhere else, can you?

7. I think you've just got to love what football fans, spurned, can figure out to do with their time. There's a Web site called screwricky.com that is selling, among other things, "Screw Ricky'' thongs, fleece shorts, T-shirts, coffee travel mugs, infant creepers and lunch boxes.

8. I think, if you are a real football fan, you would know which team has players in camp with the first names Ataveus, JaJuan, Gibril, Jamaine, Joffrey (Joffrey!), Joe Dean, Osi, Radell, Visanthe, and Avion. Answer next week.

9. I think this is how much you can trust preseason football to give you a gauge of how good or bad a team is. Tampa Bay would be 42 points than New England based on the last two games (Bucs 20, Bengals 6; Bengals 31, Pats 3). Having said that, I saw the Houston Texans Saturday night in Pittsburgh, and friends, that was either the Rice Owls out there or a somnambulant team. The Texans were putrid -- first team, second team, whatever. They all got pushed around.

9a. I think Jerome Bettis, not Duce Staley, should be the Steelers' No. 1 back for as long as he can stay healthy. Might be for two weeks, but I don't care. He's the best combination of outside and inside runner on the roster.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. :sucks:

b. When Manny Ramirez hits, the sun is a little brighter in New England.

c. I don't see how the Yankees win the Series with Esteban Loaiza anywhere near a pitcher's mound.

d. Coffeenerdness: I'm asking this nicely, with all due respect. But restaurants of America, you are slapping your customers in the face when you put out non-dairy creamer for coffee.

e. Laura King reports from Athens that Kristen (Sex in the City) :sucks:

f. Get ready, Colgate. Mary Beth King reports for duty on Thursday.

g. Get ready, me. It's Empty Nest City, starting Friday.

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Six months later, with eight games left in the season, Modell announced he was moving the franchise to Baltimore. After the 5-11 season, Modell fired Belichick -- over the phone. I bet he'd like to have that one back.

I don't know about that, the Ravens did win a SuperBowl without Belichick.

Tom Coughlin Rule of the Week: The Giants' traveling party is not allowed to wear white socks on road trips.

That's not being a disciplinarian, that's micromanagement.

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