FOXBOROUGH -- Paul Brown lives.
The great man passed on to the football coaches' Home in the Sky in 1991, but there is no doubt his spirit lives on in the mind and body of our own Bill Belichick, who took a good question from the Providence Journal's Tom Curran and knocked it a Mantle-esque 575 feet into the journalistic bleachers at his daily briefing yesterday morning.
Belichick's admiration for the founder of the (original) Cleveland Browns -- now residing in Baltimore -- is well known. He had previously explained that he had two copies of Brown's biography, one being a signed copy Belichick's dog decided would make a good lunch one day, and that his dad, Steve, had made annual pilgrimages to Columbus, Ohio, to visit Brown's camp when the senior Belichick was at Hiram College and Brown was at Ohio State.
But Belichick went to about a 10 on the gush-o-meter on this occasion, happily educating the masses to the singular place Brown occupies in the coaching profession. It is an opinion shared by many, but the case for Paul Brown being the greatest of them all isn't ordinarily made with the kind of gusto and passion that marked Belichick's soliloquy yesterday.
"Paul Brown, in my mind, is the greatest innovator as a coach the game has ever had," Belichick began. Brown, he said, turned football from something that was almost at an "intramural level" and professionalized it into the game we know today. "Every single thing he did was geared to maximize a team's performance in terms of winning," Belichick declared. "Film study, meetings, game planning . . . he took all these things to a different level. So many things we do today, Paul Brown did first. He was way ahead of the competition. What he did was very, very much the blueprint of the way the game is played today, and that includes the West Coast offense. I would think everybody in football would say that."
Whereas Belichick the Elder was studying Brown back when he was a regional phenomenon, Belichick the Younger tuned himself into Brown from the aforementioned biography, word of mouth from the countless coaches influenced by Brown, and from hours of conversation with Jim (no relation) Brown, the greatest player who ever suited up for the Old Master. "I spent hour after hour after hour talking to him about Paul Brown," Belichick said.
Let's see. Film study, meetings, game planning, phenomenal attention to detail. Remind you of anybody we know?
Oh, sure, everyone follows the same basic script nowadays. In general terms, everyone prepares for games pretty much the same way. But why does it seem that it somehow comes out better with the Belichick Patriots? I mean, it's not like he's coaching a team of future Canton inductees, or even contemporary All-Pros. Isn't that what everyone says?
OK, let's stop here. How talented are these guys, anyway? The Patriots couldn't possibly be 60 minutes away from a third Super Bowl victory in four years with a mediocre roster. Are people missing something when they evaluate the skill level of this team?
"We [i.e. the coaches] don't determine the All-Pro team," Belichick said. "So I have nothing to do with that. I think we have a lot of good football players who play the game passionately. How they are perceived externally, I really don't know."
The players may be underrated or misrated or prorated, or something, but when Belichick and his staff get through telling them what to do and where they should be, they seem to be able to play this game pretty well. Game after game people come away saying, "How did they do that?"
That, by the way, is what opponents were saying about the Paul Brown teams that stormed through the All-America Football Conference in the immediate postwar years and then shocked the football world by winning the NFL title after joining the league in 1950.
In a league where so many coaches have these endless resumes in which they crisscross America, going back and forth between college and pro football, Bill Belichick is pretty sui generis. He might have become one of those guys, because his first job after graduating from Wesleyan in 1975 was to have been with Lou Holtz at North Carolina State. "I was signed, sealed, and delivered," he declared. But the funding for that job was eliminated when the school had to scramble in order to implement Title IX, and Belichick was instead taken in as a driver/gofer/film guy by then-Colts coach Ted Marchibroda. Thirty years later he can say he's never drawn a paycheck outside the NFL. The football he's familiar with is pro football.
The NFL is clearly where he belongs. It is football's biggest stage and, although he'd never phrase it this way, he is football's biggest intellect. "From a coaching standpoint, I find it a tremendous challenge," Belichick acknowledged. "The best players in the world and the best coaches in the world -- not to demean anyone in college -- are in the NFL. I enjoy that part of it. I'm not saying it's easy. I look forward to the challenge and I love trying to meet it."
He meets it by following all those Paul Brown precepts, starting with the biggest: It is all about the T-E-A-M. The truth is the talent available to him is better than most people are willing to admit, but it still may not be among the top 3-5 in raw skills. Belichick makes it clear that personal agendas are not allowed, that you are only useful to him insofar as you can help the team win.
Paul Brown was about as far from a sentimentalist as there was, and does that sound like any coaches of your acquaintance? The more you think about it, the more you realize the one coach in the modern NFL who comes closest to possessing the intellectual and organizational skills of the legendary Paul Brown is a legend-in-the-making named Bill Belichick.
We need to ask him if he still has the same dog.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.