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Belichick suddenly looking at life without Weis or Crennel

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- He's the only head coach who has won three Super Bowls in four years, and none has ever won three in a row. Yet that is not the greatest challenge facing Bill Belichick today.

The last Super Bowl-winning team to lose both its offensive and defensive coordinators was the 1994 San Francisco 49ers, who saw Mike Shanahan leave to coach the Denver Broncos and Ray Rhodes become coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Since that exodus, the 49ers have never returned to the Super Bowl, although they did reach the NFC Championship game in 1997.

In the first four years after the departure of Shanahan and Rhodes, the Niners continued to be among the league's best teams, going 48-16 and reaching that conference championship game. But with their star players aging, many of their younger reserves moving on in free agency, and their core coordinators working elsewhere, the Niners began a slide to their present mediocrity; they have gone 41-55 over the last six years.

Certainly it was not solely the loss of Shanahan and Rhodes that destroyed what had been the league's most dominant franchise, but that brain drain played a large part in its demise, people in San Francisco now believe. So of all the challenges facing Belichick this offseason as he tries to maintain his team's status as the elite organization in football, the toughest may be proving there is life after the departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who will leave this week to take over Notre Dame and the Cleveland Browns, respectively.

Belichick has coached the past 15 years with Weis at his side, the last five with him as offensive coordinator in New England. Weis served a similar role his last two seasons with the Jets (1998-99) while Belichick was that team's assistant head coach and de facto defensive coordinator.

For 11 of the past 12 years, Crennel and Belichick have been together, the last four with Crennel serving as the Patriots' defensive coordinator. Having longtime assistants at their side gives coaches a comfort zone they otherwise would not have, allowing them not only to reduce their workload because their top assistants understand what their boss is likely to be looking for, but also allowing them to speak in a shorthand that is comforting in moments of high stress.

Bill Parcells had that during his stints with the Giants, Patriots, and Jets. But he does not have it in Dallas, and many of his friends in the NFL believe that has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks he's faced in trying to revive the Cowboys' fortunes (that, and not having a reliable quarterback). Now Belichick must try to navigate the same difficult waters even if he ends up appointing familiar faces such as tight ends coach Jeff Davidson to replace Weis and defensive backfield coach Eric Mangini or linebackers coach Dean Pees (formerly Nick Saban's defensive coordinator at Michigan State) to take Crennel's spot.

"It's going to be tough," quarterback Tom Brady said after Sunday night's 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. "Hopefully we can kind of regroup from the big loss and we'll see how it all turns out. Charlie's been the biggest reason for the success of this offense. I don't even want to think about next year right now."

As long as Brady is the quarterback, one would have to assume many of Belichick's problems will be lessened. With Brady running his offense, Belichick is 57-14, including 9-0 in the playoffs and 7-0 in overtime. Without Brady leading his offense, he's 14 games below .500 at 41-55. So one could argue that the real loss would be if anything happened to Brady. But the difficulty of staff turnover cannot be minimized.

"Romeo really is the key," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "He's the one calling the plays. He's a man that can be trusted and can be talked to very easily. I'm really going to miss him."

So will Belichick, who shared an emotional moment with his two closest friends in coaching in the final seconds before Sunday's game ended. As the three huddled, knowing as Crennel would later say, "We'll probably never coach together again," Belichick understood what was about to happen and its possible impact on his team. Yesterday morning he elaborated only slightly on the loss, but even he could not minimize it.

"They're two of the best coaches I've ever been around," Belichick said. "I think the world of those two guys. They've done a tremendous job, been a big part of our success here. The coaching staff issue will be a change for us. There are changes every year on every team. Their record speaks for itself, and a lot of the success that we've had, a large share of the credit should go to them.

"We'll have to adjust to it and make some changes on our end. That's the way it is every year."

Although many believe Belichick would like to promote from within for purposes of continuity and because he believes he has young prospects such as Mangini who are ready to blossom, he said he had yet to address the issue.

"We'll deal with that in due course," Belichick said. "We were so focused on this game and this season and Philadelphia, I thought it would be a distraction for all of us, me including, working on next year when we still had an opportunity this year.

"The three of us kind of looked at each other [after Rodney Harrison's interception sealed the victory] and knew that's the last time we'd be together collectively and kind of thanked each other for what we'd done. It was just a wonderful moment to be able to share, sort of a perfect ending, the way we pictured it, the three of us anyway, the way we pictured the season ending."

More than a season ended Sunday night at Alltel Stadium. So did a coaching era for Belichick, who now sits among the most respected coaches in NFL history. His 10-1 playoff record tops Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, and his run of three Super Bowl wins in four years is unprecedented. Not even Chuck Noll or Bill Walsh accomplished that, so on that stage Belichick stands alone.

For the moment, the same is true back in his team's offices in Foxborough. At some point Belichick may reflect and savor his accomplishments, but right now the student of NFL history knows he needs to be more concerned with the present, and with what happened to the 49ers after the loss of Shanahan and Rhodes in 1994.

Although San Francisco went 11-5 the next season, followed by years of 12-4, 13-3, and 12-4 again before a collapse to 4-12 in 1999, a part of the magic was gone. Other good coaches replaced Shanahan and Rhodes, but a delicate balance had been tampered with and nothing was the same. No more championships have come their way in a decade.

Now Belichick is faced with the same problem. He must replace his two most trusted aides. He may not have thought about that in the days and weeks leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX, but you can bet he's thinking about it this morning. Thinking about it and knowing these decisions will be the most important he's made since the Patriots drafted Brady in 2000. 

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