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Christopher L. Gasper

It’s all on the line for Belichick

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / September 9, 2010

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The assumption among the Foxborough Faithful is that coach Bill Belichick will remold the Patriots on the fly and the team will be lifting Lombardi Trophy No. 4 faster than you can say Patriot Reign.

The mere idea of questioning Belichick’s coaching capacity borders on heresy, I know, punishable by 40 lashes with a sweatshirt with cut-off sleeves.

Belichick’s hooded presence on the sideline is reason enough to believe a Patriots team that hasn’t won a playoff game in two seasons, is embroiled in a nasty contract dispute with its Pro Bowl left guard, and is going to start three first- or second-year players in its secondary Sunday is playoff-bound.

If he never coaches another game, he’ll go down among the greatest to ever draw an X or an O. Halas, Brown, Lombardi, Shula, Landry, Noll . . . Belichick. You can make your own seating arrangements, but Belichick’s at the table.

During the last 10 years, he has guided the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships in four appearances and wins in 70 percent of the team’s regular-season games. Ranked 16th on the NFL’s all-time wins list with a 148-92 regular-season mark, only Lombardi (9-1) has a higher postseason NFL winning percentage than Belichick (15-5, .750).

However, although we usually think of athletes as having finite periods of greatness, ephemeral peaks and primes, we often consider a great coach’s professional prowess to be enduring. Pro football’s past suggests coaching genius has an expiration date, too.

Belichick enters this season at age 58, the fifth-oldest coach in the NFL. Fifty-eight hardly seems past one’s prime. Amazingly, Belichick is still younger than Patriots predecessor Peter Pan, er, Carroll, who turns 59 Wednesday. However, for Belichick to continue to make history, he’s going to have to buck it.

Bill Parcells did not win a playoff game after age 57. Neither did Pittsburgh Steelers doyen Chuck Noll. The only coach to win four Super Bowls, Noll retired at age 59. Tom Landry’s last playoff win came at age 58. Paul Brown never won a postseason game at Belichick’s age.

Vince Lombardi hung up his whistle at age 56. Bill Walsh coached his last NFL game at age 57, going out as a Super Bowl champion. Belichick’s fishing buddy, Jimmy Johnson, couldn’t survive past age 56.

Joe Gibbs stepped down as commander in chief of the Redskins at age 52 with three Super Bowl titles. He returned to the Redskins 12 years later, and in four seasons made the playoffs twice, but went 31-36 overall.

Legendary Bears coach George “Papa Bear’’ Halas prowled the sideline until he was 72 and won an NFL title at age 68 . . . six years before man landed on the moon.

The oldest coach to win a Super Bowl was Dick Vermeil; the avuncular Vermeil was 63 when the Rams nipped the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV to conclude the 1999 season.

Marv Levy kept the headset on until age 72 and led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls from the ages of 65 to 68. If it weren’t for Belichick’s brilliance as Giants defensive coordinator and Scott Norwood’s wayward kick, Levy would have been a sexagenarian Super Bowl winner.

But rare is a coach able to deliver vintage results as he matures.

Like Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia church, rebuilding the Patriots into Super Bowl champs could be a construction project that outlasts its architect. Belichick’s contract is guarded like US nuclear launch codes, but reports have stated it runs through 2013, taking him to 61.

Like his team, Belichick is showing some chinks in his armor. He steered the Patriots to a division title at 10-6 last season, but it was a rough road with Late Gate, the questioning of his personnel decisions and coaching methods, and the infamous failed fourth-and-2 call in Indianapolis.

Belichick’s calling card has always been defensive genius, and while statistically his units have been in the upper half of the NFL the last two seasons, they have had more holes in their defense than Roger Clemens’s.

There have also been dubious personnel decisions, such as trading Mike Vrabel and giving up third- and fifth-round picks for outside linebacker Derrick Burgess.

Perhaps of greater concern is that the farther away the Patriots get from their 16-0 season, the closer Belichick gets to a one-man band. He is the head coach, the de facto general manager, and stated in February he would take an increased role with the defense.

That’s a heavy workload for any NFL coach.

Still, we believe, though. Because, well, it’s Belichick. He always finds a way to win.

Like Patriot Reign, Win Forever makes a nifty book title: ask pumped-and-jacked Pete. But NFL history says it’s pure fiction.

Nobody can win forever, not even Belichick.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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