WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Bill Belichick is coming back to town and he can clinch his 15th AFC East title with a win over the Miami Dolphins.
That sentence will take few in South Florida to their happy place.
With five Super Bowl wins and Tom Brady as his quarterback, sometimes it seems that there never was a time when Belichick was looking up at the Dolphins. Nor does it seem there was a time when Belichick was scrambling to find answers like Adam Gase, who is 0-3 against New England as Miami’s coach and 5-7 overall this season.
That’s just not true. Belichick may be 65 and certain of his system for success now, but his first head coaching opportunity in the NFL featured one winning season out of five with the Cleveland Browns.
He was 39 when hired for that job and schooled in the hard-knocks style of Bill Parcells as the defensive coordinator of two New York Giants Super Bowl championship teams.
It should have worked, in other words, but it didn’t. That’s because there is a lot to learn about shaping an entire NFL roster and sharpening a wide range of organizational and motivational skills.
Belichick, for one, came on strong from the start, pushing his players to be more professional in their preparation and eventually, in the middle of Season Three, stunning Northeast Ohio fans by cutting their favorite son, quarterback Bernie Kosar, for what was callously described as “a diminishing of his physical skills.”
That caused a much bigger emotional earthquake than Gase’s midseason trade of Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia. Still, you can sense the same enough-is-enough philosophy, and the same apparent disregard for how it is received.
Listen to this Belichick quote from his Cleveland days. It comes from a Sports Illustrated interview that closely followed the canning of Kosar.
“You prepare a team as best you can,” Belichick said. “You put them on the field, and you do your very best to win. The rest hardly matters. I may look at the paper every now and then, but come on. I’ve got other things to worry about.”
Gase, 39, sounds the same when explaining his decisions, or when explaining that he doesn’t need to explain.
There’s a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. He wants and needs to project authority and confidence in front of his players, maintaining as much as possible of the momentum from his opening 10-6 season. In front of the media, he wants and needs only to fulfill his basic interview obligations and get back to work.
Guys like these, bold and edgy and learning on the job, don’t always grow up to be Super Bowl winners, but some, like Belichick, do. The point is that growing overly frustrated with Gase right now is short-sighted. He needs experiences like these. He needs to know that he’s not a genius, but he’s plenty smart enough to coach his way out of a dark corner or two.
Which brings us back to Monday night’s Miami-New England matchup that looked pretty good to ESPN in August but has faded from must-see TV to might-sample TV for most of America.
There is no reason to assume the Patriots will simply roll all over the Dolphins the way they did at Gillette Stadium a couple of weeks back. Sure, New England is an 11-point favorite, but Belichick is the same as other coaches in at least one respect. He’s capable of being surprised.
Dan Campbell beat the Patriots at the end of the 2015 season. He was an interim head coach working his last game at Miami, but the Dolphins scored a relatively easy 20-10 home win, limiting Brady to 134 passing yards and no touchdowns.
Joe Philbin beat Belichick twice in a row in games spanning the 2013 and 2014 seasons, both times at Miami.
Tony Sparano got that wacky Wildcat win at Foxborough in 2008, and another victory over Belichick the following season when Miami rallied back from a 21-10 deficit.
When Nick Saban was coaching the Dolphins, he split his four games with Belichick. That’s not so unexpected.
Think, though, of Jim Bates beating Belichick in 2004. The Patriots were defending Super Bowl champions and were about to win it again. Miami was nearing the end of an awful 4-12 season under an interim coach. Still, the Dolphins won 29-28, with Brady throwing four interceptions and A.J. Feeley providing the winning touchdown pass with 1:23 to play.
That last upset happened on a Monday night, at Miami Gardens.
None of this plays, of course, into Gase’s game prep. He’s looking only at this week, at this team, and trying to make the most of the one-game suspension Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski must serve.
That’s how this league works, one grueling matchup at a time, and it’s the only way that Gase or anyone else finds a foothold.