The reminder is probably unnecessary and even unwelcome, but it’s relevant to this discussion since it is one that has come around for the Patriots and their fans a couple of times in the past half-decade or so:
No matter how talented a football team you have, it is extremely difficult to win a Super Bowl. (Let alone three, or four, or five …) An unfortunate bounce here, a receiver catching the ball by clamping it to his helmet there, and the confetti that was supposed to rain down on your head is falling on the other, victorious side.
That disclaimer aside, I can tell you this: After watching a screening of “Cleveland ’95: A Football Life,” the latest installment of NFL Films’ extraordinary documentary series that premieres on the NFL Network at 8 p.m. Wednesday, I’m almost certain the Browns under coach Bill Belichick would have won at least one Super Bowl and probably more had everything remained in place during his time there.
Of course, you know it played out differently, a story of greed, desperation, and abandonment so ugly that it became instant sports legend. Nothing remained in place other than a jilted, devastated fan base. Word of debt-ridden owner Art Modell’s heartless plan to move Cleveland’s cherished Browns to Baltimore leaked out during the 1995 season, Belichick’s doomed final year among his five as the franchise’s head coach.
The result over the rest of the promising season — Sports Illustrated had picked the Browns to go to the Super Bowl — was escalating chaos fueled by fan anger, resulting in a toxic lame-duck situation unprecedented in professional sports. It was hopeless.
“I felt bad for the team and the players and the coaches who were working so hard with less than no support,” Belichick says. “The owner was nowhere to be found. He was in Baltimore. You kind of felt like you were on a deserted island, fending for yourself.”
As you might have guessed, this film isn’t exactly a warm eulogy for the recently deceased Modell. Nor should it be. He fled the city before taking his team with him, unaccountable to the end. Belichick, as we are reminded with some downright eerie final-game footage, was left behind as a victim of the misguided wrath, receiving death threats and being hanged in effigy in the stadium parking lot. Jim Schwartz, the current Lions coach who was on Belichick’s remarkably talented staff at the time, remembers his work being interrupted multiple times a day by bomb threats.
The team collapsed under the weight of it all, and during the final home game, on Dec. 17, 1995, the stadium was in effect torn apart around them, with fans bringing hammers and saws into the ancient venue to take a memento with them. What they didn’t want was discarded onto the field during the game.
“I personally never felt threatened,” Belichick recalls. “But it certainly was not like a normal home game.”
Ozzie Newsome, the legendary Browns tight end and current Ravens general manager who was breaking into coaching on Belichick’s staff, summed up the hopelessness of it all: “It’s hard enough to win with no distractions in this league. When you have a distraction like that, you’ve got no chance. No chance.”
Seventeen years after the Browns’ departure, it’s still impossible not to sympathize with Cleveland, which was awarded an expansion team, retained its name and records, but hasn’t made any meaningful history since. But for a Patriots fan, there is another truth in the subtext: All of the great things that have happened here since Belichick’s arrival in 2000 never would have been had Modell not moved the Browns and scapegoated his coach.
The Patriots were blessed because of Cleveland’s loss. Belichick had a plan there that was aborted by factors beyond his control. In New England, he proved he had the right ideas.
The film, flawlessly executed with that familiar, irresistible NFL Films formula of gorgeous video, miked-up personnel, and candid interviews, leaves little doubt that great things were on the verge of happening in Cleveland. The behind-the-scenes footage of Belichick’s early days as head coach are the closest a Patriots fan will ever come to seeing the Patriots on “Hard Knocks.”
In one early scene, Mike Lombardi, the Browns’ player personnel director under Belichick who is now a respected analyst on the NFL Network, talks about his boss’s attention to detail, specifically how he wanted a writeup of every single opposing player –“not how I would write it up, how he wanted it written up.”
The film then cuts to footage of Belichick (who apparently favored Mizuno shirts and hideous pastel-highlighted sweaters in those days) and Lombardi sitting in an office, presumably in 1991, going over the personnel of that week’s opponent.
“Before we get into the X’s and O’s,” Belichick tells him, “we’re going through each player. Strengths, weaknesses, overall physical abilities, what his history is, speed, you know, all that [expletive].”
Lombardi offers an eager medley of criticism on a couple of players. “I’m not sure this guy’s got enough arm strength left to play,” he says of one.
“OK, so that’s a typical report right there,” said Belichick, his eyes smiling. “Everybody on their team stinks, nobody has any athletic ability, so unless the coaches [expletive] this game up, there’s no way we could lose.”
In retrospect, it’s surprising that while building his program, it took Belichick until his fourth season to have a winning record. His coaching and personnel staffs were stacked with future stars, with nine future NFL head coaches or GMs and three successful college coaches on his staff.
“What was Bill looking for in people?” recalled Newsome. “Bill was looking for Bill. And he found a lot of little Bills.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban was his defensive coordinator for four years. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was plucked from the University of Maine to oversee the offensive line. Schwartz, Newsome, Tom Dimitroff, Eric Mangini, and Scott Pioli were among the self-proclaimed “slappies” who got their first break from Belichick, much the way Belichick had been given a break by Colts coach Ted Marchibroda in 1975. (Included is some outstanding footage of a very young Belichick lurking on the Colts sideline, holding a clipboard and various colored pens.)
Among the film’s most mesmerizing scenes is one in a coaches room in which the respect and trust between Belichick and his staff is evident. Saban — skinny, bespectacled, and apparently willing then to make eye contact with other human beings — laments to Belichick about how that week’s opponent had beaten them in a previous meeting:
Saban: “I mean, if we don’t play our [expletives] off, they’ll beat us.”
Belichick: “Oh, I agree.We’ve got to do everything we can to get our team to the highest level we can this week. Pull out all the [expletive] stops, no matter what they are.”
Saban: “And I’ll tell you what. We may not have had a very good plan, but we had [expletive] preparation the last time we played these guys.”
Belichick: “No question.”
His coaches were permitted such candor if they had his respect, so they strove desperately to earn it. Newsome, who has been an outstanding general manager in Baltimore, said the lessons he learned from Belichick were applied during his first draft with the Ravens in 1996.
Modell wanted running back Lawrence Phillips in the first round, a troubled, talented player who fit a need. But Newsome remembered Belichick’s first rule of draft day: Always stick to your board and take the best player. He chose the player tops on his board, UCLA tackle Jonathan Ogden, with the fourth pick, then at No. 26 selected Miami linebacker Ray Lewis. Combined, they made 24 Pro Bowls — Lewis could make another one or two on reputation — and they will be reunited in Canton someday.
Newsome and so many others on that staff learned their lessons well. It’s less certain that Modell ever did. When “Cleveland ’95: A Football Life” is complete, his legacy is more complicated than before. Stealing the Browns from Cleveland still stands as his cruelest move. But his dumbest? Not taking Belichick with him.