The topic of whether we’re currently watching Bill Belichick’s greatest single-season coaching job in his 14 seasons with the Patriots came up when I joined Chris Gasper on Boston Sports Live Monday.
Dan Shaughnessy has written that it already is, and while Chris and I are in agreement that 2001 is pretty much impossible to top without resorting to fiction, it got me to wondering:
How would Belichick’s individual seasons rank? What was his best coaching job? What was his worst? And how do all of them rank in relation to each other?
So I set out to rank them, worst-to-best for quasi-suspenseful countdown purposes. They’re wholly subjective and are delivered with full acknowledgement of this caveat:
We really don’t know how much work went into coaching and cajoling any specific team. We just don’t, and we never will until Belichick hopefully writes an honest memoir. I’m sure there are plot twists both good and bad that happen over the course of any given season without any outsiders ever learning about them.
So this is based on what we do know, whatever fraction of the whole story it actually happens to be.
One more thing before we count ’em down: I excluded 2000, Belichick’s first year here, since that season played out under different circumstances than we’ve known for the past decade-plus.
The 2000 Patriots were a team in transition, in dire need of a revamped culture, infrastructure, and depth chart. He gets a mulligan for that year because the context and requirements were so different from what we’ve come to know.
Got it? Good. Let’s count ’em down, worst (which still was pretty good) to first (which never will be topped).
10-6, lost in wild-card round to Ravens
He knew the season was doomed to disappointment when we only suspected it, as we found out in the “A Football Life” film on Belichick and the ’09 season. “I just can’t get these guys to play the way I want them to,” he said in a candid, almost confessional, moment to Tom Brady late in a blowout loss to the Saints in Week 12. Six weeks later, their season ended with a 33-14 loss to the Ravens in which they fell behind, 24-0, in the first quarter. Probably the most unlikable Patriots team of the Belichick era, and certainly the most underachieving, and yet it still was a 10-win team. (Side note: Don’t you wish we had “A Football Life” film for every year Belichick has coached here? Is that too much to ask, NFL Films?)
9-7, missed playoffs
It might not be accurate to call it a Super Bowl hangover since the Patriots did open their season with three straight wins (including a 30-14 victory over the Steelers in Gillette Stadium’s grand opening). But they lost four in a row and five of seven in the middle of the schedule, and while they did try to amend the defense during the season (see ya, Steve Martin), the fundamental problems — such as the trio of painfully slow safeties — couldn’t be repaired until the offseason.
12-4, lost AFC Championship to Colts
Maybe the Patriots were right in not meeting Deion Branch’s contract demands. But there was no excuse in not adequately replacing him. Peyton Manning is still looking for his first ring if Belichick had given Brady better options than Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney. Major points deduction for the wasted opportunity in Brady’s prime.
10-6, lost in Divisional Round to Broncos
The Patriots’ quest for three straight Super Bowl titles was undermined by injuries (45 different players started a game that season) and some dubious personnel decisions — what did they ever see in Monty Beisel and Duane Starks? They were just 4-4 at the midpoint but won 5 of their last 6 to win the AFC East title. The season ended in a mistake-laden loss to Jake Plummer and the Broncos in which the Patriots committed five turnovers.
14-2, lost in Divisional Round to Jets
Tom Brady has one of his finest seasons, throwing 36 touchdown passes to just four interceptions in a year in which Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez arrived and Randy Moss departed. So, yeah, it’s still pretty much unfathomable that the Patriots’ season ended in a home-field loss to a team quarterbacked by Mark Sanchez. Given how Belichick feels about the Jets — he does not seem to like them very much since his day as the HC of the NYJ — this one probably ranks below only the Super Bowl losses to the Giants among his biggest frustrations.
12-4, lost AFC Championship to Ravens
The Patriots won at least 10 games for the 10th straight season — think about how remarkable that is for a moment, especially those of you old enough to remember the Rod Rust era. But the season ended in disappointment, with the Ravens putting the Gronk-less Patriots away in the second half at Gillette Stadium to advance to the Super Bowl.
13-3, lost Super Bowl to Giants
If Rob Gronkowski hadn’t suffered an ankle injury in the AFC Championship game, this very likely would have been the fourth Super Bowl-winning team of the Brady/Belichick decade-plus of excellence. The offense, with Gronkowski, Wes Welker, and Aaron Hernandez combining for nearly 300 receptions and 3,800 receiving yards, was dominant (32.4 points per game). But the defense was just average, particularly in the secondary, where the patchwork likes of Sterling Moore, Sergio Brown, Antwaun Molden, Phillip Adams and James Ihedigbo were all called upon to play important roles at certain times.
14-2; Super Bowl champions
Well, you have to have Super Bowl-winning teams somewhere near the top, right? We remember this team as dominant force, and it’s an accurate recollection … from Week 5 on, anyway. But the beginning was rocky. Popular safety Lawyer Milloy was released right before the opener, joined the Bills, and immediately helped Buffalo thrash the Patriots, 31-0. That led to ESPN’s commentator Tom Jackson’s infamous comment, “They hate their coach.” They hated him so much that they won their last 15 games, including the playoffs, with new arrivals Rodney Harrison and Ted Washington boosting a defense that allowed just 14.9 points per game. It was a great team, but Belichick deserves more credit than he gets for getting it back on the rails.
14-2, Super Bowl champions
The acquisition of Corey Dillon from the Bengals and Vince Wilfork via the draft made the defending champs the most complete team of the Belichick era. But there was one fascinating degree of difficulty added along the way — after Ty Law was lost for the season in late October with a foot injury, Belichick bolstered the defensive backfield by playing receiver Troy Brown on defense. How many coaches would dare or have the cachet to be so innovative … and then make it work?
11-4 so far, to be determined
Their resilience in the face of relentless attrition is remarkable. They make you want to believe in them, and Belichick has done an extraordinary job getting them to this point. But the final chapters are yet to be written. This one could rise (two spots, anyway) or fall on this list depending upon the final scenes.
16-0, lost Super Bowl to Giants
Aside to the revisionist dopes who claim Belichick has never won anything since Spygate. I suppose that is true if you’re limiting the scope to Super Bowls, though they have two more rings if an NFL game were 59 minutes long rather than 60. But it ignores the fact that after the videotaping story broke between Weeks 2 and 3 of the ’07 season, these stacked Patriots went on a we’ll-show-you rampage through the league, winning sixteen straight games. Yes, the ending permanently marred what could have been the greatest season of all time, and the gap between 19-0 and 18-1 is immeasurable. Still — they went 18-1 during all of that. A brilliant coaching job forgotten because of the ending.
11-5, missed playoffs
This season remains the single greatest counterpoint for those who find themselves defending Belichick against the argument that he’s never won anything without Brady. He won 11 games with Matt Cassel — whom many thought should have been cut in camp — at quarterback. What, you wanted Tim Rattay? Daunte Culpepper? Next question.
11-5, Super Bowl champions
I don’t know if they’re the least-talented team ever to win a Super Bowl — after all, the kid quarterback did turn out to have a fairly respectable career, there was a small core of legitimate top-notch (if underachieving) talent remaining from the Pete Carroll Regression, and some of the unsung arrivals such as Mike Vrabel developed into stars. But it might have been the least-likely champion given that it required contributions from just about every player on the roster — where have you gone, Fred Coleman? — as well as a few breaks (David Patten’s unconscious reception) and even the correct interpretation of a dumb rule in a game played in a snow globe. Winning a Super Bowl, against a foe favored by two touchdowns, with this roster remains Bill Belichick’s greatest feat, and it may be the greatest singular coaching job in NFL history. In our ridiculously rich Boston sports history, only the 2004 Red Sox are a better tale — and it’s damned close.