The 21st century New England Patriots, the greatest football dynasty of all time, have always been personified by two people — quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Those are the only two people who have been in place from their first Super Bowl win against the then-St. Louis Rams in 2002 straight through to Sunday’s 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams that gave the franchise its sixth championship.
The Patriots are the Patriots because of Brady and Belichick. Each has been called the greatest of all time at his position because of the incredible accomplishments they’ve achieved together: six Super Bowl wins, 13 AFC title game appearances (including eight straight through this season) and 16 division wins in the last 18 years. Their track record is unassailable.
And yet the sustainability of the Patriots’ dynasty came into serious question in the last calendar year. After losing 41-33 to the Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl, the Patriots said goodbye to many players crucial to recent championships, such as receiver Danny Amendola and left tackle Nate Solder. The Patriots struggled (by their standards) to an 11-5 record this season, losing by double digits to three non-playoff teams. Fans and media alike began to have real doubts about the old infrastructure.
Careful observers saw cracks in Belichick’s decision-making, starting with the strange choice to bench former cornerback and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler against the Eagles. Despite three touchdowns and 505 passing yards from Brady (a Super Bowl record), the Patriots lost because they allowed more than 40 points — only the sixth time that happened under Belichick’s leadership.
The questions persisted after New England allowed over 30 points to three of the bottom six scoring offenses in the league with losses to Jacksonville, Tenn. and Miami this season. Derision crested with Belichick’s questionable decision to put a noticeably slowed Rob Gronkowski in to defend Miami’s desperate bid for a final touchdown from 69 yards out. Miami was never going to throw the ball far enough for Gronkowski’s height to be a major factor and the lumbering tight end slipping and failing to catch Kenyan Drake on the walk-off, game-winning touchdown was the key image of what appeared to be the end of an era.
But if this stretch had caused anyone to revoke Belichick’s status as the greatest coach ever, he reclaimed it with a vengeance in the playoffs. Belichick is best known as a defensive mastermind, and nowhere was that more apparent than on the NFL’s biggest stage.
Against the sixth- and first-ranked scoring offenses in the Chargers and Chiefs, respectively, the Patriots allowed a combined 7 first-half points, allowing New England to build large enough leads to ultimately win each game. Somehow, the Patriots shut out a historically good Chiefs offense in the first half on the road, holding quarterback and league MVP Patrick Mahomes to just 65 yards on four completions. Some of the credit has to go to linebackers coach and defensive playcaller Brian Flores, who will become the head coach of the Dolphins, but the preparation and schemes were classic Belichick.
The Super Bowl was the jewel of Belichick’s already sterling collection of big game performances. The Rams, the league’s second-ranked scoring offense, were completely flustered all game, getting shut out in the first half and managing just a measly third quarter field goal. Quarterback Jared Goff completed just 19 of 38 passes for 229 yards and a backbreaking fourth-quarter interception when the Rams were driving to tie the game. Rams star running back Todd Gurley carried just 10 times for 35 yards and was a non-factor in the passing game.
Three things made Belichick’s performance so impressive: First, there aren’t many stars on the Patriot defense. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who snagged the crucial interception, was the only Patriot defender to make the All-Pro or Pro Bowl rosters this season. Yet New England filled every gap and defended every pass because Belichick instilled in them the discipline to follow the game plan.
Second, Belichick developed a strategy that simultaneously subverted expectations and used strengths the Patriots have displayed throughout the postseason. After playing more man-to-man coverage than any team during the regular season, Belichick identified Goff’s inability to make complex reads as a weakness to exploit, coming out in zone coverage and maintaining it for most of the game. At the same time, he continued to call for complex stunts and twists to confuse the Rams offensive line, scheming his defensive linemen and linebackers into free runs at Goff to the tune of four sacks and 12 quarterback hits.
Third, Belichick completely out-coached the young and brilliant Sean McVay. McVay’s creative offensive concepts created so much production this year that every NFL team with a job opening started hiring coaches with even a small connection to the Rams coach. Belichick, twice McVay’s age at 66, gave the youngster an education in big-game coaching, thoroughly dominating the matchup to the point that even McVay had to admit so afterward.
Belichick has never been the type to publicly address the storylines that motivate him and his team, but he definitely hears the noise. He seeks out bulletin board material, like when he pointedly described the Eagles’ pre-planned victory parade to his players before the teams played in the 2005 Super Bowl. Belichick didn’t need the motivation of proving doubters wrong to put on a virtuoso coaching performance in the biggest game, but he certainly addressed the whispers that he had lost his fastball in reaffirming his place as the greatest football coach ever.
Aidan Berg is a sophomore writing about sports. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every other Tuesday.