Saturday, February 10, 2018

Pondering the Dynasty that Belichick and Saban Could Have Built in Cleveland

Winning Super Bowl LII would have been a crowning achievement for Bill Belichick, who already owns more Super Bowl rings than any head coach (five: 2001, 2003-04, 2014, 2016) in addition to the two rings that he won as an assistant coach with the New York Giants. However, Philadelphia's thrilling 41-33 victory over Belichick's defending champion New England Patriots does not tarnish the impressive legacy that Belichick has already built.

Jenny Vrentas' recent Sports Illustrated piece titled Belichick and Saban: The Stories Behind Football’s Most Powerful Friendship details the deep and long-lasting bond that exists between Belichick--arguably the greatest pro football coach of all-time--and Nick Saban--arguably the best college football coach of all-time, winner of six national championships (2003, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017).

One of the most overlooked football stories of the past 30 years is the tremendous quality of the coaching staff that Belichick assembled when he was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Not only was Saban on that staff, but Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome--who went on to build the two-time Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens--was also hired by Belichick. Numerous other members of that staff have made a significant impact throughout pro and/or college football as executives, head coaches or assistant coaches.

Vrentas describes how the Belichick-Saban connection formed in Cleveland, after the two had previously become acquainted a few years earlier as they each worked their way up the coaching ranks:
Belichick got his first head coaching job in 1991--at age 39, with the Browns--and interviewed 85 potential assistant coaches. But his first hire was the easiest: Saban, as his defensive coordinator. He assembled an all-star staff, including nine future NFL head coaches or GMs and three coaches who would go on to lead major college programs. "But I'm going to tell you," says (Chuck) Bresnahan, the Navy linebacker who joined Belichick's Browns staff as linebackers coach, "when Bill and Nick walked in the room, there was a different response from players, coaches, everyone. Things got quiet. You knew it was time for business.'"
Before Belichick and Saban worked together in Cleveland, they had spent hours together--in secret, without their respective teams at the time knowing about this--talking football strategy and breaking down plays together. They were two like-minded, single-minded football savants who were trying to figure out how to implement the ideal method of building a team. Vrentas writes:
Belichick was trying to install a system of coaching players, evaluating players, assembling a roster. Those conversations he and Saban had at West Point about defense? In Cleveland, it was "like, 500 times more of that," Belichick says.
Vrentas notes that Belichick and Saban have different tendencies, particularly on defense: by nature, Belichick favors a more conservative bend but don't break run-stopping scheme, while Saban prefers an attacking front supported by man to man coverage. Belichick and Saban shared the same cornerstone, though, as Vrentas puts it: "Be rigid in fundamentals and techniques, but flexible in scheme." Both coaches proved over time that they could adapt their preferred schemes to both their personnel and also the opposing team's personnel.

Belichick took over a Cleveland team that went 3-13 in 1990 and doubled that win total to 6-10 in 1991. By 1994, the Browns had the best scoring defense in pro football--allowing just 12.8 ppg--and, at 11-5, were a playoff team. They beat New England in the Wild Card round before falling to Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round.

Then, in the middle of the next season Browns owner Art Modell announced his plan to move the franchise to Baltimore, where the team was renamed the Ravens (the NFL returned the Browns franchise/logo to Cleveland in 1999); that decision turned the fans against Modell and wrecked the team that Belichick had built. Modell fired Belichick, who resurfaced as a head coach a few years later in New England--and the rest is history, as Belichick finally had an owner (Bob Kraft) who enabled Belichick to fully implement his vision of how to build a team. While Belichick built a dynasty in New England, the Browns have yet to win a playoff game since the 1994 season.

Vrentas references a talk that Saban once gave to 1500 high school coaches at Mississippi's annual coaching clinic. Saban repeatedly mentioned not just how much he had learned during his time with Belichick--including, most importantly, "He defines what everybody in the organization is supposed to do"--but he also referred more than once to his time with the Browns. Saban explained that one of his key defensive concepts at Alabama--"pattern matching," a zone coverage that morphs into man to man as a pass pattern develops--"started at the Browns."

Another thing that started with the Browns is what Belichick called three "critical factors" for each position: essential criteria for a player to perform in a given role. For example, cornerbacks must be able to (1) tackle, (2) play the ball in the deep part of the field and (3) play man to man effectively. Belichick also had specific height/weight/speed preferences for each position. Saban told Vrentas that Belichick's systematic personnel evaluation techniques had "the greatest impact for me" of anything that he experienced while working with Belichick in Cleveland.

Newsome borrowed the three "critical factors," renamed them "Triangles of Success" and used the concept while building the Ravens into perennial contenders and two-time champions.

Thinking about all of this history and all of these championships won--none of them in Cleveland, where the foundation for all of this success was built--I recall how relentlessly the Cleveland media (and, often, the national media as well) belittled and attacked Belichick both during his time with the Browns and for many years afterward. These self-styled experts made declarations about how Belichick was not suited to be a head coach--and then, after it became clear to even the stupidest sportswriters that Belichick is in fact a great coach, Belichick's critics had the nerve to still assert that Belichick had "failed" in Cleveland before learning how to win in New England.

No, the truth is that Belichick built the foundation for his success in Cleveland, but Modell and many media members were not smart enough to understand this. Smart football people, though, are still applying lessons from what Belichick was doing back when he was mocked for mumbling at press conferences, as if engaging in snappy repartee with people who don't know the game has anything to do with actually coaching well.

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