Commentary

To understand Belichick, look what he did with Browns

So much of who and what Bill Belichick is today as head coach of the fabulously successful Patriots can be retraced to who and what he was as head coach of the mostly unsuccessful Browns, Gene Wojciechowski writes.

Originally Published: January 27, 2008
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Bill Belichick Tony Tomsic/Getty ImagesBill Belichick had a 37-45 record in Cleveland and was fired by owner Art Modell before the team moved to Baltimore in 1996.
PHOENIX -- For the fourth time in seven years, Baltimore Ravens head coach Bill Belichick triumphantly raised the sterling silver Lombardi Trophy over his head and declared his franchise the equal or better of the great dynasties -- Ming, Packer, Steeler, Cowboy or Niner.

"This," said Belichick, minutes after winning Sunday's Super Bowl XLII, "is for our players, our fans and for our owners, especially Art Modell, whose patience in me -- and our plan to succeed -- never wavered.''

What if.

What if Belichick had answered his phone on Valentine's Day 1996, and it was Modell calling not to fire him as Cleveland Browns head coach, but to invite him to join the franchise in its new home in Baltimore?

What if Modell had stood by his vow of Nov. 8, 1995, when he said, "Bill Belichick will be my head coach in 1996''?

What if Belichick's team hadn't lost six of its last seven games after that vow, or hadn't finished the season 5-11 after being picked by some experts to reach the Super Bowl?

So much of who and what Belichick is today as head coach of the fabulously successful New England Patriots can be traced to who and what he was as head coach of the mostly unsuccessful Browns. There are such stark differences between the two tenures, and yet Belichick remains essentially the same person, just not entirely the same coach.

"The Browns were his training camp, his boot camp for success,'' said Mary Kay Cabot, the beat reporter who covered Belichick and the Browns for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

"There were mistakes he made here on players, personnel, staff, public relations. But he's the master of adjustments. He learned how to do it right by everything he did wrong here.''

Nearly 12 years ago, when Modell took only a few minutes to fire Belichick over the phone, the decision was hailed as necessary and inevitable. An Akron columnist pithily wrote, "Bill Belichick's five-year reign of error is over.''

In 2000, a new reign began with the Patriots. This time the errors can be counted on a pair of mittens.

During his eight seasons as New England's coach, Belichick's Patriots have won three Super Bowls, are at the brink of a fourth and can become the first NFL team to finish 19-0. If his team beats the New York Giants on Sunday, you can argue that Belichick might be the greatest NFL coach of all time.

But what if he hadn't demanded that the Browns jettison the locally beloved Bernie Kosar from the team during the middle of the 1993 season?

What if in 1995 he hadn't insisted that Modell sign free-agent wide receiver Andre Rison ("A bad guy who could play,'' said a former Browns front office official) to a $17 million contract, a deal that forced the cash-strapped Browns owner to borrow money from five different banks and that later backfired?

What if Belichick, wound tighter than a hair braid, had been media friendly? Or if season ticket sales hadn't decreased in four of his five years there? Or if news hadn't leaked during the middle of the '95 season that Modell had negotiated a secret deal to move the team to Baltimore in 1996?

These were defining moments in Belichick's coaching career. Defining in Cleveland, where he was 37-45 with one playoff win (over, ta-da, the Patriots). Defining in New England, where he is 105-39 with 14 playoff victories.

"We all learn from our mistakes,'' said Ernie Accorsi, the former Browns executive VP for football operations who hired the 38-year-old Belichick as head coach in 1991. "Knowing Bill Belichick, he learned between Super Bowl victories.''

Belichick made mistakes in Cleveland, enough to alienate veteran players, the Browns' hyper-loyal fans, the media and ownership. But was it ignorance or arrogance? Inexperience or impatience? Was he simply too smart for his own good?

As a courtesy, Accorsi had interviewed Belichick for the same Browns head coaching position in 1989. Belichick didn't get the job, but he did get a fan. Accorsi remembered walking from the interview thinking, "This guy's been preparing to be a coach since he was 7.''

But there's a difference between preparing and doing. And Belichick, who had spent the previous 12 years as a Giants assistant, struggled at times in Cleveland to make the transition.

With Modell's blessings, Belichick waived the ultra-popular Kosar, who was born and raised not far from Cleveland and actually wanted to play for the Browns. Kosar was a gamer, but the veteran quarterback had suffered a series of injuries that in Belichick's estimation compromised the offense. Plus, there had been at least one instance when the strong-willed Kosar and Belichick clashed during a game. Belichick underestimated the blowback from the decision, just as he underestimated the effects of benching veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde two seasons later in favor rookie QB Eric Zeier.

Why does it matter? Because in 2001, when Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a chest injury during the second game of the season, Belichick inserted little-used Tom Brady (NFL career pass completions: 1) into the starting lineup and kept him there, even after Bledsoe recovered. The transition from the $100 million Bledsoe to the virtually unknown Brady wasn't seamless (Bledsoe was angry with the decision), but the situation was handled with more delicacy than Belichick used in Cleveland. And his football instincts were right. The Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI and Brady was named the game's MVP.

"He knew what to say and what not to say,'' said Cabot, who watched with interest as the Patriots' quarterback drama unfolded. "I can truly see he did not make those same mistakes again.''

Belichick had the right strategy but the wrong player when it came to the Rison deal. He had wanted to add a receiver who would create matchup problems with the class of the then-AFC Central division, the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the infrastructure of the Browns wasn't strong enough to overpower Rison's sometimes divisive personality.

Not so in New England. By the time Belichick brought in high-risk players such as Corey Dillon and, later, Randy Moss -- stars to be sure, but with questionable reputations around the league -- there was enough structure and leadership within the organization and locker room to ensure tranquility. And winning.

And certainly Belichick learned from the upheaval caused by Modell's plans to uproot the 50-year-old franchise from Cleveland and move it to Baltimore. The Browns were 4-4 (including an embarrassing loss to expansion franchise Jacksonville) before the rumors gained critical mass. After Modell officially announced the move on Nov. 6, the team collapsed, losing six of its last seven games.

Years later, as recounted in the book, "The GM,'' Belichick would tell Accorsi, "I really screwed up that thing up in Cleveland, Ernie.'' Accorsi said he told Belichick, "You didn't screw it up. You had no shot.''

Modell and then-Browns officials would argue differently, but there's no denying that Belichick has done a better job of keeping his Patriots teams focused. Exhibit A: Despite a quarterback controversy during the regular season and double-digit underdog status for Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams to win their first NFL championship. Exhibit B: Belichick lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to the non-Modell Browns after the Super Bowl XXXIX win "and he didn't miss a beat,'' said Accorsi. Exhibit C: This season Belichick has steered his team through Moss' arrival, the Spygate controversy and the mounting pressures of an undefeated season.

Former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer was so impressed by the Patriots' Week 2 win against San Diego -- all in the immediate wake of Spygate -- that he told Accorsi, "You telling me that team doesn't respond to him? They win for him."

One of the ironies of Belichick's success is that he's in the ultimate people business -- building a team from diverse parts -- and yet, he's not a people person. At least, not in the conventional sense.

In Cleveland, he was known by media members as "The Voice of Doom'' or simply "Dr. Doom.'' His reluctance, even disdain, for talking to reporters remains legendary. His news conferences, if you want to call them that, are famous for the lengths Belichick will go to reveal absolutely nothing. He is a verbal minimalist who saves his true feelings for his children, his most trusted friends, his players, assistants and selected staff.

This isn't a recent development for Belichick. The late George Young, general manager of the Giants during Belichick's 12 seasons in New York, confided to associates that Belichick was asked either to attend a Dale Carnegie self-help class or to read Carnegie's bestseller, "How To Win Friends And Influence People.'' Imagine that: Belichick in personality rehab.

Meanwhile, Belichick and Modell are not friends. Those close to Modell say the Ravens' minority owner still considers Belichick mean-spirited and unlikeable -- their words, not mine. They say Modell is convinced that the Patriots' three championships have more to do with the unforeseen emergence of a sixth-round draft pick named Brady than with the arrival of Belichick.

Harsh words, but they reflect the dynamic of the Modell/Belichick relationship -- then and now. Asked how to describe the football marriage between the two men, a Modell confidant said, "Tense.''

According to the same confidant, Modell was convinced that Belichick and his dour public demeanor would have negatively impacted the team's effort to sell season tickets and stadium suites in Baltimore. In fact, if Modell had it to do over again, he would have likely offered the Browns job in 1991 not to Belichick, but to former Browns player and assistant coach Bill Cowher, who was hired the next year by the Steelers.

Citing Modell's long-standing media policy regarding Belichick-related questions, a Ravens media relations official said Modell would have no comment. Interview requests with Belichick were also declined.

"My understanding is that unless it's game-related, he wasn't going to allow anything this week to take away from his preparations,'' said Patriots spokesperson Stacey James.

No surprise there. The ultimate worker bee is famous for obsessing about the next play, the next game. Spygate was a distraction in September. Modell would be an annoyance in January. So the lessons of Cleveland emerge again. When in doubt, plod ahead.

In retrospect, maybe Belichick's personality wouldn't have sold many stadium suites in Baltimore. But his 105 Patriots victories certainly have sold some in Foxborough's Gillette Stadium. He is a hooded enigma, no doubt. Inclusive when it comes to family and friends, such as the rocker Bon Jovi, or to staffers who match his work ethic. Defiantly reticent when it comes to outsiders.

"Let me tell you what's going to sell tickets,'' said Accorsi. "Chuck Noll wasn't exactly Henny Youngman. But try getting tickets at Three Rivers [during the Steelers' four Super Bowls under Noll]. For me, it's, 'Can he coach?'"

Belichick can coach. But he coaches better since he left Cleveland. He coaches better because he got fired and had to adjust. And Modell is partly right; he coaches better because Brady wears a Patriots uniform.

"He's figured it out,'' Accorsi said.

"He really is brilliant,'' said Cabot, who had her share of screaming matches with Belichick.

Even Modell's close associate is quick to praise Patriots owner Robert Kraft for hiring Belichick. "[Kraft] saw something there and, God, it's worked.''

So the question is no longer "What if?'' but something more appropriate. Something like, "How many more trophies?"

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter