There are certain subjects you just consider closed. Questions for which there is only one possible answer. Not open to speculation. Settled science, if you will.
Lincoln was the best U.S. President and will never be surpassed. John Williams is the greatest composer of film scores ever. The Miracle on Ice is the biggest upset of all time. “Come on, Eileen” is the best song ever recorded (don’t @ me). Out of five kids in my family, mom loved me most. And so on.
And one such superlative I thought I would never find myself questioning, I now find myself questioning: In what year did Bill Belichick do his best job of coaching?
I thought I’d go to my grave saying it was 2001. Sure, it’s been said that 2008 when he went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback was even better. I think I actually said it myself. It would sort of hard to argue going 18-1, if that “1” was like the ninth game instead of the last. And in 2003-04 he put together nothing less than the two best back-to-back seasons in NFL history, going 34-4 and winning two championships. But with the passage of time, 2001 seems to stand alone.
Until now. That’s how historically impressive this win last night was when you look at it from the Google Earth view. For openers, teams that lose the Super Bowl do not go back to the Super Bowl. And for sure they don’t come back the next year and win it. Losing it just has such a devastating impact on a franchise’s psyche that it’s unheard of. Not to mention winning your conference gets your coordinators head coaching jobs elsewhere and your roster pillaged by lesser teams with more cash to spent. The last time a Super Bowl loser went back the following year was the Bills in 1993 and they didn’t even put up a fight in a rematch against Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys. The last time a team got back to the game and won it the following year? The Dolphins. In 1972. 46 bloody years ago.
So Belichick had that sorry history to overcome. But that was the least of his problems. The alleged drama. The negativity swirling around the team. The controversy surrounding Malcolm Butler’s benching. He lost his defensive coordinator. His left tackle, bellcow running back, starting cornerback, main 2017 slot receiver, traded his No.1 deep threat for a draft pick. Only to select an O-lineman who was lost for the year along with all but one of his rookie class. He replaced that deep threat with a freakishly talented athlete whose life is a mess and who left the team once he’d seemed to have gotten his head on straight.
He lost five games on the road. Two to head coaches who learned everything they know from him. His franchise tight end was severely limited by ankle and disc problems all year. His franchise slot weapon came back, but was suspended for a month. His team lost homefield advantage in the playoffs thanks to a once-in-a-generation Bizarro World play in Miami. In the postseason they had to beat the No. 6 offense in the NFL, the No. 1 (led by the league MVP) on the road, and then the No. 2. And not only did, but set a Super Bowl record not even the ’85 Bears – the standard by which all other defenses are judged – could match against the Tony frigging Eason Patriots. They held the 11th highest scoring team in NFL history to a field goal. They did it with the kind of brilliantly improvised, completely unexpected scheme that got Belichick’s playbook from the 1990 Giants shipped to the Hall of Fame.
And let’s not gloss over who this gameplan was against. The new hotness. The Gold Standard of head coaches. The one who’s getting all his assistants, assistant’s assistants, his Get Back coach, his high school gym teacher and pen cap he chewed on hired everywhere, trying to duplicate his magic. But the old Alpha proved he’s still got the longest tusks and the biggest dick still swinging in the herd.
So does that make 2018 his best coaching job ever? Better than 2001? Because as much as that Mike Martz Rams offense was even more deadly (adjusted for inflation) than this Rams offense, Belichick’s defense was a wagon. Loaded with talent. Including the newest member of the Hall at cornerback, a Hall finalist at defensive tackle, a Patriots Hall of Famer at middle linebacker and Pro Bowl veterans at all three levels. The unit we just watched break Sean McVay’s offense down into its sub-atomic parts has one Pro Bowler: Stephon Gilmore.
So I don’t know. Taking everything into account – because with Belichick I don’t separate the coach from the GM – I’m still giving ’01 the edge. Just for the monumental task he had to do of building a roster when he inherited a team that was in Salary Cap Shawshank. Where previous management had been giving out bonuses like they weren’t real money, all of which was still counting against the cap and he couldn’t even save space by cutting guys. And still had to replace them with the cheapest labor he could find.
Therefore, it’s close between 2001 and 2018. Closer than I ever imagined it would be. And I’m not ruling out changing my mind. Holy smokes, what a problem to have.