Ability to adjust keeps Belichick on top
The case of Ras-I Dowling probably illustrates Bill Belichick the general manager as well as any.
First, Belichick, the New England Patriots' coach and GM, made a characteristic series of trades on the first day of the 2011 draft that left him with a pick he coveted, the first selection of the second round.
Then after a day to review his draft board and entertain trade offers, Belichick selected his targeted player, cornerback Ras-I Dowling of Virginia.
And two short years later, during training camp of 2013, Belichick cut Dowling. It's almost unheard of for a team to cut that high of a draft pick that early in his career. But that's Belichick, for better and worse.
"You realize you made a mistake," said Ron Wolf, the former Packers general manager who is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. "Rather than compound that by keeping the guy around or trying to make him a player, you get rid of that and move on. I commend people that do that."
Dowling summarizes much about Belichick's career because it reveals much about his modus operandi, and in an indirect way what makes him one of the all-time coaching greats.
To start, Belichick's extraordinary record has put him in the conversation of the NFL's all-time greatest coach. His 208 wins rank sixth in NFL history, including a 172-63 record since becoming the Patriots' coach in 2000. He's been to five Super Bowls, won three, and this week brings the AFC's best record (9-2) into Lambeau Field to face the Green Bay Packers.
All that winning has at least one author extolling Belichick's scouting system (Michael Holley in the book "War Room"), as one of the keys to the Patriots' success. But in fact, Belichick isn't a superior drafter. His strength as a general manager instead, as Dowling shows, is his willingness to wheel and deal and churn his roster to find players who can help him win.
More to the point, Belichick wins mainly on the strength of one quadruple-grand-slam draft pick, Tom Brady in the sixth round in 2000, and his superior coaching acumen. To put a finer point on it, Bill Belichick the GM's best move aside from drafting Brady was hiring Bill Belichick as his coach.
"He's set a standard that's really remarkable when you think about the competition today, the rule changes (in free agency and salary cap) and all that," Wolf said. "He's set a standard that a lot of people will find very, very difficult to match."
Belichick's drafting record isn't bad, but it hardly stands out.
Since he took over the Patriots in 2000, he has drafted 14 players who have played in at least one Pro Bowl for his team. Among them are true difference-makers (Brady, defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork, and tight end Rob Gronkowski); productive players (guard Logan Mankins, tackle Matt Light, safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Jerod Mayo); overrated players (safety Brandon Meriweather and Matt Cassel); and special teamers (kicker Stephen Gostkowski and cover man Matt Slater).
During that same span, the San Francisco 49ers have drafted 16 players who have been to at least one Pro Bowl. The Packers have drafted 14, and the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted 12.
Or, since 2005, which was Ted Thompson's first season as Packers GM, Belichick has drafted eight players who have been to at least one Pro Bowl. So has Thompson.
Where Belichick is different as a general manager is his willingness to maneuver and try almost anything to find players who might help him win.
In the draft, for instance, he's an even more active dealer than Thompson, who is one of the league's big draft-day traders. In the last 10 drafts, Belichick has made 33 trades, whereas Thompson had done 23 deals.
And Belichick has tried free agency in all forms. In 2001, he helped rebuild his roster by signing 17 bargain free agents for a combined $2.123 million in bonuses. From that group he found seven keepers (Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, Larry Izzo, Bryan Cox, Anthony Pleasant, Antowain Smith and David Patten).
He's signed big-money free agents, though there he's swung and missed: linebackers Roosevelt Colvin in 2003 and Adalius Thomas in 2007.
And he's traded. Aside from the 33 draft-day trades since '05, including for receiver Randy Moss on the first day of the 2007 draft, Belichick has made 33 nondraft-weekend trades.
But mostly, it comes back to Belichick the coach, who has mastered game planning and assimilating players into his program. He runs probably the NFL's most varied game plans from week to week, especially on defense, where he routinely switches between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
That allows Belichick maximum flexibility in taking away his opponent's greatest strength and exploiting his biggest advantages. Yet he's found a way to teach a varied system simply enough that mental errors aren't beating his team.
If Belichick has anything approaching a secret weapon, it's his football research director, Ernie Adams, his close friend going back to high school.
Adams is almost unknown publicly. According to a 2012 story by Yahoo.com, he reportedly has done only two media interviews in his time with the Patriots, one for a Northwestern University alumni magazine and the other for author David Halberstam's book about Belichick and the Patriots. He doesn't have a picture or biography in the Patriots' press guide and is listed in the staff directory only in the final pages.
But Belichick has been quoted secondhand as saying in effect Adams is the one person on his coaching and scouting staffs he never can afford to lose.
As detailed in a story for ESPN.com in 2008, almost no one in the Patriots' organization seems to know exactly what Adams does. But he reportedly is a football video fanatic with a photographic memory. Maybe the best way to describe him would be Belichick's consigliere, during the week and on game day.
But really, Belichick's secret weapon is himself. The Patriots are plenty beatable — they haven't won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season. But their .732 winning percentage is the league's best since Belichick became coach in 2000.
"The framework is so different now," Wolf said of coaching in the free agent and salary cap era. "Most of the guys that are in the Hall of Fame from a coaching standpoint never had to go through this. To have to change a third of your roster every year, just think about that. Yet what (Belichick) has been able to accomplish is incredible."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @petedougherty.