Dougherty: Bill Belichick the best NFL coach ever? Not so fast

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Bill Belichick holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy as he celebrates after the Patriots defeated the Seahawks in NFL Super Bowl XLIX.

It seems like a given that Bill Belichick is the greatest NFL coach of all time.

Search Google and you’ll find plenty of stories telling you so. Some even anoint him the best coach ever in any sport in this country’s history.

But we might just want to tap the brakes, because Vince Lombardi’s case remains strong.

Let’s start by saying that Belichick is exceptional, extraordinary, transcendent, whatever superlative you choose.

His abilities to identify opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and to find ways to take away what they do best and exploit their soft spots, is off the charts. His New England Patriots teams almost always play good defense even when their personnel isn’t that good.

But let’s not let time dim Lombardi’s standing, either.

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We’ll start by looking at Lombardi’s and Belichick’s records side by side.

Lombardi won five NFL titles in nine years as Green Bay Packers coach. He also went to a sixth title game, had a .754 winning percentage in Green Bay (.738 overall including his one season with Washington), was 9-1 in the playoffs, and never experienced a losing season.

If Belichick wins the Super Bowl in two weeks, it will be his sixth NFL title in 18 years with the Patriots. This will be his eighth title-game appearance. He has a .743 winning percentage with New England (.679 including his five seasons with Cleveland) and is 27-9 with the Patriots in the playoffs.

So which is more impressive? Five championships in nine years in the 1960s or, assuming the Patriots beat Philadelphia in two weeks, six in 18 in the first two decades of the 2000s?

There’s no denying that Belichick’s long span of success is impressive. You can’t just extrapolate Lombardi’s career and assume he would have won 10 titles if he’d coached twice as long. It just doesn’t work that way.

Some of the game’s legendary coaches won big early but were unable to sustain. Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls in his first 11 seasons, then none in his final 12. Don Shula won two titles in his first 11 seasons and none in his final 22. Paul Brown won three NFL title games in his first six seasons in the league, then none in his final 15.

So kudos to Belichick.

But Lombardi had title runs like none other in league history: He won five championships in a seven-year span and three title games in a row. Even Belichick hasn’t done that, though in two weeks he has a chance to win three in four years for the second time in his career. Yeah, that would be a wow.

Still, there’s one factor we haven’t accounted for: Tom Brady.

One of the chief arguments for Belichick is that he has won in an era when free agency and the salary cap have created a league in which parity rules. The argument is that teams can’t horde players to keep dynasties alive, so winning the title year after year is harder in today’s NFL than in Lombardi’s ‘60s.

But that actually cuts both ways. The parity in talent makes quarterbacks more important than ever. When teams are at all close, and everybody’s rosters are turning over yearly, the quarterbacks more than ever can be the difference.

And is there any doubt that Brady is the best quarterback ever? He comes through in the biggest games time and time and time again. It’s unreal.

The NFL has become a quarterback-dominated game, and Belichick has had the best.

Maybe as impressive as any of Belichick’s Super Bowls is that he went 11-5 with Matt Cassell in place of the injured Brady in 2008. Now that’s coaching. But New England’s 2-0 record with Jimmy Garoppolo to start the 2016 season doesn’t look so amazing now after Garoppolo went 5-0 to close this season with the San Francisco 49ers.

So how do you untangle the big question? Is the Patriots' success more because of Belichick or Brady?

Both are at the top of the discussion for best ever in their roles, but if you made me choose one or the other, it would be Brady without a second thought. I’d bet Brady would have a better chance of winning Super Bowls without Belichick than Belichick without Brady. Is there really anybody who would say the same for Lombardi and Bart Starr?

There’s a fruitless element to this argument, to be sure. Lombardi and Belichick coached in different eras, and the game has changed drastically in the last 40-plus years, both in the way it’s played and the way teams are built. Lombardi died after his one season in Washington, so we don’t know whether he could have turned a second franchise into a dynasty.

That leaves us to weigh Belichick’s peerless longevity and the Brady factor against Lombardi’s more concentrated brilliance.

This is a tough call. But I still think it’s tough to top Lombardi.

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