The Detroit Lions are looking to buck history.
The Green Bay Packers’ opponent Sunday has a third-year general manager (Bob Quinn) and rookie coach (Matt Patricia) plucked from the NFL’s most successful franchise of this century, the New England Patriots.
The rub is, Bill Belichick’s proteges have an unimpressive track record running their own shows. Eleven of his former Patriots employees have been hired as either a general manager or coach in the NFL, and they’ve mostly underperformed.
Collectively, they have no Super Bowl wins and a single Super Bowl appearance. Only one, Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff (.585 winning percentage), has had sustained success and held his job for more than five years. Five were fired within four seasons; two others, GM Jason Licht in Tampa Bay and coach Bill O’Brien in Houston, are on shaky ground in their fifth seasons, while the remaining three are too early in their tenures to tell.
“The fact that you’re with a winning operation doesn’t guarantee (anything), you’ve got the proof right there now,” said Ron Wolf, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Packers general manager. “That you’re going to leave this tremendous operation and go somewhere and revolutionize the game, it’s not going to happen if you don’t possess the ability. That’s what it comes down to, is their ability.”
The record of Bill Belichick apprentices is an eye-opener, but it’s not an anomaly. He and Vince Lombardi are the two greatest coaches in NFL history, yet Lombardi proteges, too, had an abysmal record after moving to the captain’s chair.
His six assistant coaches and longtime players who went on to coach NFL teams had a combined record of 182-282-11 (.392 winning percentage). In their 31 seasons total, they made only two playoff appearances and appeared in one Super Bowl (Forrest Gregg in Cincinnati), which was a loss.
Norb Hecker (Atlanta) and Tom Fears (New Orleans) were the first coaches of expansion teams. Hecker (4-26-1) was fired early in his third season, Fears (13-34-2) halfway through his fourth.
But Bill Austin (17-36-3) bombed in Pittsburgh and Washington. Gregg (75-85-1) had only three winning seasons in 11 years coaching Cleveland, Cincinnati and the Packers. Phil Bengtson went 20-21-1 as Lombardi’s successor and then 1-4 as New England’s interim coach in late 1972. And Bart Starr (52-76-3) had only one season above .500 in his nine years as Packers coach.
The six Belichick proteges who so far have become coaches in the league have essentially the same winning percentage (.391, 113-176 ) as Lombardi’s. Collectively they have three playoff seasons and only one playoff win. A couple of those coaches (Patricia at 1-3 and Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel at 3-1) are in their first seasons, so better days might be ahead.
Still, looked at collectively, it’s not pretty: Romeo Crennel went 24-40 in four seasons as Cleveland’s coach, then 4-15 in little more than a year with Kansas City. Neither Eric Mangini (33-47 with the New York Jets and Cleveland) nor Josh McDaniels (11-17 with Denver) lasted more than three seasons at their stops. And O’Brien (32-36) probably needs a strong rebound from a 1-3 start to get a sixth season as Houston’s coach.
For the record, this list doesn’t include two Belichick assistants from his time at Cleveland who became NFL head coaches, Jim Schwartz (29-51 in five seasons with Detroit) and Nick Saban (15-17 in two seasons with Miami). It also doesn’t include any stints as college coaches.
And to be fair, none of the Belichick apprentices has had a keeper at quarterback, the position that accounts for probably 80 percent of who wins in the NFL. If Belichick hadn’t taken a sixth-round flier on Tom Brady in 2000, he might not be Bill Belichick the genius. Though we also have to point out, Belichick went 10-5 with Matt Cassel as his starter in 2008. Cassel was 26-40 as a starter for five other teams.
What does it all tell us? Mainly, that while systems and philosophies matter, there are some things an assistant coach can’t pick up from a head coach no matter how hard he tries.
Lombardi instilled lessons of discipline, toughness and the pursuit of perfection in his teams, but there was much more to him than that. He was an extraordinary teacher, master psychologist and gifted talent evaluator who was heartless about moving on from players who had helped him win.
To be fair, a couple of them walked into difficult circumstances.
Belichick, likewise, has set up a comprehensive scouting and coaching system that is the envy of the league, but he’s much more than that. He’s the game’s master at spotting favorable matchups, as well as determining what to take away from his opponents, and how best to do it.
What made Lombardi special in his time and Belichick special to this day can’t be passed down to an assistant coach no matter how long they work together.
“I think that’s exactly what that’s telling you,” Wolf said. “The great thing about football is, you are what your record says you are. That’s the great thing about this game. You can’t duck it. “
Belichick proteges have had their struggles as GMs, too, though their biggest problem is they haven’t had Belichick as their coach. Belichick the GM has a checkered record on personnel decisions, but he always has his coach (and Brady) to make up for it.
Dimitroff (96-68) has been the most successful. He has one Super Bowl appearance, and much of his success is based on drafting Matt Ryan as quarterback, though he also deserves great credit for his foresight and courage of his convictions in making the blockbuster trade up in the 2011 draft for Julio Jones.
But Scott Pioli went 23-41 in four seasons in Kansas City after trying to capture the Patriots’ magic by hand-picking Cassel to be his quarterback and later hiring Crennel as coach. And Licht (24-44) put his money on Jameis Winston at quarterback but could be out of a job in Tampa Bay if the 2-2 Bucs don’t show progress the rest of this season.
Quinn (19-17) has the setup he wants now.
In August 2017, he signed quarterback Matthew Stafford to a five-year, $135 million contract extension. Stafford ranked No. 7 this year in ESPN.com’s offseason quarterback rankings based on ratings by 50 NFL coaches and scouts.
Then after two years with the coach he inherited (Jim Caldwell), Quinn last offseason brought in his own man, Patricia.
The Lions now are full-fledged New England West. But whether they’ll capture that Patriots’ magic has almost nothing to do with Belichick and everything to do with just how good Quinn and Patricia are.