American Football: Relentless Belichick will not fear Giants on the road to perfection
Saturday 29 December 2007
At some point in the early hours of tomorrow morning, Bill Belichick might allow himself a smile of satisfaction and perhaps a small glass of something sparkling, but given a demeanour that makes Gordon Brown appear positively charismatic, don't bet on it.
Belichick is the head coach of the New England Patriots, and if his side prevails against the New York Giants in the regular season finale, they will be the first team in 35 years to go undefeated through a season: 16 games, 16 victories.
They will then have the opportunity to join the Miami Dolphins of 1972 and conclude a perfect campaign by progressing through next month's playoffs, and on to Phoenix, Arizona, for Super Bowl XLII on 3 February. The Las Vegas oddsmakers like their chances, and, after the season the Patriots have enjoyed, it is not hard to see why.
Already the most successful franchise of the new millennium, with three Super Bowl titles in the last six seasons, the Patriots, under the cranky, idiosyncratic, but unquestionably brilliant leadership of Belichick are now standing on the threshold of sporting immortality.
Since 1920, when the National Football League first began keeping official records, and long-forgotten names like the Akron Pros and the Rock Island Independents ruled the gridiron, only the Dolphins of 1972 have won every time they played.
The feat is considered the holy grail of American football. Other great teams and legendary players have tried, and failed, to emulate them.
The San Francisco 49ers of Joe Montana, John Elway's Denver Broncos, the Chicago Bears of 1985, and Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts as recently as 2005, all threatened, but even when Super Bowl success was ultimately achieved, somebody, somewhere, had first managed to put a blemish on their record.
"If going unbeaten was that easy, wouldn't a lot of other teams have done it by now?" asked Larry Little, one of Miami's "Class of 72" earlier this month. "We're the only ones." Well, for the next few weeks they are.
The Patriots had served notice that they were serious about another Super Bowl assault back in the summer, when they strengthened an already imposing squad with some astute acquisitions. Belichick added the versatile Adalius Thomas to bolster a talented defensive unit, but the more pressing need was to upgrade his offense.
He already possessed one of the great quarterbacks of the era, the highly efficient Tom Brady, but defeat in a play-off game against Indianapolis last season showed Belichick that having a great quarterback was useless if he was undermined by second-rate receivers.
In came the smooth Dont Stallworth from Philadelphia, and the tough, scrappy Wes Welker from Miami. But the real masterstroke was the acquisition of the troubled but talented receiver Randy Moss. Brady now had the benefit of a receiver who possessed the size, speed and safe hands to wreak havoc against any opposition. But would he also wreak havoc in his own locker-room, as he had apparently done at Oakland and Minnesota?
Whether it is the understated leadership of Belichick, the presence of the ultra-professional Brady, or simply the fact that the Patriots have enjoyed great success, the gamble on Moss has paid off massively. He has proved himself a true team player, the quality Belichick demands above all else.
With those new components in place, the Patriots began the season as expected, with a comfortable victory against the New York Jets, a team coached by Eric Mangini, a former Belichick protg who had upset his mentor by leaving New England for the Jets.
Afterwards Mangini accused Belichick of secretly filming the Jets' sideline during the game, an act outlawed by the NFL.
Caught red-handed, Belichick was fined $500,000 (250,000), and branded a cheat. His public response was simply to apologise for his "mistake" and insist that any further questions be about the next opponents on New England's schedule.
It was classic Belichick. The team and the next opponent are all that matter. Secrecy is paramount. But there is a creative edge to his paranoia too, and many believe he has turned the shame of being caught cheating to his advantage. It was time to circle the wagons, to show they could win without recourse to dishonest tactics. The Patriots went on to leave nobody in any doubt of their supremacy.
Through the first eight games of the season, no rival came within 17 points of the rampant Patriots. In week nine the Colts, defending Super Bowl champions, gave them a stern test, but two fourth-quarter Brady touchdown passes ensured victory.
The Baltimore Ravens had them beaten, only to self-destruct by calling a time-out as a desperate fourth-down attempt by New England failed, thereby giving their rivals another chance to make the play. Duly reprieved, Brady got it right second time around.
Are the Patriots the best team of all time, better even than the perfect Dolphins? A direct comparison is impossible. In Miami's day, it was easier to keep a squad of players together, nor were there salary-cap issues. The Dolphins had to play only two teams with a winning record; the Patriots have had to deal with strong opponents like the Colts, San Diego and Dallas. However, the Dolphins played for most of their perfect season with their second-string quarterback, Earl Morrall, after their starter, Bob Griese, was injured. It is impossible to believe that the Patriots would have been so successful without Brady.
Yet, they are alike in that there is no place for the star system. Neither Belichick, nor his Miami counterpart, Don Shula, would countenance it. "They are the closest team to how we played that I've seen in 35 years," said the former Miami defender, Dick Anderson. "They are well coached. They do not make mental errors. They play as a team. Somebody always steps up and makes a play."
It is just a shame nobody ever seems to step up and quicken the pulse. With the Patriots, there is none of the drama of Montana or Elway, or of Green Bay's dazzling Brett Favre, or of John Riggins, powering the Washington Redskins onwards. There is no one on the defensive side like the wrecking-ball Lawrence Taylor of the Giants, or "Samurai" Mike Singletary, nostrils flaring, as his Chicago Bears bludgeoned their rivals into submission.
Great players, not polished, accomplished teams, most stick in the memory, but in Belichick's world, pragmatism wins out over personality every time, and whatever happens over the next few weeks, the Patriots have set a new standard in grinding, relentless efficiency. Belichick and his players will doubtless take that as the ultimate compliment.
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