Green: Belichick has less than Midas touch when proteges turn into NFL head coaches

By Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, left, and Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia meet after the Lions' 26-10 victory in September at Ford Field.

Atlanta — Bill Belichick arrived, and he was total business.

The sleeves on his shirt were rolled up. He displayed his habitual stone face ...  a frown, a perpetual scowl. This is the countdown to Super Bowl LIII, and Belichick is in the ultimate game for the IXth time as head coach with the Patriots. And his mission is to reverse last year’s defeat versus the Eagles.

“I don’t care about last year,” he lectured the assembled media mob. “The Rams are a great team. They have great crossing routes ... The Rams are extremely well-coached ... great players ... great staff ... ”

His usual — with, it seems — annual platitudes.

“I’m up here to talk about the Patriots and Rams,” Belichick grumped when the Detroit guy in the front row, second seat left, asked about the struggles of his protégé head coaches, specifically the Lions’ Matt Patricia.

He broke the mold by offering a morsel to me:

“Matt’s a great coach. He did a great things for me, but I’m here to talk about the Rams.”

It was then that Belichick, in his mandatory Tuesday news conference, stepped forward toward history.

He smiled, sort of, when a journalist from Melbourne, Australia, asked a question.

Then he broke into actual laughter as a reporter from China spent several minutes extolling the abilities of Tom Brady and how the Patriots are beloved in Shanghai and Beijing, just like in Boston and Providence.

“I certainly appreciate the support from the Patriots fans in China,” he said with what approached a giggle.

I had detected in a change in Belichick’s demeanor a couple of weeks ago when the Patriots played the Chiefs for the AFC championship.

When Chiefs scored to go ahead in the fourth quarter, Belichick dropped his game-plan tablet rather hard to the turf. Then he picked it up and viciously fired it to the ground. The device landed so hard that it bounced to the bench.

It is the first time I had ever seen him display emotion of any flavor.

Then after Brady led the Patriots to their winning touchdown, and were assured of another Super Bowl visit, Belichick offered a smile — a wan, cool smile, but a shred of emotion.

So, he is a human being, after all.

But he has a mission. I did, too.

The issue was why do so many of his proteges, the New England assistant coaches/and or players whom he trains and forms, turn into the unexceptional when they become head coaches on other teams?

Vince Lombardi had the same result with assistants after winning five championships in Green Bay — though Forrest Gregg did make it to a Super Bowl with the Bengals.

Patricia’s Lions lapsed to 6-10 in his first season as an NFL head coach. Great was not quite a useful adjective. Mike Vrabel was an exceptional linebacker when he played on Super Bowl champions for Belichick — and even as a touchdown pass receiver. But as rookie coach of the Tennessee Titans last season, Vrabel’s Titans were 9-7 — just short of the playoffs.

Still, weird stuff happens in the NFL.

Both Patricia and Vrabel are 1-0 against their old boss.

Patricia’s first victory as Lions coach was over Belichick, Brady and the Super Bowl team the third week of the season — 26-10 at Ford Field. Matthew Stafford outdueled Brady that night on national TV.

Later on in November, Vrabel beat Belichick, 34-10, in Nashville.

Only Bill O’Brien lost to his former head coach during the 2018 season.

O’Brien, once Belichick’s offensive coordinator and sometimes mentor to Brady, left the Patriots to become head coach at Penn State. Somewhat successful there, O’Brien returned to the NFL as head coach of the Houston Texans.

Belichick defeated O’Brien mano-a-mano in September, 27-20.

Unlike Patricia and Vrabel, O’Brien reached the Super Bowl playoffs earlier this January.

His Texans were eliminated quickly, by the Colts, 21-7, in the wild-card round. Belichick has influenced numerous others in football in pro and college.

The Lions hired Bob Quinn from Belichick’s front office three seasons ago to be general manager.

Detroit is still waiting.

Jim Schwartz, the ex-Lions head coach, is a disciple.

Detroit is still waiting.

Former assistants Romeo Crennel, Al Groh and Josh McDaniels also did not work out in the NFL.

There is a newcomer, though, to give Belichick four former associates working as NFL head coaches. Kliff Kingsbury, an ex-player under Belichick, is the newly hired coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Belichick, himself, was an assistant under the late Rick Forzano with the Lions. His defensive acumen enabled the Giants win a Super Bowl when he worked for Bill Parcells.

That enabled Belichick to land the head job with the Cleveland Browns. There, he himself flopped as head coach. After accepting and quitting the head job of the Jets in one day Belichick went to the Patriots.

Soon he was a genius — and all business — like Lombardi, except as a groomer of other head coaches.           

But then, Belichick did produce Nick Saban.

Jerry Green, a retired sports writer, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.