W. Averell Harriman, the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, found himself standing next to Joseph Stalin. The Potsdam Conference of 1945. WWII enters the cleanup phase.
“Marshal,” said Harriman, “this must be a great satisfaction to you, after all the trials and tragedy you’ve been through, to finally be here in Berlin.”
Stalin did not smile. The great stone face, the cold dissatisfaction, the victor in the Great Patriotic War.
“Czar Alexander,” Stalin replied, “got all the way to Paris.”
Bill Belichick, the great stone face of New England, has a remotely similar appreciation. He was once 3-0 as a head coach on league championship days. In the summer of 2005 he stood one win away from Chuck Noll and two from Vince Lombardi. The all-time mountaintop.
Then things stalled. Ever since, the trek toward Olympus has taken some very strange turns for this nervy and unusual coach.
The beginning was 2001, the surprise year, Tom Brady's and Belichick’s grand opening. Very few believers. Things strangely broke their way. The Tuck Rule. Adam Viniateri making kicks at gunpoint. Heavy playoff underdogs to the Steelers then to the Rams, and Belichick slipping past ‘em both.
Then, Super Bowl XXXVIII … Belichick goes 16-2 to get there, the best of his trophy teams. A dull game suddenly goes off like a match on a fireworks barge. Thirty-seven combined points in the fourth quarter, a SB record. Vinatieri swings his leg and bails Belichick out again.
The next year it was Donovan McNabb getting the ball with 5:40 to play and trailing by 10 and running out his own clock. The Eagles scored on a la-di-da drive, and McNabb said something about his receivers having to get back to the huddle after their 20- and 30-yard patterns as being the reason. Tackle Jon Runyan said if they hurried they might make mistakes. Take all day if you want, grins Belichick, and the Patriots took Super Bowl XXXIX, 24-21.
Since then, it has been a weird stretch for New England. In 2006, the Patriots blew the AFC title, losing their legs and a wide lead at Indy. Peyton Manning delivered his finest half of football ever. Brady’s last throw was intercepted and the best Belichick could come up with during postgame is, “The Colts just did a little more than we did today.”
It was an Indy-Chicago Super Bowl that year, and the Colts flew in the face of Rex Grossman and beat the Bears without a whole lot of inspiration. Belichick watched and suffered. He wanted a crack at those lovely Grossman turnovers.
Next, the Spygate hysteria, Eric Mangini ratting out his former boss regarding some un-kosher shenanigans. Dirty pool. Jets, lies and videotape.
“If there is a decision I could take back it’s easily that decision,” Mangini confessed to the world last spring. “Never in a million years would I have wanted it to go this way … there was no intent to get the league involved. There was no intent to have it become the landslide it’s become.”
But the Belichick luster took some scuffs, and a humbler Mangini stepped up and addressed that part of it, too.
“I know what it took to win those [Patriot] Super Bowls and I have so much respect for the people involved there,” was his backpedal.
In 2007, Belichick unleashed his greatest creation, an 18-0 behemoth with some very serious history at stake. Brady to Welker and Brady to Moss. Oh, my. They were winning games by 38-7 and 52-7 and 56-10. The Giants ruined it all in Super Bowl XLII, Brady & Co. scratching out just 14 points as the New York pass rushers were taking big divots with the quarterback’s head and back and shoulders.
Which brings us to last year. Belichick’s oddest team, for sure. They were 13-3 in the win-loss column but were a freak show by historical standards … his sudden collection of tight ends … his 31st-ranked defense and a roster dotted with little guys from the FCS. Sword eaters and contortionists and dancing fleas. Oh, good lord.
But there they were, back on Super Sunday, in the lead with 64 seconds to go … then Belichick gave New York a walk-in touchdown in a time-sparing maneuver. Brady couldn’t bail them out. Afterward, someone asked LB Brandon Spikes what he thought of the strategy.
“It killed me,” he said. “When the call came in to let them score, I was like, 'What? I’m here to do my job and it’s my job to play defense and let them score?' It was tough.”
This season, Belichick's team is shaping up much the same. They still have no prime running threat and they’re still sketchy at wide receiver, and Belichick’s relying on three defensive rookies to finally crank up the stopping power.
But their 2012 schedule is light, and in a rapidly eroding AFC that formula is still good enough to make them the conference favorite.
Trivia: What’s the longest stretch of years between Super Bowl wins for a head coach?
Answer: Six years. Tom Landry's Cowboys did it in ’71, then he and the ’Boys did it again in ’77.
Bill Belichick hasn’t been king for seven seasons, since 2004, and his trophy case is stuck on three Lombardi Trophies. One more than Tom Coughlin. One ahead of Tom Flores and Mike Shanahan.
Last month, the NFL Network’s Michael Irvin said something about hyphenating the league’s keepsake hardware. “I’d call it the Lombardi-Belichick Trophy,” he said. But Belichick’s seasons keep getting stranger. His formula keeps changing, and he still can’t catch Noll nor Lombardi.
His trip to Canton is no problem. But Paris now seems a little bit farther away.
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.