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Bill Belichick may be dusting off the old-school approach that won him Super Bowls before Tom Brady

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·4 min read
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Bill Belichick was winning Super Bowls before Tom Brady became Tom Brady. Maybe no one else remembers. Belichick certainly does.

Is that Belichick’s motivation for New England’s free agent spending spree this week? Does he want to reprove himself, especially after Brady bounced to Tampa Bay and promptly secured his seventh career Lombardi Trophy, and first without Belichick?

Perhaps.

Belichick also might just be dusting off his old blueprint for success — constructing and coaching up a strong defense while surrounding marginal quarterback play (in this case, a fading Cam Newton) with enough easy-access weapons that game management is enough.

When Belichick eventually comes out to explain himself, you can count on him mumbling about “doing what’s best for the team.” Maybe we should believe him.

Belichick signed nine players since Monday. That includes wideouts Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, and sure-handed tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to provide some options for Newton, who at 32 is likely to return as the starter (though the Pats could still add a QB through the draft).

Newton was signed last week on a cheap one-year deal, which meant New England had plenty of salary-cap space for other positions. Newton is taking up just 2.95 percent of the cap.

While most of the NFL, especially the AFC, is focused on securing an elite quarterback, and even paying big for it, New England is headed the other way and trying to win without one. It’s Belichick zigging when everyone else is zagging.

He used a lot of the money to bolster the defense — linebacker Matthew Judon, safety Jalen Mills, and three linemen in Henry Anderson, Davon Godchaux and Deatrich Wise Jr. That’s a major punch of talent, especially when you consider that the Patriots should return stalwarts Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung, COVID opt-outs from 2020.

This is a whole new Patriots roster built in the old-school Belichick style.

His legend was originally established in the 1980s when he was the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants.

It peaked with the 1990 playoffs, when the Giants had to turn to backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler following an injury to starter Phil Simms.

Hostetler completed just three passes that postseason that gained 20 or more yards, but it was enough. Belichick’s defense held Chicago, San Francisco and Buffalo to just 35 points combined. The Giants needed just five field goals to defeat Joe Montana’s Niners in the NFC title game. And his Super Bowl game plan that derailed the powerhouse Bills of Jim Kelly is so revered, it is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Eleven years later, as head coach of the Patriots, he did it again, this time with a young Brady as his starter, but serving as little more than a game manager tasked with avoiding mistakes.

Long before Tom Brady was even in the NFL, Bill Belichick's defensive acuity was helping teams win Super Bowls. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Long before Tom Brady was even in the NFL, Bill Belichick's defensive acuity was helping teams win Super Bowls. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Patriots didn’t need Brady then. The defense yielded just 15.6 points a game to Oakland, Pittsburgh and legendary offense in St. Louis. It scored twice on its own, and special teams added another touchdown. Brady threw just one touchdown the entire postseason and in the Super Bowl, he entered that famous, final game-winning drive with just 92 passing yards on the day.

Defense won back then. Can Belichick — both in personnel and scheme — do it again? How about in an AFC overrun with great young quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, Justin Herbert, Deshaun Watson (for now), Joe Burrow and others, plus Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson likely arriving?

Unless Belichick has some quarterback magic trick up his sleeve that allows him to upgrade from Newton or turn a rookie into a superstar, it appears he wants to find out.

If that’s the plan, then the 2021 season is even more about him than ever — sort of the way 2020 in Tampa was about how Brady could adjust to a new franchise.

He’s going to have to scheme up a defense like those old Giants and even early-era Patriots. (The signings are great, but there is no Lawrence Taylor here.) He’s going to have to find a way to render a new generation of quarterbacks ineffective the way he did legendary ones of eras past.

The 68-year-old has been in the NFL since 1975, when the Colts were in Baltimore and the Ravens were in Cleveland (sort of). He’s seen it all. He’s done it all. He invented a lot of it.

Can it work again?

Belichick has built his team, making it clear what his plan is. Get Newton enough help that he can produce a serviceable offense. Then go old school on defense and flip the script on these young, high-powered offenses.

What’s old is new again in Foxborough.

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