Breaking Don Shula’s record will be Bill Belichick’s final frontier. And he’ll have many railing against it.

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

In the shadow of the passing of Don Shula, one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, it was hard to keep from thinking about Bill Belichick on Monday.

We’re entering the era of Belichick’s career where chasing Shula is going to become a focal point. Super Bowls will still be a measure for the New England Patriots head coach, but Belichick is 68 years old and has accomplished everything imaginable up to this point. His legacy is secure. He’s an instant Hall of Famer. Other than rebuilding a franchise and showing he can have sustained success without Tom Brady, there aren’t many peaks left that can be historically meaningful.

Except for Shula’s perch in the coaching ranks. To a historian of the game like Belichick, that matters.

As it should. Shula’s all-time win totals — 328 in the regular season and 347 including playoff games — were gargantuan when he departed the NFL in 1995. So much so, they were considered numbers that would likely never be breached again. That is until Belichick arrived in New England and went on a two-decade rip through the league, appearing in nine Super Bowls and building the NFL’s answer to the Roman Empire.

Now he’s third all-time in coaching victories with 304 total (including playoff wins), trailing only Shula’s 347 and George Halas’ 324.

It’s success that has stirred a range of emotion across football over the past two decades — excitement, admiration, hatred, jealousy, envy and everything in between. Shula certainly wasn’t immune to it, either. As Belichick’s teams began to roll up victories and challenge some key portions of Shula’s legacy, he certainly shared some candid thoughts. The kinds of words that would be viewed as either honesty or bitterness, depending on where you stood in your view of the Patriots.

Bill Belichick has won six Lombardi Trophies as head coach of the Patriots. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Bill Belichick has won six Lombardi Trophies as head coach of the Patriots. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Don Shula’s memorable words about Bill Belichick, Patriots

“The Spygate thing has diminished what they’ve accomplished,” Shula said in a 2007 interview with the New York Daily News, as the Patriots were driving to establish only the second perfect regular season in NFL history alongside Shula’s 1972 Dolphins. “You would hate to have that attached to your accomplishments. They’ve got it.”

Shula later attempted to take the edge off that remark, saying New England would be deserving of unfettered recognition if it ran the postseason table after a perfect 2007 season — which the Patriots ultimately didn’t, losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.

That wasn’t the last time Shula tilted into some Belichick criticism. In 2015, he reportedly referred to Belichick as “Beli-cheat” in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, followed by a remark one year later at a 50th anniversary news conference for the Dolphins in which he referenced deflating footballs.

“We always tried to live by the rules and set an example that it was always done with a lot of class, a lot of dignity,” Shula told a throng of Florida media at that 2016 event. “Always done the right way. … We didn’t deflate any balls.”

Over the past several years, these were the comments that always made the Shula-Belichick dynamic complicated. For Belichick’s part, he shared admiration for Shula at various times over the decades, partially through the lens of his father Steve, who coached in Northeast Ohio and also at Navy, and when Belichick himself became an NFL assistant and head coach. He shared some of that effusive praise Monday when remembering Shula's contributions in a statement.

“Don Shula is one of the all-time great coaching figures and the standard for consistency and leadership in the NFL,” Belichick said. “I was fortunate to grow up in Maryland as a fan of the Baltimore Colts who, under Coach Shula, were one of the outstanding teams of that era. My first connection to Coach Shula was through my father, whose friendship with Coach Shula went back to their days in northeast Ohio. I extend my deepest condolences to the Shula family and the Dolphins organization.”

Conversely, Shula seemed to have praise for Belichick only until the Spygate incident, when the NFL punished the Patriots in 2007 for taping the defensive signals of opponents. After that — and during the course of Belichick climbing toward Shula’s all-time win record — he shared some occasional hot spots of criticism.

All of which became amplified over the years, especially in the face of Belichick potentially unseating Shula as the NFL’s winningest all-time coach. Like many things in New England’s success, it has carried a succinct “good versus evil” vibe to it. And one that will get only louder as time goes on. This won’t be cries from just the fans who hate the Patriots for any litany of things, or portions of the media that will forever catalogue New England’s less-than-pristine reputation for either breaking rules or being accused of deceitful machinations.

This will come from Shula’s friends and teammates, who have taken up the fight on his behalf in the past.

Guys like former defensive tackle Manny Fernandez, who played for Shula and once groused to The Palm Beach Post about Belichick eclipsing Shula’s win record: “You can’t stop it. I just think it’s a shame that a guy who constantly gets caught cheating is even there because — I don’t know — his moral character leaves me kind of questioning.”

Former Miami Dolphins football quarterback Bob Griese, left, President Barack Obama and 1972 Dolphins Coach Don Shula, right, hold a signed jersey in the East Room of the White House in 2013 during a ceremony honoring the Super Bowl VII champs. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Former Miami Dolphins football quarterback Bob Griese, left, President Barack Obama and 1972 Dolphins Coach Don Shula, right, hold a signed jersey in the East Room of the White House in 2013 during a ceremony honoring the Super Bowl VII champs. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

What would passing Shula’s record mean in historical debates?

That’s a salient quote because it’s a very solid outline of how Belichick’s critics are going to define his rise as he gets closer to Shula. It will be made about character. And if you believe Belichick has lacked it during his run through the league, you’re likely going to lean into the belief that Shula is what was historically right about the NFL and that it’s a shame to see him fall to No. 2. Especially when No. 1 is a guy whose franchise has been accused of cheating a handful of times during his career.

Whether you agree with that will likely fall into the same zip code about how you feel about the Patriots’ success in general. If you think it has been tainted over the years, you’ll look at Belichick’s numbers as carrying the same malaise. If you believe he’s a coaching genius who smartly outworked the system and repeatedly fine-tuned his teams to every advantage, you’ll see his perch as one that was earned. And if you think he’s largely a product of Brady, you’ll always see his win totals as that.

The bottom line is Shula’s passing puts Belichick into very succinct perspective. On one hand, the recency of Belichick’s sustained dominance and fact that he still trails Shula by 43 total wins (including the playoffs) speaks loudly to fans who may not have appreciated Shula’s greatness. On the other hand, Shula’s passing also reminds us that Belichick is still staring upward in an important column of coaching measure. There’s still someone holding onto a rung of history above him, which means Belichick still has something significant to push toward. Even at 68.

Like so many other of the Patriots’ rarefied feats under Belichick, taking Shula’s perch in that win column would likely last forever. A defining moment of football history for a man who cares greatly about that kind of thing. But achieving it and eclipsing Shula won’t come without a debate about integrity and honesty and what will be remembered when history looks back at a number.

The same debate some will always press about the Patriots — long after we’re memorializing the memory of Belichick on a day like Monday.

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