This is not exactly a story about Bill Belichick and his chase for Don Shula’s all-time NFL wins record. Belichick’s struggling New England Patriots come to Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday. He’s 17 wins short of Shula’s mark.
His former linebacker, Tedy Bruschi, said on ESPN recently he wants Belichick to win five or six games this year, to be respectable, and then “walk away … Shula doesn’t matter. You’ve got multiple Super Bowls over Shula. You’re a better coach.”
This isn’t exactly a story about who’s the better coach, either. Belichick won six Super Bowls with one quarterback. Shula went to six championship games — five Super Bowls and an NFL title game — with six quarterbacks on two franchises, won two of them and had the only undefeated team in NFL history.
So, take your pick. Chocolate or vanilla. Ginger or Mary Ann. Belichick or Shula.
No, this is a story about the relentless opponent of time in sports. Tiger Woods once was such a slam-dunk to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s 18 wins in major golf tournaments that even Nicklaus said the only question was, “by how many.” Woods won 15 majors.
Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds were sure things for the baseball Hall of Fame. Until they weren’t. Joe Paterno was called “Saint Joe,” at Penn State. Until he wasn’t.
Sports is littered with yesterday’s givens not fitting today. Any story involving time around Belichick or Shula doesn’t involve tabloid-style misbehavior or tarnished legacies.
It’s involves winning, only winning, and how difficult that becomes with time. Manager Jack McKeon, who won a World Series with the Marlins at age 71, said the addiction to winning never changed in him, but the challenge was, “constantly checking if how you won years ago is still the best way to reach players and win today.”
A small story from an inconsequential game tells how Shula changed with time. The week he coached the 1982 Senior Bowl, he had breakfast with his offensive coaches, Mike Westhoff and Shula’s son, Dave. Westhoff remembers them being nervous about wanting to tweak a staple of the running game, Shula’s beloved toss sweep.
For decades, Don Shula ran the toss sweep on the first sound from the quarterback, meaning before his linemen went into a three-point stance. Dave Shula and Westhoff thought a three-point stance would help the college linemen on this play. That meant changing the snap count.
“You two want to change what?” Shula shouted at them, dropping his spoon into his cereal.
He looked from one to the other.
“Larry Csonka ran it that way,’’ Shula said, his voice still rising. “Jim Kiick ran it that way. Maybe you two can call (Baltimore’s) Lenny Moore? See if he liked that play the way we ran it?”
Shula was so upset he stood up and left the table.
The smallness of the story and inconsequential nature of the game underlines the larger point. It’s hard to change as your grow older. It’s harder still when you’ve had so much success doing it one way.
At that day’s practice, the college quarterback called the toss-sweep play in the huddle to go on his first sound.
“Wait a second,’’ Shula said.
He bent to his assistants’ ideas. He watched the play run with linemen in three-point stances. From that moment forward, the toss sweep was run by the Dolphins with linemen down in three-point stances.
Shula changed, hesitantly sometimes. But flexibility, from using the 1972 team’s power running game to Dan Marino’s passing greatness, was part of his coaching style.
Only Belichick knows how flexible he has been to changing ideas. His defense remains sound and will have to be against this Dolphins offense and Tyreek Hill on Sunday. His offense still doesn’t feature star playmakers. Tom Brady made that work. Mac Jones hasn’t.
Belichick is 2-5. He has former players saying he should retire. He’s reading articles speculating whether Patriots owner Bob Kraft will keep him. There’s a certain unfortunate symmetry with Shula in this regard, too.
Belichick was asked last Sunday after win No. 300 how it felt to join Shula and George Halas in that club.
“It’s great,” Belichick said. “I’m really more focused on our team and this year. I’ll worry about that later. Thank you.”
Time won’t let up if Belichick doesn’t turn around the Patriots. Do the math. Say the Patriots improve to go 5-5 the rest of this year. He won’t get 12 wins next year, meaning he’ll need 2025, too.
All that says as things stand is the next 17 wins will be the noisiest wins of Belichick’s career. If he gets them.