This was supposed to be a simple story.
After Josh McDaniels was fired last week by the Las Vegas Raiders to end a second disastrous stint as an NFL head coach, the idea was straightforward. Find the answers to the obvious questions that have clouded coaches with backgrounds similar to McDaniels.
Essentially, these: Why has all of the success of Bill Belichick not translated to the majority of his former assistant coaches? Or, put more simply, why is Belichick’s coaching tree so bad?
Ten men who worked under Belichick have landed full-time head coaching jobs in the NFL. Only two have a career record above .500: Al Groh (who went 9-7 in his one season with the New York Jets in 2000) and Bill O’Brien (who went 52-48 before the Houston Texans fired him in 2020).
The group has a cumulative record of 219-306-2. Four of them — Romeo Crennel, Joe Judge, Matt Patricia, and McDaniels — won fewer than 38 percent of the NFL games they coached. Over 36 combined NFL seasons, the 10 members of Belichick’s coaching tree have six playoff appearances and only three postseason wins.
The Belichick coaching tree
2005-08, 2011-12, 2020
Surely, it seems, there should be an obvious through line between all of these coaches that helps explain how they learned from the greatest coach of his generation (and maybe ever), then went on to (mostly) fail on their own. Call these coaches and others, the idea went, and figure out why things went wrong.
But the five who were contacted all either declined comment, didn’t respond or insisted on only speaking on background, conscious (if not fearful) of the power and sway Belichick still holds in the game, careful not to offend the coach who once helped them land a dream job. None yielded a simple answer for the struggles of the coaching tree.
Almost all of the legendary coaches in this game have produced branches that keep them connected to the game long after they retire. But for all of the unmatched success of Belichick (the six Super Bowl titles as a head coach, the two others as an assistant, the 264-115 record with the Patriots and 300-159 mark overall, etc.), it’s odd that his accomplishments haven’t translated to those who learned from him.
Around the league, many theories exist for the stunted coaching tree and the bewildering trend. Some think it’s a lack of connective scheme. Some say it’s Belichick’s omnipotent style of running a franchise. Could it be just bad luck or bad situations? Or maybe it’s as simple as the other coaches not having Tom Brady as their quarterback.
Either way, the idea that a connective cause doomed the NFL head coaches on Belichick’s tree crumbled quickly.
“There’s a lot more to it than that,” said one of Belichick’s former assistant coaches. “If we’re being honest, there are a lot of reasons.”
After he retired from coaching at 57 as a three-time Super Bowl champion, Bill Walsh spent two years writing an exhaustive book on how to be a football coach. It was so detailed that at one point it swelled to 800 pages before being trimmed to the 550 it was printed with in 1997.
“It’s not a sports book,” Walsh once declared to his son, according to this great feature on the subject, “it’s a thesis.”
The book broke down every facet of being a head coach, from working with agents to marketing new coaches to handling the media to breakdowns of what made plays like 22-Z In so successful.
Belichick discovered the book while serving as Bill Parcells’ assistant head coach in the late 1990s with the New York Jets. It was transcendent for a young Belichick, who was coming off a five-year run as the Cleveland Browns coach, fired after posting a 36-44 record.
Belichick’s father, Steve, had collected books on football and leadership while working as an assistant coach at the Naval Academy. So Bill began doing the same in the 1970s, and he developed a love for studying the concepts within the football books. (A year after Steve died in 2005, Belichick donated his personal library of more than 400 football books to the Naval Academy. Those books now reside as the “Belichick collection” on the third floor of Ricketts Hall.) But none had quite the same impact on Belichick as Walsh’s book.
Yet the whole idea of the book flies in the face of the way Belichick operates, both in its public, transparent nature and in its rigid, specific scheme explanations. Walsh didn’t just break down plays but also how to teach the plays, the core tenets of what became Walsh’s widely adapted West Coast offense.
Belichick, on the other hand, isn’t married to any one scheme. He typically runs a 3-4 defense, sure, but the complexities beyond that are fluid. Jerod Mayo played linebacker for eight years under Belichick, now works under him and is viewed by some as the heir apparent to Belichick. He calls it a game-plan defense. Essentially, the not-so-secret part of Belichick’s longtime scheme has been to study what an opponent does well and draw up a plan to stop that even if it means completely changing what his team typically does.
The other popular defensive schemes in the NFL have been straightforward in what they are — from Pete Carroll’s Cover 3 to Vic Fangio’s shell defense to Mike Zimmer’s double-A gap blitz. Their idea was that it didn’t matter if the opponent knew what was coming. The opponent couldn’t beat it because those teams practiced it so many times that they were so good at running it. In theory, it’s easier to pass that down to assistant coaches when you’re practicing and tweaking the same scheme day in and day out for years on end.
But while Belichick favors some aspects of a scheme, he’s always been willing to change on the fly, confident his coaching can get a unit prepared to switch styles even on short notice. In 2019, the Patriots played man-to-man defense at the second-highest rate of any team in the league, according to stats kept by TruMedia. But before the Super Bowl that season, Belichick realized that the upcoming opponent, Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams, feasted on man-to-man defenses. So in the two weeks between the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, Belichick remade his entire defense into one that leaned on zone coverages, teaching a completely different plan to his team. The Patriots then went out and held the Rams to only three points, matching the lowest output in Super Bowl history, while adding another Lombardi Trophy to Belichick’s collection.
It was one of the most impressive coaching jobs in Super Bowl history. But how do you build a successful coaching tree without a defined scheme? What is there to pass on when so many of the accomplishments came because of shifts to how Belichick’s team plays and his ability to know when and how to pivot?
As a boy, Belichick grew up reading those books on football that his dad bought at bookstores around the country while on scouting trips for Navy. As a coach, Belichick has leaned on the mastery of the game derived from those tomes, borrowing from certain schemes, then quickly switching to something different for the next week’s opponent to solve a new problem.
“The best coaches,” Mayo said this week, “are the best thieves.”
It’s been remarkably, unfathomably impressive, delivering unrivaled results for Belichick. And it also seems to be inimitable.
Belichick grew up in Annapolis, Md., hanging with his father and Steve’s coaching colleagues at Navy. He learned football there, sure, but, notably, the influences of a military environment were always around him.
That swayed the coach he became. Tough, stubborn, quick with corrections, but faint with praise. Orders were given, not debated. Collaboration with Belichick could eventually be earned (as it was with Brady, McDaniels and a few others), but it wasn’t assumed.
Players signed with the Patriots knowing they weren’t headed to a fun, relaxed environment, but because Belichick would give them a chance at winning. It was that way with coaches, too. They kept longer hours than other teams. Belichick made clear what was to be expected from everyone, even if it came sternly.
That’s how the Patriots’ now-trademarked “Do your job” mantra was born. Don’t question the authority — trust it, do what you’re asked and success will follow.
For those who worked for Belichick, it often did. But they were also shielded by the omnipotent style with which Belichick rules the Patriots. In games, he’s the sole decision-maker on the most important calls. He’s the one who devises game plans. He’s the de facto general manager who decides on trades, player acquisitions and whom to draft. He has full say over the coaches on staff and the roster with which they work. There’s little that’s collaborative about how Belichick runs the organization, and there has been little incentive to change because it has yielded so much success.
So one popular theory on the struggles of the coaching tree is rooted in that most of his assistants don’t get much experience at the roles that tend to define a successful head coach — or even witness Belichick handling those areas since much of his work is siloed. Instead, the assistants try to emulate what’s in front of them.
What they do see is the way Belichick interacts with people. He’s gruff in demeanor, a carryover from that militaristic approach. The wins that came early in Belichick’s tenure with the Patriots made it easier to establish his hard-nosed culture. With Brady at quarterback, the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in Belichick’s second season. It helps to get players to understand why they’re getting tough coaching when success follows.
But that didn’t happen with Belichick’s assistant coaches when they got their shot. Three of the most recent examples — McDaniels, Judge and Patricia — tried to instill a similar culture with their new teams. But the early struggles they encountered made it more difficult. They weren’t players’ coaches who tried to lean into what players wanted and they weren’t providing easy answers on the field for their players to find success.
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The losses mounted and the coaches were making those around them miserable.
After Patricia’s first season in Detroit finally ended, Lions players reportedly popped champagne in the locker room. In Judge’s first year with the Giants, he got into such a significant verbal altercation with one of his assistant coaches, Marc Colombo, that Judge fired him the next day. Last weekend, after the Raiders won their first game following the firing of McDaniels, they smoked cigars in the locker room with the team’s owner, celebrating that they no longer worked for the Belichick disciple.
This is where we must admit there are a number of different possibilities to explain 10 wildly different circumstances over 24 years. And also where it must be acknowledged that while the coaching tree has failed spectacularly in the NFL, there’s a massive exception in the college ranks.
As noted, eight of Belichick’s 10 former assistants finished their NFL stints with a losing record. One of those eight was the man who served as Belichick’s first defensive coordinator, working together with him for four years with the Cleveland Browns. Nick Saban went 15-17 as an NFL head coach. But like his former boss, he’s gone on to unmatched success. Saban has the most collegiate national championships — his total of seven (one at LSU, six at Alabama) is more than any other head coach.
But not all of Belichick’s former assistants found success switching to college. Charlie Weis left the first Patriots dynasty for a job at Notre Dame, then was fired five years later after posting a 16-21 record over his final three seasons. His next head coaching job was at Kansas, where he went 6-22 over three years.
The struggles have left room for so many theories about why the coaching tree has been so bad.
Maybe it’s as simple as not having Brady on their team. Maybe Belichick is just that good. Maybe his former assistants try too hard to be like him. Maybe it’s the fault of owners who hired assistants who weren’t ready or who only looked good under the light of Belichick’s success. Maybe Belichick doesn’t properly prepare them. Maybe they’re weighed down by unrealistic expectations, stuck with the unenviable task of trying to lift bad organizations or live up to the success of Belichick. Maybe there’s a benefit to having played for Belichick — like Mike Vrabel and Kevin O’Connell — thus having seen the hard work that’s required without working for him.
Besides, there’s another question that has to be asked: How much does any of this matter?
Belichick’s resume is already the best in NFL history, regardless of whether he catches Don Shula for the most all-time coaching wins (he needs 17 more to pass Shula for the record). His spot in Canton, Ohio, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is already assured. Perhaps his bust there will sit next to Parcells, his longtime mentor.
Belichick has said that Parcells often called him into Parcells’ office when they worked together and “told me things he thought I would need to know when I became a head coach.”
Belichick and Parcells remain close. They have houses near each other in Jupiter, Fla., where they can reminisce about glory days and laugh about old arguments.
Belichick now seems to be entering the twilight of his career. He’s 71. At some point in the not-so-distant future, he’ll be out of the league. The memories and Lombardi Trophies and six Super Bowl banners at Gillette Stadium won’t go anywhere. He’ll likely go down as the greatest NFL coach ever.
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But perhaps it could be argued that his influence on the league may be diminished in the years to come without a network of former assistants continuing to apply what they learned from Belichick.
That’s why Parcells was always so proud of his former employees. It’s why he stayed in touch with them even after he retired, often calling some of his former assistants on Monday mornings after games to go over what happened the day before.
“Those who follow,” Parcells once said of his coaching tree, “that’s important.”
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(Top illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Jane Gershovich, Megan Briggs, Leon Halip / Getty Images)
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