BOSTON (CBS) — Before becoming a head coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick developed a blueprint in his mind for creating continuity in an organization.
Build a framework into which you bring aspiring coaches and evaluators, a then 38-year-old Belichick told Art Modell, the owner who hired him in Cleveland in 1991, and prepare them to someday ascend within your ranks.
“We’ll develop from within, teach coaches our system and develop them from within so we (don’t) have to change philosophies when coaches change,” Belichick said last March of the philosophy he initially espoused to Modell before sharing it with Robert Kraft in New England.
“I have my philosophy [on offense and defense], that’s what we were going to do, obviously with modifications. But we weren’t going to change offensive, defensive and special teams philosophies in personnel every time we made a coaching change. I’ve tried to live by that my entire head coaching career, and expect to continue to do that.”
The ensemble Belichick assembled by 1995, his final year in Cleveland, became the subject of the NFL Films production “A Football Life.” Understudies to Belichick and assistants like Nick Saban and Kirk Ferentz featured future NFL head coaches Eric Mangini and Jim Schwartz. Their staff also included a handful of eventual general managers.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, Belichick’s long-term vision soon vanished. At season’s end, he was out of a job, and the Browns were out of town, bound for Baltimore to become the Ravens. Several years later, ex-Brown great and Belichick personnel protege Ozzie Newsome crafted the first of two Super Bowl-winning rosters for Baltimore. The Ravens would become a relative model of stability.
Meanwhile Cleveland, which was granted a new incarnation of the Browns in 1999, became an example of instability. Since the NFL’s return in 1999, Cleveland has reached the playoffs once (2002), experienced only two winning seasons (the last in 2007) and cycled through nine head coaches. Owner Jimmy Haslam is already on his third head coaching hire (Hue Jackson) since buying the club in 2012.
As for Belichick, he’s enacted the plan he first explained to Modell under Kraft for the last 17 seasons in New England. It’s helped bear the fruits of six conference crowns and four Super Bowl titles, and bred continuity in stark contrast to most around the league.
“I think it’s hard to have consistency and stability in this profession. It’s a very volatile profession,” former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, now a television analyst for CBS, remarked during the 2015 NFL Combine. “I’m always curious as to why more teams don’t look to see how (the Patriots) go about doing their business. And the one thing they’ve done a great job of, they’ve created a lot of continuity and consistency around the quarterback. The players come and go, coaches come and go, but there’s consistency around Tom Brady.”
Gannon observed that when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left for Notre Dame, Josh McDaniels had been groomed as heir apparent. When McDaniels was hired by Denver, Bill O’Brien moved up on the staff. Before O’Brien headed to Penn State, McDaniels was lured back to Foxborough to resume the role. And when opportunity calls McDaniels again, his successor will likely be someone already on the inside.
“The system is never changed. It’s continued to evolve, grow and develop but it hasn’t changed,” Gannon says. “To me, that’s the brilliance of Bill Belichick. He’s going to promote from within (and) he’s not going to bring in someone from outside the building who doesn’t know the players, the system or the organization in terms of how they go about their business.”
Of course, as Gannon states, there’s consistency around Brady — and consistency in Brady. Except for an injury-shortened 2008 and suspension-starting 2016, he’s been a constant at quarterback. Having him back on Sunday is, in essence, a return to normalcy for the Patriots. They’ve won 172 games when Brady’s quarterbacking and Belichick’s coaching.
During that same period, from Week 3 of 2001 thru Week 4 of 2016, the Browns have won 81 times. Along with all the losing, uncertainty under center has been their business as usual. They’ve started a startling 26 different quarterbacks since re-entering the NFL.
In 1999 Cleveland drafted quarterback Tim Couch first overall. It subsequently invested three more first-round picks into the position; choosing Brady Quinn (2007), Brandon Weeden (2012) and Johnny Manziel (2014). The Browns also spent draft picks on Luke McCown (4th round, 2004), Charlie Frye (3rd round, 2005), Colt McCoy (3rd round, 2010) and Cody Kessler (3rd round, 2016).
All but Couch have trusted the same left tackle to protect their blind sides. As a nine-time Pro Bowler, Joe Thomas has endured repeated tear downs and attempted re-builds, and seen teammates constantly come and go as a consequence of an organization in flux.
“That’s one of the frustrations that I’ve had over the years and that’s the problem when you constantly are hitting the reset button is guys that are really good players like that end up falling through the cracks or going to other teams,” Thomas said this week of an annual exodus of talented teammates. “Because any time a new staff comes in, basically they wipe out the middle class. They keep a couple of your superstars and then they want everyone else being a rookie so that they can try to develop them.”
His opponent on Sunday features both superstars and a large middle class. Just three years ago Thomas saw Brady throw touchdown passes to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the final 61 seconds, as the Patriots rallied from a 12-point deficit to a 27-26 victory over the Browns. Only six players on Cleveland’s roster for that Dec. 8, 2013 encounter remain with the Browns.
They were coached then by Rob Chudzinski, who gave way to Mike Pettine, who was replaced by Jackson. Of the coordinators and position coaches, only special teams coordinator Chris Tabor and his aide Shawn Mennenga have been part of all three regimes.
On Wednesday Jackson spoke about his coaching counterpart this weekend, as well as the quarterback around whom Belichick has created such remarkable continuity; thanks in great part to a plan first implemented in Cleveland.
“We all are envious of what they have. I know I am,” Jackson said. “I want our organization to model that someday. That’s what we’re chasing.”
Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.