Vince Lombardi is probably the most quoted coach in the history of American sports. His expressions have evolved from pearls of wisdom bridging multiple eras into certifiable coachspeak and boardroom cliché. Stands to reason. He’s on the short list of the greatest coaches ever and until the rise of Bill Belichick and his pro football dynasty in New England, without question the greatest – read most successful — football coach of all time.
Yes, Lombardi was the GOAT before anyone thought to make an acronym of it. I’m not fond of that particular expression or the acronym either, but what the hell. When it fits, it fits.
Sunday (Feb. 5, 2017) night in Houston, Belichick hoisted the trophy that has Lombardi’s name on it for the fifth time. His Patriots had just outlasted and outflanked the Atlanta Falcons in the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, crashing the gasping birds in the first overtime in the big game’s 51 years, 34-28. Of all the Super Bowl wins Belichick has helmed, co-captained by trusty quarterback Tom Brady, it was the most improbable.
And yet it was clearly the most old school, which is why so many missed what was unfolding as it happened. It was 1960s era football, played with a modern sensibility that masked the grinding that occurred when New England was on offense. It was a page out of the old “run to daylight” Green Packers playbook only with Brady’s arm and interchangeable receivers instead of the old power sweep. Ultimately, it was Lombardiesque, quintessential football.
And as the game concluded one Lombardi quote echoed in my head. “The harder you work the harder it is to surrender.”
The quote is one I first read in Jerry Kramer’s classic football diary “Instant Replay,” a book that chronicled Green Bay’s 1967 season, a year that included the legendary Ice Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL title game via a breathtaking drive engineered by a little-regarded but big-time winning quarterback named Bart Starr. The milestone season was capped by Green Bay’s victory in Super Bowl II over AFL champ Oakland. It was essentially Lombardi’s fifth NFL championship. He led three others with Starr in the pre-Super Bowl era.
Lombardi and Starr; Belichick and Brady – the pairings and successes are hardly coincidental.
Sunday night, Belichick tied Lombardi’s mark for NFL titles won. And while Belichick is not nearly so quotable – in fact his most noteworthy statements are usually bad attempts at humor or his own verbal clumsiness, he’s every bit the tactician, leader and motivator Lombardi was. Lombardi’s teams were always more prepared than the opposition, and it began in training camp when he worked players into shape driven by the mantra, “The harder you work the harder it is to surrender.” No team would be physically or mentally superior in terms of strength to a Lombardi-coached team. The same is true in New England. No team would be better prepared either – for any circumstance.
And that includes being down 28-3 at halftime as New England was on Sunday.
Yes, at the half the Patriots looked almost finished. The Atlanta Falcons defense created two uncharacteristic turnovers, quashed the run, harassed Brady and looked quicker than the suddenly feeble-appearing Patriots. In the meantime, though, the Patriots were methodically holding on to the football, chewing up yards and time with the short passing game that Brady and his steady if unspectacular but sure-handed receivers have made a trademark in recent years. As Brady has aged, the Patriots don’t stretch the field with long passes as much as they have in the past, instead they have created a low-risk pass and run style of play that maximizes ball control and clock control. It’s Lombardi football. It’s Bill Parcells football — the latter one of Belichick’s mentors.
Sunday it sneaked up on the Falcons, who clearly tired in the fourth quarter, made a couple of critical mistakes, then were helpless on defense as Brady carved up the birds. Brady ended with almost as many completions (43) as the Falcons had offensive plays (46). That’s one of the most telling stats in Super Bowl history. The Patriots has 37 first downs. The Falcons had 17 — an absurd discrepancy in a game so closely contested. The Patriots piled up an astounding 93 offensive plays compared to just 46 for Atlanta.
No wonder the defense was pooped.
In short, New England was more physically and mentally prepared to play hard on every down in every quarter and overtime – because they always are. That goes to coaching, which goes to Belichick. The Patriots style of play, experience and preparation simply wore down a Falcons team that also became lost in the big moment. It’s not uncommon for teams unaccustomed to the grand stage to take a step back or two before moving forward.
So is Belichick the greatest pro football coach ever? Has he surpassed Vince Lombardi? Hard to say, but it’s certainly a great discussion. My biggest fault with the modern propensity for labeling the next gifted player or coach the “Greatest of All Time” is that it’s often impossible to ascertain. Players and coaches can only be truly compared to those who competed in their own times. Lombardi faced fewer rounds of playoffs; Belichick has greater leeway to obtain players due to free agency and bigger budgets. Media coverage is different now than it was then. The list goes on and on. And then, of course, there are the matters of Spygate and the furor over deflated footballs a couple of years ago. Spygate in particular is a mark against Belichick.
But I do believe Lombardi and Belichick share much in common. That was apparent on Sunday night when the Patriots used old-school, ball-control football and found a way to win the way Lombardi-coached teams always used to.
Only without, you know, the memorable quote from the coach.