- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2008

The excellence of the New England Patriots creates the sort of entertaining and frustrating debates that compare this excellence to the excellence of the past — the great Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s, the Dolphins and Steelers of the 1970s, the 49ers and Redskins of the 1980s and the Cowboys of the 1990s. Go back further, there are the Monsters of the Midway, the Chicago Bears.

Who was the best of all time? It is nearly impossible to make the case for one over the other because so many different mitigating factors come into play.

The one way I found to make comparisons is by the number of Hall of Famers on a team to determine which was one the best. The problem with that, of course, is that time has to pass before anyone can make a far comparison of some of these teams, since some — from the Dolphins of the 1970s to the Redskins of the 1980s to the Cowboys of the 1990s — had great players who may still get into Canton.

Individual comparisons are even trickier. The Patriots’ success has put Tom Brady in the mix in the debate among the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. Brady’s record-setting year and championship career puts him right there with Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway and Johnny Unitas, among others.

He often gets excluded, maybe for reasons that he plays Gomer Pyle on the Fox football telecasts, but Terry Bradshaw has four Super Bowl rings, and while Bart Starr’s numbers may not compare with a Marino or Montana, he led the Packers to five NFL championships.

If winning is a measure, then someone better start mentioning Starr’s name. And where does Otto Graham and seven pro football championships fit in?

This historic New England season also puts into play the debate about coaches — who was the greatest NFL coach of all time?

George Halas, one of the founders of the league, who coached the Chicago Bears for 40 seasons, winning six NFL titles? Vince Lombardi, who coached the Packers to five NFL championships, then came to Washington and led the Redskins to their first winning season in 14 years? Don Shula, with 490 career victories and two Super Bowl titles with the Dolphins?

If the Patriots defeat the New York Giants tomorrow, I vote for the small guy with the hooded sweatshirt — New England coach Bill Belichick. He will be the best ever to walk the sideline in the NFL.

A win tomorrow would give Belichick his fourth Super Bowl championship since the 2001 season and to accomplish that in this age of free agency, when teams can build a winner and collapse within a few years, is much more difficult than the dominance the other great coaches exerted over their eras.

And you could make that case that it will be his fifth Super Bowl championship because, for all intents and purposes, the New York Giants’ 20-19 win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV was Belichick’s and not Bill Parcells’.

Belichick’s defensive game plan against the high-powered Bills offense was so remarkable that it is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with the jacket he wore that day — a Giants jacket (pre-sweatshirt days). It is important to note that despite all the accolades for Parcells as a head coach, the fact is that the stop where he had the least success on the sidelines — Dallas — was the only place where Belichick was not part of his staff.

Also, his personality, or, at least publicly, lack of personality, makes him all the more impressive. It may be aggravating for the press to have to deal with Belichick and his dour demeanor on daily basis, but from afar, you have to marvel at it. He is consistent and unwavering in his monotone style, unflappable, even during Spygate. It’s almost like a pro wrestling persona.

Great coaches are often larger-than-life figures. Belichick does everything he can not to call attention to himself. Sometimes all you see is just a hooded sweatshirt with no visible face. You’ve got to admire that sort of single-mindedness, because you know he can’t possible be that way with his players.

You can’t get men in this day and age to follow you without having some leadership and character that breeds the sort of devotion and loyalty his players show. You rarely, if ever, hear a malcontent peep out of the Patriots locker room, and you can see players hug him on the sidelines after a big win. He has created a culture of winning that is so strong that a headache like Randy Moss even falls in line.

A good part of that admiration is his brilliance and the confidence he gives his players that they will win if they follow the Belichick game plan.

But it can’t all be that. The dud who appears before those microphones and says nothing is the same guy who inspired the great Jim Brown, who runs the social services program called Amer-I-Can, to tell ESPN The Magazine that Belichick is “one of the people in America who has saved lives. He’s donated money. He’s helped us get contracts. He’s been to prisons and schools with me. I don’t know a more honorable person.”

How many people do you think Jim Brown says that about?

So if the Patriots triumph tomorrow, at the very least, Bill Belichick will have to have a place in that Mount Rushmore of coaching. Or maybe a monument of his own — a granite hooded sweatshirt.

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