Bill Belichick once flippantly declared he wouldn't be Marv Levy, coaching into his 70s, and too bad he didn't keep his word, because he could've spared his legacy an absolute shellacking.
Belichick could teach a graduate-level course on the game's great coaches, as anyone who has ever heard him hold court on Paul Brown or Curly Lambeau can attest. He knows their highs, he knows their lows, and deep down he knows he's going out as badly as any of them.
Fresh off another demoralizing loss, this one to the punchless Colts in Germany, Belichick now faces the real possibility that not only will his career end with an even quieter whimper than the likes of Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, or Dan Reeves, but that he will become Willie-Mays-with-the-Mets-like shorthand for the coach who suffers a staggering fall from grace.
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Belichick has a chance to deliver the worst final season of any great coach in history, and for the purposes of this exercise, we're assuming he retires with his 72nd birthday looming rather than starting over elsewhere. Of course, the allure of breaking Don Shula's wins record may prove irresistible, so we'll see.
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Speaking of Shula, he's often cited as a cautionary tale, as if Belichick wouldn't want to similarly embarrass himself tripping over the threshold on his way out the door. But we're actually getting the history wrong. While it's true that Shula didn't reach a Super Bowl over his final 11 seasons, it's also worth noting that he went 39-25 over his final four seasons, making the playoffs three times and winning a pair of postseason games. His career ended with a loss to the Bills in the 1995 AFC Wild Card game.
Belichick? He's at 27-33 over the last four years and fading fast. If the Patriots win only once more (a distinct possibility, given their schedule), Belichick will finish 28-39 over his final four seasons with just a single blowout loss in the postseason.
His .418 winning percentage would top only Lambeau (.352) and Dan Reeves (.392) among his compatriots all-time in wins over their final four seasons, but at least Reeves won a playoff game. The same can be said for Noll, who went 30-34 to end his Hall of Fame career, but in 1989 overcame a 4-6 start to reach the playoffs and win a round before taking the top-seeded Broncos to the final two minutes in Mile High Stadium.
Even Marty Schottenheimer, long derided as an unworthy foil of Belichick's, overcame a 4-12 record in 2003 to rebuild the Chargers and go 35-13 over his final three seasons, including a 14-2 walkoff in 2006 that Belichick's Patriots spoiled in the divisional round on Troy Brown's infamous strip of what should've been a game-ending interception.
It's possible that Belichick won't even go down as the greatest coach of this generation, not with Andy Reid at 47-12 over his last four years and a couple of Super Bowls on his resume. Reid has the Chiefs positioned to contend for yet another championship with quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and if the 65-year-old chooses to coach until he's 70, he could easily win another 65 games to surpass Belichick and make his own run at Shula.
Meanwhile, if Belichick finishes 3-14, he'll end up a half game worse than the previous standard for horrible endings, which was Landry's 3-13 with the 1988 Cowboys. Under the guidance of the legendary coach/GM duo of Landry and Tex Schramm, the Cowboys had fallen to the bottom of the NFC. A year later, Jimmy Johnson arrived, took both of their jobs, traded Herschel Walker, and in short order won consecutive Super Bowls.
The Patriots will probably be on the hunt for a similar savior this winter, because all empires eventually fall. That leaves Belichick, the man who once said he wouldn't be Marv Levy, wishing he could've resembled his maligned predecessor in at least one way – the legendary Bills coach made the playoffs in two of his final three seasons.