Phil Perry

Belichick: Early Pats, Browns teams needed four years to hit their stride

The Patriots are entering Year 4 of the post-Tom Brady era.

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Hungry for Patriots-related roster-building nuggets this time of year, about a month before the team hits the field for training camp? Of course you are.

How about one unearthed by chief roster-builder Bill Belichick?

Four years. One presidential term. That's about how long it took Belichick to build up the two franchises he's coached -- the Browns and Patriots -- into good teams, he told The 33rd Team in a lengthy one-on-one interview with site founder Mike Tannenbaum.

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That might serve as a source of optimism for some Patriots fans headed into 2023. For others, it might be an indicator that their team is behind schedule. Either way, that four-year time period Belichick highlighted should pique your interest. The Patriots, of course, are in Year 4 following Tom Brady's free-agent departure.

Are this year's Patriots ready to launch into the conversation as among the best in the NFL the way Belichick's team did in 2003? Are they in line for a double-digit win season after a below-.500 year like the one the Browns pulled off in 1994?

"I was very fortunate."

It's fair to use Brady's arrival in Tampa Bay as the red-and-pewter line of demarcation for Belichick and his team as we try to identify fair expectations for 2023.

The roster had to be reshaped. The team-building approach had to change. There had to be a recalibration. And to do it right, based on where they were talent-wise and with their salary cap, it became clear they believed they had to take their foot off the gas to begin.

It didn't have to be a complete program overhaul, though. Belichick remained. The culture was in place. The skins on the wall still hung. There was residual buy-in to the system that couldn’t have existed in 2000.

The roster itself needed a re-imagining, though. That takes time.

While his tenure in Cleveland ended abruptly, time is what Belichick was initially afforded by Browns owner Art Modell when he took over as a first-year head coach.

"I was very fortunate in Cleveland to have the opportunity to build a complete system," Belichick said. "To work with Mike Lombardi on the personnel side... On the football side of it with coach (Nick) Saban, with Scott O'Brien on special teams, Kirk Ferentz. People like that. And then to put it all together. 

"Unfortunately it didn't completely work out, but I felt like by '94 we had put together a pretty good football team and organization there considering where it was before we started, and really without free agency."

Back in 1991, Belichick took over a team that had gone 3-13 the previous season. He went 6-10 in his first year, made apparent his football values, built a scouting system with Lombardi, and then went 7-9 the following two years. In 1994, Cleveland went 11-5 and beat the Patriots in the Wild Card Round before losing to the Steelers in the Divisional Round.

"The same basic four-year window."

Even though the 2001 Patriots caught fire with Brady in his second year, it wasn't until a couple of seasons later that Belichick believed his team had been fully formed.

"You know, '96 was a big year for me here in New England," Belichick said. "Developed a great relationship with Mr. (Robert) Kraft and other people in the organization. When the opportunity came in 2000, even though this team was nowhere near the team we left in '96 -- it had declined quite a bit -- there were still some pillars here that we could build with.

"I would say that by '03 -- even though we won in '01 -- that this was a pretty, pretty good football team in all three phases of the game. It kind of took the same basic four-year window that it took in Cleveland. We were fortunate to win in '01, but I would say by '03, '04 we had one of the better teams in the league."

Belichick's revelation isn't new, as a matter of fact. When I asked Belichick about his friend Chip Kelly after Kelly was fired by the Eagles in 2015, he openly lamented how coaches oftentimes don't get the opportunity to establish themselves and their organizational visions the way they he did in Cleveland and New England. Kelly was at the end of his third season as head coach when he was fired in Philadelphia.

"I would say it’s really disappointing," Belichick said at the time. "I mean Chip Kelly, to me, is a really good football coach. I think he does a great job. I think he’s done a good job with that team. It’s disappointing to see. Or Josh [McDaniels] in Denver. There are a lot of examples, but pretty much everybody is on a one-year contract in this league. I don’t know how you build a program in one year. Chip is a great coach. He’ll end up somewhere and he’ll do a great job there. I’d say a lot of the players that were on the Eagles that are no longer on the Eagles aren’t really doing too much for anybody else, either."

"How long do you think it took you to insert your program here?" I asked him. "Do you feel like it took a couple years?"

"Yeah," Belichick said. "Probably '03."

"Because of the personnel decisions you have to make?" I followed up.

"No, just because of everything," Belichick said. "You have to change the culture. You have to change the ... I mean, normally one coach is different from the previous coach. You don’t see a lot of whoever the first coach is, the second coach is kind of the carbon copy of the first coach, the third coach is kind of a carbon copy of the second coach. I mean, you rarely see that. The coach that comes in usually has a different philosophy than the coach that left, so you have to try to implement that philosophy. 

"That means you’re going to turn over a high percentage of the roster because the players that the other coach had don’t fit the new philosophy, so a lot of the players are going to have to change in part because of the philosophy and probably in part because of the scheme. Those role-type players, now that role is not needed in the new scheme and a different role is needed, so you get different players. 

"And then just getting your team acclimated to doing things the way that the philosophy of the new program. You’re going to have to go through a lot of tough situations – tough games, tough losses, tough stretches in the season, whatever it happens to be, to build that up over time. It doesn’t happen in training camp. I mean look, training camp is training camp, but those games don’t count. Even in the early part of the season, you might have some tough games, but it’s not like playing in January, playing in December. It takes some time to go through that. I don’t think there is any shortcut to it. 

"I know there are a lot of other people in the league that think there is, that after two weeks all of a sudden everything is going to change dramatically, but I’m not really part of that, I don’t buy into that. So, I mean, we won in '01. In '02, we had a lot of issues. (In) ’03, that was a good football team. (In) ’04, that was a good football team.

"I don’t think there was any doubt about ... '01 wasn’t the best team, but that team played the best, so we won. But I think we saw in '02 more of probably overall where the '01 team was. Just the '01 team played great when they had to in critical situations in big games, and that’s why they won. You can’t take anything away from them. They deserved it because they were the best team. But it wasn’t the case in '02."

Time to contend again?

The question is, where is Belichick's team now, four years into building a team without the greatest player in the history of the league?

Comparing the Patriots in the early aughts to now reveals some parallels. In 2000, as was the case in 2020 (the first year of life post-Brady), Belichick did what he could to reset his cap. He took his lumps. In Year 2, he found an inexpensive young quarterback and made the postseason. In Year 3, in both scenarios, Belichick's teams took steps back from a wins-and-losses standpoint (they went 9-7 in 2002) as the build continued.

We know what happened in Year 4 back in 2003. The Patriots rattled off 15 wins in a row and won the Super Bowl.

It would be a stretch to expect the current iteration of the Patriots to mirror that rise. But winning a playoff game -- a feat Kraft highlighted as a goal last offseason -- should be within reach. And they have one advantage the earlier version of the Patriots didn't. In his latest build, Belichick isn't taking over for another coach. He isn't having to boot out players who just don't fit his paradigm, making room for others who do. He isn't having to reset player mindsets the way he did when he took over from Pete Carroll 23 years ago.

That, in theory, should've made this reboot smoother than the last rebuild. It's more complicated than that, though. Belichick and the Patriots spent a record sum in free agency in 2021; it was treated like it was a time to contend rather than Year 2 of a long-term project. Additionally, Kraft has been wanting a winner for multiple seasons, not content with finishes that have left his team outside the postseason in two of the last three years and without a playoff win since winning Super Bowl 53. Expectations have exceeded what would be typical for a team in a more obvious reconstruction.

But this is not a traditional tear-down-and-begin-again situation. It's not Foxboro in 2000. It's not Cleveland in 1991. Going from having Brady to not having Brady, while seismic, didn't mean hitting the reset button on the entire operation.

Nevertheless, there's a building process that's taken place at One Patriot Place. And it's been given a healthy runway -- a "four-year window," as Belichick put it -- to yield results. Based on his track record, and with his recent commentary as a reminder, the time for his program to take off (again) is now.

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