Curran: As Belichick turns 70, is he winding down or just getting started?

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Bill Belichick begins his eighth decade on the planet Saturday.

Seventy years old. Still grinding. Still inimitably, unapologetically, stubbornly, brilliantly, warmly, churlishly, successfully Bill.

The inevitable, critique/second-guessing portion of this column will come in a few paragraphs. We keep trying to figure out whether we’re at the dawn of the 3.0 version of the Patriots Dynasty or the dusk of the greatest run by one coach with one team in the history of American professional sports.

So we scrutinize every future move and rehash every past mistake trying to see if the Patriots will escape mediocrity.

If there’s not as much daily appreciation articulated, well, that’s kind of how he trained us to be. This is a guy who tried to lead a “No Days Off!!!” chant at the end of a championship parade in early 2017 to a massive crowd of people who were likely SKIPPING WORK TO BE THERE!

His relentlessness in pursuing excellence and attaining it made thirsty little monsters out of us.

He’s trained us to expect championships. Do you know how foreign and foolish that concept would have seemed when Robert Kraft hired a 48-year-old Belichick in January 2000?

In the 22 years before Belichick got here, the Patriots went to the playoffs eight times. They finished first in the AFC East four times. They went to two AFC Championship games and two Super Bowls. They never won more than 11 games in the regular season. They were under .500 seven times.

And since? They’ve finished first the AFC East 17 times. They went to 13 AFC Championship Games and nine Super Bowls, winning six. They won 12 or more games 13 times. They’ve been under .500 twice.

So it’s no surprise that fans, media and Kraft -- who lamented last month the team’s three-year drought between playoff wins -- are all drumming their fingers impatiently for Belichick to create another team that annually ends up in the NFL’s Final Four.

A lot of the current scrutiny comes flavored with a, "OK, so what now Hooded Genius?" tone. Mine does. Which is a little ungrateful, I know. Covering this team during this span -- from 1997 into 2022 -- has me in the 99th percentile of all-time luckiest sportswriters. I’m not too stupid to realize that if Kraft didn’t hire Belichick and Belichick didn’t draft Brady, my life would look differently.

But Belichick, being so unapologetically Bill, has invited and embraced the scrutiny and the second-guessing ever since he got here. The invitation comes with a smugness, no doubt. His go-to line of, "Just doing what’s best for the team…" is code for: "Don’t ask. I’m not explaining myself to you. Just sit there and cheer, boo, write, or talk into your microphone. Doesn’t matter to me."

The thing is, Belichick at his core is so absurdly unconventional -- Charlie Pierce wrote a great column a decade ago calling Belichick "the last real anarchist" -- that he’s going to provide endless fodder for those who’ll swear by him and those who swear about him.

And sometimes, those people -- like me -- do both.

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Was Bill an idiot when he started Brady over Bledsoe, cut Lawyer Milloy, traded Drew Bledsoe, signed Corey Dillon, traded for Randy Moss, cut Randy Moss, traded for Aqib Talib, let Wes Welker get away, traded Logan Mankins, traded Chandler Jones, traded Jamie Collins, didn’t call timeout in the waning moments of SB49, pushed Tom Brady by drafting Jimmy Garoppolo, didn’t pay Malcolm Butler, and went to a primitive offense in 2018? Don’t think so.  

Was he a genius when he benched Butler in a Super Bowl, believed Garoppolo was a credible Brady successor, slow-played Brady all the way out the door, spent draft pick after draft pick in the past decade on players who literally couldn’t play for him at all and is now entering a season with no named coordinators? Not really (although we’ll see on the coordinators).

Bill Belichick is nothing if not a dichotomy. His entire outward persona is geared toward proving that he doesn’t GAF for pomp, circumstance or adornments. He usually dresses like he’s getting ready to paint the garage. He doesn’t seem to go in much for lapel-pin level activism. He PRINTS his autograph for God’s sake. Simple. Authentic. Nothing to see here.

And yet you don’t go out and sign Tim Tebow -- to pluck one of what could be a dozen examples -- if you don’t kind of relish the scrutiny and second-guessing that will come with it.

During his 23 years here in New England, the second-guessing has mostly been for naught. Bill Belichick’s taken the road less traveled and -- even when it looked like he was walking off into the woods -- it’s led him right where he wanted to go.

Nobody truly knows when Belichick’s coaching journey’s will end. I wouldn’t be surprised if Belichick himself didn’t have it locked down -- he’s said in the past that sometimes the best decision is making no decision at all. Nobody knows how it’s going to end either.

When it does, the NFL will never, ever be the same. It’s been Bill’s world. We’ve all just been riding on it while it spins.

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