Belichick’s mentoring might provide an advantage
His former assistants have fared better against coach than most others have
FOXBOROUGH — It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Bill Belichick in the hooded role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but in his 22 years as an NFL head coach, he has not cultivated a Darth Vaderesque foil. There has never been a sustained threat by a student against the master, nor a longstanding run of success by a Belichick disciple that forced the sort of reexamination of relationships and contributions to past successes that followed Belichick’s liberation from the shadow of Bill Parcells.
In many ways, when Bill O’Brien leads the Texans into Foxborough on Saturday, he will do so as the most successful Belichick acolyte in the NFL to date. Already, O’Brien has led the Texans into more playoff games (the divisional round against the Patriots will mark his third in three years at the helm) than any other product of the Belichick coaching tree.
Of course, the bar O’Brien has cleared was hardly daunting. The prior standard-setters for playoff appearances by former Belichick assistants were Eric Mangini and Jim Schwartz, each of whom enjoyed one one-anddone ride in the NFL playoffs. O’Brien is the first (and, to date, only) former Belichick assistant with a playoff victory on his NFL head coaching résumé.
Nonetheless, it’s worth asking: Do former New England assistants enjoy more success against Belichick than others?
Small sample intriguing
The sample is insufficient to draw anything more than superficial conclusions, but they are at the least intriguing. The seven former Belichick staffers who become head coaches in the NFL — O’Brien, Mangini, Schwartz, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel, Al Groh and Josh McDaniels — have played Belichick a total of 19 times. The group owns a collective 8-11 record (.421) against their former tutor — and it’s 6-11 (.353) if one excludes Groh’s 2-0 record with the Jets against the Patriots in 2000, before the start of New England’s perennial contention for championships.
That hardly seems like an impressive run, but it’s worth noting that even a 6-11 mark (6-10 in the regular season, with one playoff loss) from 2001-16 qualifies as relatively robust compared with the performance of the other coaches who have opposed Belichick. Since 2001, teams coached by someone who wasn’t a Belichick staffer have just a .208 winning percentage against the Patriots in the regular season.
So Belichick’s ex-assistants — in a terribly limited sample — have enjoyed a regular-season winning percentage that is roughly 70 percent better than the rest of the league during the era of Patriots’ dominance. The group has won just over one out of every three contests while the rest of the NFL has won roughly one out of every five regular-season games against the Patriots. Cracking the Brady code
O’Brien, however, has yet to beat his former boss, having gone 0-2.
Crennel, now O’Brien’s defensive coordinator with the Texans, hasn’t been able to crack the code of stopping Tom Brady. The Patriots quarterback is 3-0 with a 62.1 percent completion rate, seven TDs and no picks along with a 112.0 passer rating against Crennel-coached defenses.
Mangini came the closest to enjoying rivalry status against Belichick for a number of reasons. He coached a Jets team that represented his former team’s foremost rival. His teams typically proved competitive against Belichick, with the Jets earning one regular-season split and one sweep against the Patriots. His defenses proved unusually adept at containing Brady (and, in 2008, Matt Cassel), limiting New England to 20 or fewer points in four of eight games.
And, of course, Mangini inspired some of the most scrutinized and frostiest postgame handshakes in NFL history after the Jets put the Patriots in the NFL’s crosshairs early in 2007 by lodging the complaint with the league that turned into Spygate.
That said, in the game of greatest consequence between Mangini and Belichick, New England crushed the Jets, 37-16, in an AFC divisional game in 2006, the only playoff matchup between the Patriots and one of Belichick’s former staffers.
O’Brien will come to Foxborough attempting to do what Mangini could not: claim a playoff victory against the team with whom he received his NFL education.
If the Texans can pull off such a shock-the-world upset, then O’Brien would truly cement his distinctive place among former Belichick assistants who eventually took control of their own programs.
New England head coach Bill Belichick is 11-8 against his former assistants.