The Other McCain

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The End of Two Football Dynasties

Posted on | January 13, 2024 | Comments Off on The End of Two Football Dynasties

In the span of 24 hours this week, we learned that Nick Saban would retire as head football coach at the University of Alabama, and that Bill Belichick would “part ways” with the New England Patriots. Can we take just a moment — before discussing anything else about this news — to extend our condolences to Cleveland Browns fans?

Understand that Cleveland has been a persistent loser in the NFL over the past 35 years. Not only have the Browns never won a Super Bowl, but they haven’t even won a division title since 1989. Three years ago, Cleveland fans were thrilled when the Browns actually won a wild card playoff game against Pittsburgh, and this season, they’re hoping that elderly quarterback Joe Flacco — who began the season sitting on his sofa as a free agent — might be able to break their Super Bowl jinx.

Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say Browns fans are actually “hoping” for anything, though; football fans in Cleveland have pretty much accepted that they’re doomed. Nothing illustrates Cleveland’s ill fate better than the story of Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. After Belichick had spent 12 years as an assistant to Bill Parcells with the New York Giants, winning two Super Bowls, Cleveland hired Belichick as their head coach in 1991. Belichick hired Saban as his defensive coordinator, and you might think — with two coaches who would later be hailed the greatest in football history — that this would betide championships for the Browns.

Alas, there is no escaping the Cleveland Curse. During the four years of the Belichick-Saban era in Cleveland, the Browns won 36 games and lost 44. Their best season under Belichick, in 1994, Cleveland posted an 11-5 record, just one game behind the AFC Central champion Pittsburgh Steelers, and won a wild card playoff against the Patriots before being eliminated in the next round by the Steelers. After the 1995 season, the corrupt owner Art Modell fired Bill Belichick, and moved his team to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens. Cleveland had to wait four years before they got a new Browns franchise under NFL expansion.

That connection between the Cleveland Browns and the two greatest football coaches of all time gives an ironic mirth to the double-whammy news that struck this week in Tuscaloosa and Boston. The media covering the Patriots had spent weeks saying that the team would get rid of Belichick after this 5-12 season, New England’s worst record in more than 30 years. But the retirement of Saban was unexpected. Alabama fans were happy that the Crimson Tide had beaten Georgia for the SEC title this year, and had returned to the college football championship playoffs, even if ’Bama did come up short against eventual champion Michigan.

Saban has always said that the biggest part of success in college football is recruiting, and his advancing age made that more difficult. At age 72, could he promise recruits that he would be there for their whole four years? And so, wanting to do what was best for Alabama, he made the decision to retire, after winning six national championships in 17 seasons at Tuscaloosa. Belichick’s exist from New England was less graceful, although both the coach and Patriots owner Robert Kraft were polite and diplomatic in their announcement of the decision to “part ways,” the reality is that, since Tom Brady left after the 2019 season, Belichick has plunged the franchise into disaster. The six Super Bowl victories during the 20-year Belichick-Brady “dynasty” era are an increasingly distant memory, and New England fans can’t live off nostalgia — they want a winning team, and they want it now. Well, good luck with that.

The Patriots elevated linebackers coach Jerrod Mayo to replace Belichick, and my forecast is that he’ll last three years before getting replaced by the next head coach, and so on and so on, for probably another 10 or 15 years or so before New England again makes it to the Super Bowl. The Patriots franchise is broken, and fixing it will not be easy, mainly because the fans in New England have become hopelessly spoiled by the 20 years when Tom Brady made it seem like winning Super Bowls was easy.

High expectations are all fine and good, but the Patriots organization had lost its mojo even before Brady left. Their draft choices in recent years have been less than ideal, shall we say? In 2022, New England’s first-round pick (#29 overall) was an offensive guard, Cole Strange, from UT-Chattanooga, and their second-round pick (#50 oerall) was wide receive Tyquan Thornton from Baylor. Strange has had his struggles and injuries, but isn’t necessarily a bad player, but was he worth a first round pick? Good luck finding any pro football analyst who thinks so. As for Thornton, in two seasons, he’s caught 35 passes for 338 yards. And then you compare this to the players that the Patriots could have chosen instead in the same draft, e.g., University of Georgia wide receiver George Pickens, who ended up going to Pittsburgh in the second round (#52 overall) where he’s racked up 115 catches for nearly 2,000 yards. When it comes to evaluating rookie talent, the Patriots aren’t just missing by a few inches, they’re missing by miles. The classic example of this is N’Keal Harry, who was drafted by the Patriots in the first round in 2019, but who accomplished next to nothing before being traded to Chicago in 2022. Harry’s NFL career stats after four years — 64 catches for 714 yards. He wasn’t even on anybody’s roster for the 2023 season.

Again, you can’t evaluate how bad it really is without considering the players that New England could have drafted in 2019 instead of N’Keal Harry, whom they picked at #32 overall. Meanwhile, in the second round, the San Francisco 49ers used their pick (#36 overall) to take wide receiver Deebo Samuel from South Carolina. In five NFL season, Samuel has 283 catches for 4,122 yards. In the 2021 season, Samuel led the league in yards-per-catch and was named to the Pro Bowl.

Considering the importance of wide receivers in today’s NFL, wouldn’t you suppose that a team like the New England Patriots, who won six Super Bowls in 20 years, might have somebody in the building capable of assessing talent at this crucial position? But apparently not, and who was responsible for this failure? A guy named Bill Belichick, that’s who. As both head coach and general manager of the Patriots, Belichick had final say-so on all personnel decisions, and some of those decisions have been so bad that none of the analysts covering the team can explain how they happened. Getting rid of Belichick might be a first step toward fixing this problem, but New England’s front office is still staffed by the people Belichick hired, and the kind of incompetence that led to the Patriots throwing away first-round draft picks on no-talent players is likely to continue as long as those staffers remain. Beginning with a 4-13 team — worst record in the AFC — a rebuilding project is necessary, but unless the Patriots suddenly develop a knack for finding good draft picks, the team isn’t likely to improve anytime soon.

Alabama’s situation is less discouraging. They hired Kalen DeBoer, who took the University of Washington Huskies to the title game, to be the next head coach, and while I don’t think the Crimson Tide is likely to experience in the near future anything like the success Saban had during his tenure, it’s unlikely that Alabama will actually become a bad team. The tradition and prestige of the program are such that talented football players will keep going to Tuscaloosa, and they should be in the Top 10 at least for most preseason polls for years to come. If things go bad, however, DeBoer will get the boot. Alabama simply won’t tolerate a loser.

Thus does the Belichick-Saban era of football come to an end, and once again, we extend our condolences to Cleveland Browns fans.



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