America’s arbiters of sports history have already christened it 'The Comeback', joining 'The Catch', 'The Drive' and various other capitalised nouns in the history of the NFL. It was a record-breaking, dynasty-defining fourth-quarter rally that saw the New England Patriots stun the Atlanta Falcons by tying the game at 28-28 in regulation, and then march down the field on the first possession of overtime to claim their fifth Super Bowl win in 15 years.
On Monday, much of the attention was on Tom Brady, with his male model looks and his actual supermodel wife Giselle Bündchen. Having looked mediocre and out of sorts for three quarters, Brady pulled his finger out and was mesmerising in the last 15 minutes. He picked apart the Atlanta defence and set a record for the highest number of pass attempts and total passing yards in a Super Bowl.
Brady now smirks alone on the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks, his five Super Bowl rings putting him one ahead of Terry Bradshaw of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers and Joe Montana of the 1980s San Francisco 49ers. Bart Starr of the Green Packers also won five championships, but two of his were in the pre-Super Bowl era, so he barely gets a mention.
For a Patriots' fan, the arc of their hero’s journey was made all the sweeter by the fact that Brady had been suspended for the first four games of the season because of the Deflate-gate scandal. The accusation that he knowingly used soft balls to get a better grip in the cold was obviously a gift from God for stand-up comics, but also a very serious issue in Boston, as it wasn’t the first time the Patriots had been accused of dirty tricks.
Inevitably, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was loudly booed as he tried to present the Lombardi trophy to the winners. Having lifted the silverware aloft, Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft wasted no time in putting the boot in, using his speech to highlight 'everything we’ve had to overcome in the last two years', while Goodell stood awkwardly in the background with a plastic smile to match his plastic hair.
As I lay on the sofa on Sunday night hoovering up the finest array of snack food America had to offer, I had the Scottish epiphany that Patriots' coach Bill Belichick is the Alex Ferguson of American football. A quick Google search showed that I’m not the first person to draw the comparison, but it’s still worth digging into it a little to understand the many parallels between the two men.
Both coaches were hired mid-career to resuscitate ailing franchises and then created dominant teams that were reliable and enduring winners. In Ferguson’s case, he had 27 years to shape his legacy, while Belichick is at 17 and counting. With United, the dominance of football in the UK means that the only meaningful comparison is with teams of the past within the same sport.
Ferguson had to deal with both the ghosts of Munich, but also living legends like Bobby Charlton and Matt Busby who were still wandering the halls of Old Trafford when he arrived. The Patriots
had never won a championship before Belichick was hired, but the team lived in the shadow of a Celtics basketball franchise that had won 16 titles for Boston, plus baseball and hockey teams that had also brought multiple 'world championships' to the city.
But the real similarity lies not in their circumstances, their longevity, or even in their achievements, but instead in their attitude to the job of managing a professional sports team. As a duo, they are notoriously well balanced, with matching chips on both shoulders. They subscribe to an 'us against the world' mentality that simultaneously energises their own fan base while turning almost everyone else in the sport against them. To be part of their teams is to be part of an extended family, a family of which they are reflexively protective, even when the weight of evidence on any particular issue is damning.
Discipline for both men has always been an internal matter, and while Belichick doesn’t have the hairdryer reputation and boot-kicking track record of Sir Alex, he is known as a tough but fair disciplinarian. Despite the crusty public personas, they are also both known as 'player-coaches' who look to develop deep personal bonds of trust with players as an element of their man management, but woe betide anyone who breaks the omerta code and discusses family business with outsiders.
Like Ferguson, the famously taciturn Belichick doesn’t see it as his job to engage the media in banter, or to do anything except fulfil the bare minimum of public niceties. His unwillingness at press conferences to speculate, respond to rumours, or even to confirm who might be injured, would make him an ideal central bank governor. Also, like Ferguson, he doesn’t suffer fools at all, never mind gladly, and has no trouble giving the impression that everything outside the game and his team is a distraction to be ignored and often belittled.
They are also both masters of the dark arts of the needle: the ability with just a throwaway comment to get under the skin of opposition coaches and players. It’s the instinct to sniff out and prey on anxieties and weaknesses the other team doesn’t even know they have and plant psychological seeds that have a tendency to flower during critical passages of a game. For Ferguson, it was usually Arsene Wegner who could be relied on to take the bait, while for Belichick, Rex Ryan, the big-hearted and congenial coach of division rivals Jets and Bills has been a long-term target; and you suspect that, like Ferguson, Belichick enjoys the mind games almost as much as he does the action on the pitch.
The two coaches also share a level of self-belief that can be intimidating for opponents. Back in the day, there used to be something called 'Fergie Time' – that period as the clock was winding down when Manchester United were always at their most dangerous. It happened with a regularity that suggested much more than chance, the most famous example being the last few minutes of the 1999 European Cup final at the Nou Camp when United scored twice to snatch the trophy from Bayern Munich. Over time their knack for scoring walk-off goals created a sense of dread and anxiety in opposing defences, no matter how comfortable they had felt during the rest of the game.
You could see exactly the same thing happen to the Atlanta defence on Sunday night. As the Patriots started to claw their way back, Belichick stood impassive on the sidelines directing traffic with a look that never betrayed anything except absolute confidence that, having spotted the Falcons a 25-point lead, it was destiny that he would guide his team to the title. While not outwardly as emotional as Ferguson, who would stalk the sidelines berating officials, Belichick's scowling, dishevelled presence towards the end of a game embodies the promise that no lead is ever big enough, and that if you show any sign of mental or physical weakness, the mega-brain coaching mastermind will undoubtedly punish you.
A final critical parallel with Ferguson is that it’s in Belichick’s DNA that no one player is bigger than the team. He is notorious for making role player stars, and resurrecting has-beens discarded by other teams, only to then trade them when they get too big for their boots. The message is that, whatever you may think, it is the Patriots’ system that has made you successful. Running back James White, who scored three touchdowns on Sunday night and should have been the MVP, was elevated from obscurity through outstanding coaching and play calling. If history is a guide, he is also likely either to return to relative anonymity or be traded to a team who will overpay for him in the belief that he can be their saviour too.
Like Ferguson, Belichick has an eye for talent. Not only the raw kind, but also the journeyman jigsaw piece that completes the team picture. But he also has no compunction about regularly cleaning the house to renew the team. A measure of his obsessive focus is that he famously called a fringe player on Christmas Day to cut him from the roster in order to make room for another defensive back. While other coaches were likely taking a day off, workaholic Belichick was obsessing about his team. Like Sir David Brailsford of UK Cycling, Belichick will aggressively dismantle the bike of a winning team to get small marginal advantages, while also completely divorcing himself from any emotional baggage that goes with it, because ultimately only the team matters.
The exception that proves the rule about no one being bigger than the team is obviously Belichick’s relationship with Tom Brady. Like United’s legendary 'Class of 92' that included Beckham, Scholes and the Neville brothers, Brady was thrown into the starting lineup as a young understudy. When the star quarterback of the team went down injured early in the 2001 season, Brady seized his opportunity by taking the team to the playoffs that year and securing the job for the next 17 years.
With the single tier structure of the NFL, there was never the temptation of a Real Madrid or Barcelona to lure either Belichick or Brady away from Boston, and part of the fascination of the story is the continuity of their partnership. One of the more illuminating statistics thrown around Monday morning was that, while both Brady and Belichick are locks to be elected first ballot to the Pro-Football Hall of Fame, no other player who has played on the Patriots during the 17-year, five Super Bowl B-B era has even been nominated for that honour. They have just been the supporting cast.
Ultimately, the thing that is probably hardest for most people to grasp is that neither man has ever shown any need or desire to be loved. Almost all of us have some sort of human craving to be liked, but for these two coaches, respect is all that matters, and in sports you only get true respect when you show that you can win on a consistent basis. With neither Belichick nor Brady showing any signs that they intend to retire, once again the rest of the NFL needs to start taking their bikes apart again to try and make them better for next season.
With Sir Alex now spending at least part of each year in New York City, maybe there will even be a quiet dinner with Belichick one night in an out-of-the-way Italian restaurant to compare notes on Machiavelli’s proposition that it is better to be feared than loved.