The Trade: Was Belichick to New England the Best Deal in League History?
“I resign as HC of the NYJ.”
The story, perhaps apocryphal, holds that Bill Belichick scrawled that phrase on a napkin moments before announcing his resignation to an assembled media throng. Belichick was attempting to quit his job as head coach of the New York Jets just two days after he inherited the position from Bill Parcells in a transition that had been years in the making. It would produce a storm of lawsuits, relaunch the cold war between the Jets and the Patriots, and eventually inspire one of the greatest trades in NFL history.
There are a number of candidates that normally pop up in discussions of what might represent the league’s best trade. The most popular choice is the Herschel Walker trade, covered at great length by Grantland and NFL Network on its 25th anniversary last week.
In terms of massive hauls that affected multiple aspects of a franchise, it’s hard to argue this one — which brought the likes of Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson to Dallas — didn’t provide the largest return. The only way to beat it would be with a deal that changed the fortunes of an entire franchise, molding generations of players without incurring much (or any) opportunity cost. One of the few deals that would qualify is the trade struck between owners Robert Kraft and Woody Johnson to send a disgruntled Belichick back to the Patriots.
To put that swap into context, you have to revisit the path Bill Belichick went through to get to New England. This was hardly a deal that seemed ill-advised at the time; in fact, a fair number of observers in 2000 would have suggested that Kraft was making a mistake by turning his franchise over to a stoic, disloyal coordinator who couldn’t succeed as a head coach without Parcells around to assist. Now taken for granted as one of the best coaches in NFL history, Belichick was once a question mark.
Bill Belichick was expecting to move to the East Coast in the spring of 1996. He just wasn’t expecting to move quite so far north. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell had publicly announced his plans to move the team to Baltimore in November 1995, a move that quickly engendered protests from the team’s loyal fans. The Belichick-led Browns were coming off an 11-5 season and had started 3-1 in 1995 before falling to 4-5 by the time of the announcement. They went just 1-6 over their final seven games to finish at 5-11. In February 1996, Modell, the NFL, and the city of Cleveland all came to terms on an agreement, with Modell taking his team’s personnel to Baltimore as part of an expansion franchise.
Multiple reports from Browns players at the time suggested that Modell had promised Belichick the opportunity to coach the new franchise in Baltimore. Instead, days after the announcement that Modell was moving the team to Baltimore, he fired Belichick. Even worse, he publicly blamed Belichick for many of the franchise’s problems with its fan base while suggesting he had been “sold a bill of goods” by his former coach. “I really believe that much of the disdain and abuse I received was because of the feelings the media and the public had for Bill,” Modell said in 1996. “Every day I thought it would change, that he would be more pleasant to people. He never did, and it hurt all of us terribly.”1
Belichick wasn’t out of work for long. Rumors suggested he would choose to serve as the defensive coordinator for new Dolphins head coach Jimmy Johnson, but just two days after his firing, Belichick agreed to join the staff of Patriots head coach Bill Parcells.2 It was a natural fit. Belichick had enjoyed ample success working underneath Parcells with the Giants, where he had won two Super Bowls in six seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator. The Patriots, who had gone 21-27 in Parcells’s first three seasons as head coach, were coming off a 6-10 campaign in which they finished 25th in scoring defense. They needed help.
The move paid dividends immediately. The Patriots improved to 14th in scoring defense in 1996, and after winning their division with an 11-5 mark, the Patriots held the Jaguars and Steelers to nine combined points en route to Super Bowl XXXI, where their run fizzled out. The 14-point underdogs lost to the Packers, 35-21, and Parcells quickly grew antsy. He left New England after various disagreements with Kraft, seeking larger personnel autonomy and a contract closer to the deal signed by basketball equivalent Pat Riley in Miami.
Parcells’s resignation and attempt to immediately take over for Rich Kotite as head coach of the Jets inspired various contractual disagreements, in a vein almost identical to what would happen when Belichick tried to move in the opposite direction years later. The Patriots named their price for Parcells: the Jets’ first-round selection in the upcoming 1997 draft, which happened to be the first overall pick. The Jets blanched and came up with an alternate plan: They would hire Parcells and let him serve as a “consultant” during the final year of his coaching contract while simultaneously hiring Belichick to serve as the interim head coach. The plan was to move Parcells back into the head coach’s spot in 1998 and push Belichick down into the defensive coordinator’s gig.
Eventually, the two sides came to terms on an alternate agreement. The Jets sent four draft picks,3 including a 1999 first-rounder, to the Patriots in exchange for the rights to Parcells.4 Belichick, whose contract expired after the Super Bowl, joined him days later. They would spend three years with the Jets, going a combined 29-19 while winning just one playoff game. Belichick, who had inherited a Jets unit that was 29th in scoring defense, crafted a group that finished in the top 10 in scoring defense each of his three years with the team. He would mostly stay out of the spotlight until January 2000.
John T. Greilick/AP Photo
Even before he was anointed by the Jets, Belichick was seen as a possible candidate for head-coaching gigs. That actually started during the chaos following Parcells’s resignation from New England, when scuttlebutt suggested the Patriots would consider offering Belichick the head-coaching duties to keep him away from Parcells in New York.
The story came to a dramatic head two days after the Super Bowl. With the media assembled in Foxborough tracking the Parcells story, a bomb threat on Foxboro Stadium was called into the Ford dealership across the street. As the stadium was evacuated, Belichick turned down a ride from Kraft’s son Daniel and insisted upon leaving in Robert Kraft’s Lexus. When they returned, Belichick quickly ducked into the building before leaving shortly thereafter. The next time he came back was eight months later as the defensive coordinator of the Jets. The Patriots would instead hire 49ers defensive coordinator Pete Carroll.
Belichick was also in the running that offseason to take over as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, who waited until after the Super Bowl to hire a coach, reportedly because owner Al Davis wanted to interview him. Davis bided his time by giving two interviews to 34-year-old Eagles offensive coordinator Jon Gruden and then had a change of heart. Without even bringing Belichick into town for an interview, he passed on Belichick and Gruden to promote offensive coordinator Joe Bugel. When he fired Bugel after a lone 4-12 season, Davis went back to the well, but to hire Gruden.
Indeed, as Parcells’s star pupil, Belichick was linked to a number of head coaching jobs while in New York, despite the fact that Belichick — according to reports from the time — never actually left to go on a single interview during his time with the team. He spoke to a number of teams by phone and turned down a number of requests directly, while others were told by the organization (or Belichick’s agent) that he had been promised the Jets job after Parcells retired. Those organizations headed in different directions:
There’s a reason Belichick was linked so closely with Davis. They were both seen as socially inept football obsessives. T.J. Simers of the Sporting News characterized the duo as a match of “the most sour, dour guy in the business” with “the most sour, dour franchise in football.” While Belichick’s brusque handling of the media and cold decisions about the players around him are now seen by some as virtues, those same characteristics were portrayed in the mid-’90s as a flaw that would prevent him from serving as an effective head coach. “Because of Belichick’s terrible relationship with the media, perhaps the worst in NFL history,” John McClain of the Houston Chronicle noted in January 1997, “the Raiders are the only team that could give him another chance to be a head coach.”
Particularly harsh criticism came from his old media buddies in Cleveland. Bud Shaw of the Plain Dealer talked about the picture of Belichick at the Super Bowl with the Patriots in 1996 being worth “1,000 of the grunts and one-word replies that identified his Cro-Magnon era as Browns’ coach,” and would later describe Belichick as “as bland as a bland comfort could be.”5 Tony Grossi of the same paper shot down reports linking Belichick to Indianapolis by noting, “[Jim] Irsay needs to pump up excitement in his market to sell higher-priced luxury suites and club seats. Belichick’s record in Cleveland as a fan-base killer is legendary.”
And, in reality, Belichick’s record in Cleveland was hardly that of a must-have hire. While he did go 11-5 with the Browns in 1994, it was his only winning season with the team. The Browns went 36-44 during Belichick’s five-year run. That’s a winning percentage of .450. Sure, he was the defensive coordinator behind a legendary head coach, but you know who else fills those shoes? Eric Mangini, who played a similar role for Belichick in 2005, and he had a 33-47 record during his five years as an NFL head coach, just three wins worse than Belichick’s figure. Ray Rhodes (37-42-1, .468) and Jim Haslett (47-61, .435) posted similar win-loss percentages over similar-length coaching careers. Just as you wouldn’t perceive any of those guys as guaranteed success stories as head coaches, some surely perceived Belichick’s record as a sign he wouldn’t succeed in his second gig.
By the 1999 offseason, those concerns had faded and Belichick’s path appeared to be clear. He turned down interview requests from the Bears and Chiefs amid reports he would take over from Parcells as early as the following year. Multiple published reports also indicate that Belichick received a $1 million bonus from Jets owner Leon Hess, who assured Belichick he would be next in line for the Jets job and retain much of the power Parcells wielded after the Big Tuna left town.
On May 7, 1999, Hess passed away. His estate made plans to sell the team shortly thereafter, but Hess’s death would eventually be — at least, publicly — the catalyst that sent Belichick back to the New England Patriots.
The 1999 Jets season could only be characterized as a disappointment. After a 12-4 run took the Jets to the AFC Championship Game in 1998, quarterback Vinny Testaverde ruptured his Achilles in the first half of the 1999 season opener against, coincidentally, the Patriots. The Jets lost that week and turned the reins over to a combination of Rick Mirer and Ray Lucas at quarterback, which didn’t go well. It took a four-game winning streak at the end of the year for the Jets to finish 8-8.
Outside of the disappointing season, there was little reason to think Belichick was unhappy until a December 1 report from Rich Cimini of the Daily News suggested the Patriots could target Belichick to replace the struggling Carroll that offseason. Cimini noted the unsettled nature of the New York franchise, which was still undergoing sale talks, and delivered this fateful prediction: “In five weeks, this matter will heat up. Count on it.”
Five weeks later, things did heat up. On January 3, 2000, Parcells resigned from his position with the Jets, saying he was “not going to coach any more football games” and that the move “definitely is the end of my career.” A half hour later, the Patriots fired Carroll and faxed the Jets a request to interview Belichick for openings at both head coach and general manager.
The Jets turned down New England’s request, a move they saw as logical. NFL teams can’t block other franchises from interviewing their personnel for head-coaching opportunities unless the candidate is already a head coach, and the Jets interpreted the language in Belichick’s contract to mean that he immediately became the head coach of the Jets upon Parcells’s departure.
Belichick, from gathered reports at the time, clearly thought otherwise. He surely saw the opportunity in New England as a chance to run an entire organization on his own without any risk of interference from Parcells, who was retaining his title of chief of football operations even after resigning as coach. Belichick interpreted the Patriots’ interest as representing a promotion because it included the title of general manager, and when the Jets thought otherwise, there was only one way to test their will.
The next day, Belichick attended the press conference to announce his hiring, only to read from a prepared note that he was leaving the organization. In his remarks, Belichick specifically expressed his concern that the organization and the promises made to him by Hess lay under uncertain terms, noting he had been told by Parcells that the sale of the team was going to be completed by December 15, a deadline that had come and gone without a sale. “The agreement I made was with Mr. Hess, Bill Parcells, and [Jets president] Steve Gutman when I signed the contract, and that has changed dramatically,” Belichick said. “If I’m letting somebody down, I’m sorry, but the situation has been changed significantly and I have to do what’s fair to all the people involved.”
The Jets immediately confirmed with the league office that Belichick’s contract was valid and that he wouldn’t be allowed to coach anywhere in football if he left the organization. An appeal to commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s office was denied on January 22, leading Belichick’s lawyer, Jeffrey Kessler, to file an antitrust lawsuit against the league and seek a temporary injunction for Belichick to negotiate with other teams. That request was rejected in court, which led Belichick to withdraw his lawsuit.6
In the meantime, both teams made moves. The Jets promoted linebackers coach Al Groh to the head-coaching gig. The Patriots, unsure if they could hire their desired candidate, expressed interest in the likes of Mike Martz, Tom Moore, and Gary Kubiak before interviewing Raiders defensive coordinator Willie Shaw, Bears offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, and Jaguars defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Crucially, in that three-week stretch, the Jets were finally sold. Woody Johnson beat out Cablevision magnate Charles Dolan7 with a bid of $635 million, buying the team from Hess’s estate on January 12. Once Belichick’s lawsuit fizzled out, Johnson immediately went to work with Kraft on a deal that would settle the situation and send Belichick to the Patriots. One day later, the Belichick swap was done.
Steven Senne/AP Photo
Belichick, as you might expect, came at a far cheaper price than Parcells had four years prior. The Patriots sent the 16th overall pick in the upcoming 2000 draft and fourth- and seventh-rounders in 2001 to the Jets for the rights to Belichick, a 2001 fifth-rounder, and a 2002 seventh-rounder. They would each make subsequent trades packaging those picks in separate deals. In the end, the Jets came away with Shaun Ellis, Jamie Henderson, and James Reed; the Patriots picked up Belichick and two players who never suited up for the team, Arther Love and Owen Pochman.
How much did the Jets pay in terms of value? And what did that actually turn into? Well, it depends on how you factor it. I like using Chase Stuart’s expected draft value chart, which uses data from the past to project how players perform during the first five years of their career, producing a value for each potential draft pick.
We can plug in those values, but the problem is that the picks were sent in various places. We’re not concerned about trades down, because the Jets and Patriots aren’t giving up additional assets when trading down, but the draft picks don’t reflect their full value if they’re used to trade up and grab another player. The Patriots traded a late seventh-rounder that Stuart’s chart assigns zero value to anyway, so we can ignore that one, but the Jets used the first-rounder as part of a package to trade up.
The Jets traded the 16th pick and their second-rounder, the 48th selection, to move up to 12 and draft Ellis. (This is about to get pretty abstract, sorry.) The value of the first-round pick the Jets got for Belichick, then, represents the difference in expected value between the 48th pick and the 12th pick, since that’s the currency they used to move up from 48 to 12 and take Ellis. That’s 8.9 points of Expected Approximate Value, which is roughly equivalent to the 57th pick in the draft. In all, this is how the trade looks:
Those 12.1 points of Approximate Value translates to the 34th overall pick in the draft. In other words, in terms of raw value before actually drafting or developing anybody, the Jets traded Belichick for a high second-round pick. Those were the most cost-effective picks in the draft under the old CBA, but I suspect the Jets would reverse the trade if they could.
The simpler way of looking at the trade is that the Jets traded Belichick and their 2000 second-rounder for Ellis, Reed, and Henderson. Reed and Henderson were reserve defensive backs, with Reed starting 15 games in his final season with the team at safety, while Henderson’s career came to a close after a 2004 motorcycle crash. Ellis was a workmanlike two-way defensive end who made two Pro Bowls during his 11-year career with the Jets before finishing up his career with the Patriots in 2011. He produced 87 AV during those 11 seasons in New York, making him the 68th-most valuable player in football by the metric over that time frame.
We can’t even use Approximate Value to measure Belichick’s impact. All we can do is make various inferences to point out the scope of how valuable he’s been to the Patriots since arriving in 2000. Of course, I don’t need to list his accomplishments; you know about the three Super Bowls, the 14-year run of success, and the drafting and development of Tom Brady.
One way to think about Belichick is in terms of his ability to manage the game. From a coaching perspective, nobody in football is consistently better at taking care of timeouts, making fourth-down decisions, and manufacturing opportunities. He’s famous for thinking outside the box to pull out things like the intentional safety and his decision to take the wind against Denver in overtime last year.
We can calculate that a decision to properly go for it on a typical fourth down might improve a team’s win expectancy by 4 percent or more in a given situation. Over the course of a year, it’s not crazy whatsoever to imagine that an optimized coach could improve a team by a full win or more when compared with the decisions made by a typically conservative coach in the same calls. Belichick isn’t perfect by any means, but over the course of his time with the Patriots, his ability to manage situations has surely been worth a few wins by itself, which would represent an enormous return on the trade.
Belichick has also been among the best draft managers in football in terms of trading down to acquire talent, a skill that is strongly correlated with consistent, sustained success. Belichick has struggled at times with scouting college players and identifying talent, but by remaining patient and acquiring extra picks, he has reduced the risk involved with that weakness. Furthermore, his ability to scout the league and adapt his schemes to fit players who were marginalized elsewhere has also created incalculable value for the Patriots.
Remember the 16-0 2007 Patriots, a team that transformed itself from a middling offense in 2006 to the fourth-best offense in NFL history for pennies on the dollar. Belichick acquired Wes Welker, a backup slot receiver in Miami, for second- and seventh-round picks. He dealt a fourth-rounder to Oakland for Randy Moss, who flopped in Oakland and took a pay cut as part of the deal. Donte’ Stallworth signed a six-year deal that really amounted to a one-year contract with a team option. Outside of the likes of Sammy Morris, that was all they added. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels incorporated some spread concepts into the team’s Erhardt-Perkins offense, and boom, 589 points. Belichick got years of success from Moss and Welker and even traded Moss for a third-rounder.8 Give Belichick even a tiny bit of the credit for their success (and the dozens more who have played better with the Patriots than they did elsewhere) and he’s been worth his weight in gold.
What’s even better is that Belichick’s retained his value. When I wrote about Jim Harbaugh in 2012, I noted that the trade value of a top coach is roughly equivalent to that of a young quarterback in his prime. The Buccaneers, for one, gave up two first-rounders, two second-rounders, and $8 million in cash to acquire Jon Gruden from the Raiders in 2002.
If the Patriots and Belichick had decided to part ways while Belichick was under contract at any point from about 2004 onward, the organization could have extracted a price similar to that figure from a desperate team. Belichick would surely still cost about that much now, even a decade after his last Super Bowl win. That’s in excess of whatever massive amount of value he has already delivered to the Patriots.
In addition, Belichick’s been a financial bargain. In comparing those two aforementioned asset classes, I found that great head coaches are almost definitely underpaid. They have the trade value of star quarterbacks, but when their contracts come due, they receive about one-third of what a franchise quarterback receives from the free market.
Belichick, the highest-paid coach in football, reportedly makes about $7.5 million per year from the Patriots. That’s right about what Paul Posluszny will make in base salary from Jacksonville this year. Belichick’s “true” value is somewhere around $15 million to $20 million, which means the Patriots are generating something like $10 million in excess value from Belichick’s deal every year. Even better, that money isn’t part of the salary cap, so there’s no opportunity cost; when you give a great player a large contract, there’s an opportunity cost because you might have been able to invest that money on cheaper players elsewhere.9
All things considered, Belichick for what basically boils down to Ellis has to be one of the best trades in the history of the NFL. I won’t begrudge you the point if you want to ride for the Herschel Walker trade, vouch for Ron Wolf sending the 19th pick to Atlanta for Brett Favre, or count the Chargers sending the pick that drafted Michael Vick to the Falcons for the picks that produced LaDainian Tomlinson. At some point, it’s all about how you interpret value. For a guy who represented a bill of goods in the ’90s, though, it’s hard to argue the Patriots didn’t find one of the all-time bargains when they traded for Belichick.
Now, if the Jets could only convince him to come back …