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How can Bill Belichick fix stagnant Patriots? Maybe he should ask his old pal, Nick Saban

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Nick Saban of Alabama is one of Bill Belichick’s closest confidants and one of the few who can match him in terms of accomplishments.

Each comes from a Croatian family that settled in the steel and coal towns of Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Both sons are trainers and are similar in demeanor. Back in the early 1990s, Belichick, now 70, hired Saban, now 71, as a defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns.

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Where Belichick dominated the NFL (six Super Bowl titles), Saban did the same at the college level (seven national titles).

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So perhaps Saban is the one that exemplifies what Belichick should do about the fact that his New England Patriots are stalled — a 2-5 slide kept them out of the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. The Pats will go four years without a playoff win.

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Tom Curran of NBCSports Boston announced on Wednesday that Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft held a post-season meeting and left, agreeing that “change” was needed in the organization.

Belichick once ran the most efficient and ruthless winning machine the NFL has ever seen. However, ever since quarterback Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay in 2020, New England has been drifting. Although mediocre, Belichick mostly kept everything inside, promoting from within or re-hiring former aides to return to their ranks. Two of his sons are also assistant coaches.

The New Englanders didn’t have a big-name quarterback last season and seem to have mostly relied on longtime Belichick assistant (and former Detroit Lions head coach) Matt Patricia to coordinate their offense despite having previously played in defense. It didn’t work out very well.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's decision to make Matt Patricia a forward was met with heavy criticism.  (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s decision to make Matt Patricia a forward was met with heavy criticism. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)

In Alabama, Saban never had the kind of falls that his former boss had. However, after winning back-to-back national titles in 2011 and 2012, Tide finished 11-2 in 2013. Saban could dismiss this as a trifle; In the end, Alabama went undefeated until the regular season finale.

Instead, he saw the game changing around him. College crimes were now widely exposed. The old ball control and defensive winning style that Saban perfected were under threat. He understood the need for modernization.

So he went and hired the most innovative offensive coordinator he could find: Lane Kiffin, who had just been fired as USC head coach. It was a wild move that made American football reel. Kiffin was known for his brashness and antics that seemed ill-suited for the conservative Saban. They had no previous relationship. Collisions were predicted (and they really were).

Saban didn’t care. He wasn’t looking for a friend. He wasn’t looking for a date. First, he invited Kiffin in for a week to analyze the Alabama offense, from recruiting to games and practices. Convinced enough, he hired Kiffin to turn the Crimson Tide’s assault into something as intimidating as the Crimson Tide’s defense.

“We are delighted that Lane has joined our staff,” Saban said at the time. “He’s an outstanding and creative offensive coach… and I’ve always been impressed by what I’ve seen in the games he’s called.”

The attack on Bama didn’t get exponentially better overnight; after all, it was already good. However, the situation improved as the foundation was laid. Kiffin only spent three seasons there, but he changed the way talented recruits looked at the Alabama offense. In later years, he was succeeded by Josh Gattis and Steve Sarkeesian, two other college coaches with no prior ties to Saban, and then incumbent CEO Bill O’Brien, who came from the NFL.

While Alabama had previously won with quarterbacks like Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron—good but not elite talent—the Tide soon brought in Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mack Jones, and Bryce Young. They started casting to DeVonte Smith, Jerry Judy, Calvin Ridley, John Metchi, Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle and so on.

It may be time for New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (left) to rip a page out of the book of longtime confidant and Alabama coach Nick Saban.  (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
It may be time for New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (left) to rip a page out of the book of longtime confidant and Alabama head coach Nick Saban. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

The Tide has been national champion six times from 2015 to 2021, winning three championships. From 2018 to 2020, their offense ranked in the top three in the nation in points per game.

Saban’s willingness to see the challenges ahead and listen to other people’s opinions from very different personalities helped maintain, if not improve, his program.

This is the path Belichick should take if the “changes” he and Kraft have agreed upon include shaking up his coaching staff. Football lacks innovative coaches, especially in attack. And Belichik remains Belichik. Being able to work with a legend of this caliber makes any job at Foxborough attractive.

The question is whether he is ready to determine what he needs and then hire it. Or will he stay on course and keep looking inward?

Nothing is guaranteed here, of course. A fresh look can fail. But if Belichick needs proof that he’s straying far from the coaching tree, trying to destroy the world with new ideas, voices, and perspectives, then following his old friend to Tuscaloosa could be instructive.


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