In his second go-around as an NFL head coach, Bill Belichick has had tremendous success with the New England Patriots.
In fact, he got to within one victory this season of guiding the Pats to their second straight Super Bowl. They have been to five Super Bowls overall, with three victories, since he took over in 2000.
But his first head-coaching job was with the Browns, and it started Feb. 5, 1991 when then team owner Art Modell hired him to rebuild the franchise.
Belichick had been defensive coordinator of the Giants when they won the Super Bowl following the 1986 and ’90 seasons. It was about a week before when the Giants, on the strength of their defense, upset the Buffalo Bills, 20-19, in Super Bowl XXV.
Just as much as the 38-year-old Belichick’s acumen on defense, Modell was sold on his attention to detail. Belichick had laid out a precise, specific, five-year plan to get the Browns back on track.
The Browns had had a great five-year run from 1985-89, making the playoffs every season, winning four Central Division titles and advancing three times (in a four-year span) to the AFC Championship Game. But they had fallen way off to a 3-13 finish in 1990, causing head coach Bud Carson to be fired halfway through the season after just 1½ years on the job.
The Browns did get better that first season under Belichick in 1991, doubling their wins total from the previous year in a 6-10 finish. They improved on that a bit the next two seasons, going 7-9 both times, before breaking through in 1994, a year ahead of Belichick’s original plan to Modell. They finished 11-5, getting their most regular-season wins since 1986, and earned their first playoff berth in five years by making it as a wild card. They also won a playoff game in the first round – over the Patriots, 20-13.
Not surprisingly, the impetus for that success was built largely on the defense, as the Browns gave up just 204 points, a franchise record for a 16-game season.
Sports Illustrated predicted in its 1995 NFL preview issue that the Browns would make it to the Super Bowl for the first time, and, following a 29-26 comeback win in overtime over the Bengals at Cincinnati on Oct 29, they were still hanging in there at 4-4. While it wasn’t the record they expected to have at the midway point of the year, the Browns hoped that emotional victory would get them jump-started.
As it turned out, though, things changed dramatically five nights later when news leaked that the Browns were going to relocate to Baltimore after the 1995 season.
There was nothing in the coaching handbook for keeping a team together after a bombshell announcement like that, and, as a result, the Browns went 1-7 in the second half of the season to finish 5-11.
Belichick was dismissed after the season and spent the next four years as an assistant with first the Patriots and then the New York Jets before being hired by New England as head coach in 2000. He won the Super Bowl the following year.
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