Family reunions in themselves are wild cards. For Bill Belichick, it’s a pretty similar situation whenever he gets together with one of his former assistants. Now, thanks to the hoodie sticking around the NFL since 1975, former players are even getting into the mix, too.
As the New England Patriots gear up for a rare appearance on Wild Card Weekend (their first since 2009), another member of the Belichick family coaching tree is coming back into town in the form of Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, who played linebacker for Belichick in Foxborough on three Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams.
Because of this latest visit from a Belichick disciple now armed with a headset and a 53-man roster of his own, it’s timely to take a look at how the master does when facing the student. And like most reunions, it’s a mixed bag.
According to CBS Sports Research, Belichick is 14-13 as a head coach when facing one of his former assistants/former players. He’s 12-13 in the regular season and 2-0 in the postseason. Those two playoff victories came against Eric Mangini (2006) and Bill O’Brien (2016). While 14-13 is still a winning record, it’s hardly the type of winning percentage that New Englanders have been accustomed to when speaking about Belichick.
In fact, his recent totals are a bit more alarming. Dating back to just the start of the 2018 season, Belichick has faced O’Brien (Texans), Matt Patricia (Lions), Vrabel (Titans) and Brian Flores (Dolphins), all either former assistants or (in the case of Vrabel) former players. In that time, Belichick’s Patriots are 2-4 and have outscored their opponents 136-135, which is largely thanks to a 43-0 victory in Week 2 against Miami earlier this season. If you take out that game, former Patriots assistants/players are outproducing Belichick-led teams 135-93 over this recent stretch.
Heck, the only reason the Patriots are even in line to see Vrabel this early in the playoffs is thanks to former de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores and his Miami Dolphins squad stunning New England in Foxborough in Week 17 to drop them down to the No. 3 seed.
Not exactly the type of momentum or history you want to have heading into a postseason matchup like this.
The first time that Belichick saw Vrabel head-to-head as a coach came last year down in Nashville where the Titans pulled off a rather shocking victory against New England, blowing them out 34-10 while completely shutting out the offense for the entire second half. Looking at this matchup, you could even make a strong case that this Titans team with Ryan Tannehill under center is far superior than the one that laid the smack down on the Pats last year, which is even more concerning if you’re the defending Super Bowl champions.
So what is it? Why exactly do former assistants/players have Belichick’s number? Is it institutional knowledge that outsiders don’t have? Belichick trying to get too cute against his former pupils? The hoodie opening up joint practices to former assistants/players over various training camps giving them a bit more inside knowledge? The team simply not showing up when it’s time to play the game? The answer is likely a combination of all of that, and then some.
As the Patriots and Titans are set to begin their playoff push this Saturday, this so-so record against former Belichick confidants coupled with a spotty offense and a downward trending defense (20.5 points allowed over the last eight games compared to just 7.6 points allowed in the first eight contests) makes this family reunion a wild card in every sense of the word.