NFL ownership has its privileges for Robert Kraft.
Like being able to say whatever comes to mind and not have to worry about facing Bill Belichick’s wrath.
Nostalgia and big-picture reflection wasn’t in the offering this past week at New England Patriots headquarters. As expected, Belichick was loath to answer any media questions that didn’t pertain directly to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against visiting Baltimore.
Belichick’s players diligently followed his lead. They know any deviation from script wouldn’t sit well with a head coach obsessed with pre-game focus and avoiding bulletin-board material.
There was no brouhaha like in Baltimore between Ravens free safety Ed Reed and quarterback Joe Flacco. No cutting jokes courtesy of Pats wide receiver Wes Welker, who was benched for the first series of last year’s playoff loss to the New York Jets after poking fun at Rex Ryan’s foot-fetish scandal. No retaliatory words from Tom Brady toward Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has taken verbal jabs at the quarterback in the past.
It was just another week of Beli-speak — until Kraft added a little spice.
But Kraft didn’t do anything outrageous like predicting a Patriots victory, a la New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath heading into Super Bowl III. His comments about Belichick on Friday — as complimentary as they were — have triggered the kind of public debate the latter surely would have preferred to nip in the bud.
Especially if the Ravens can in any way twist Kraft’s words to provide further motivation for a team that already has plenty of underdog, us-against-the-world fodder entering Sunday’s matchup.
"I think he’ll go down as the greatest coach in the history of the NFL because he’s really competing in the era of the salary cap," Kraft said of Belichick during a news conference.
"Remember, when I bought the team it was the beginning of the salary cap. I think a lot of great coaches had difficulty understanding how to balance the economics of the game and the budgets. His product knowledge is so great."
Kraft then cited the improved locker-room chemistry this season and composition of his roster.
"I really like this team a lot this year," he continued. "What really makes a difference is the mental toughness. When teams get down, how do they react? I just think of that game we were down 21-0 [an ultimate 49-21 Pats victory against Buffalo in Week 17]. We’ve been down a number of times this year.
"We’re privileged to have him as a head coach. I just think he does an outstanding job."
There’s no question Belichick has proven to be the NFL’s best head coach since taking the Patriot reins in 2000. He has three Super Bowl titles to his credit and four appearances overall. This will mark his sixth trip to the AFC Championship Game in 12 seasons. Belichick is the first head coach to ever string together nine consecutive years of 10-plus wins, including a record five with 13 or more victories like in 2011.
Not bad for an uncharismatic retread that Kraft said he was feeling pressure not to hire by outsiders because of Belichick’s failed mid-1990s stint with the Cleveland Browns.
"I had people sending me tapes of him doing press conferences and heads of networks telling me I shouldn’t hire him," said Kraft, referring to Belichick’s icy on-camera demeanor that has warmed slightly during his time in New England. "But what I learned is that this guy really knew the game."
Kraft makes a valid point that Belichick has thrived in a free-agency era where there are far more personnel changes each season than when rosters could remain almost entirely intact. But are Belichick’s accomplishments more impressive than that of other coaches with multiple Super Bowl titles?
Does he deserve the nod over Miami Dolphins legend Don Shula? He’s the NFL’s all-time leader in victories, a two-time Super Bowl winner and the only head coach in league history to complete a perfect season — something Belichick fell just short of accomplishing during the 2007 campaign.
What about Vince Lombardi and the five NFL titles he won in the 1960s with Green Bay? Tom Landry? Bill Walsh? Chuck Noll? Paul Brown? George "Papa Bear" Halas? Remember, too, that none of these coaches have the stain of the Spygate videotaping scandal on their resumes.
How the Patriots fare the rest of this season will influence Belichick’s ultimate ranking among those all-time greats. And since he shows no signs of retiring — and who would want to step away with Brady still under center? — the 59-year-old Belichick will have even more time to cement his spot in NFL history.
Belichick, though, isn’t the only figure involved in Sunday’s game who can bolster his legacy with a victory. Brady is hungering to join Joe Montana and FOX Sports NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks in league history with four Lombardi Trophies to their credit.
As for the Ravens, Reed and middle linebacker Ray Lewis can stake further claim to being the best ever at their respective positions. Belichick offered effusive praise of both earlier this week when saying, "It would be really hard I think to put anybody even in their class let alone above them. They’re tremendous players with tremendous careers. I can’t say I’ve ever coached against anybody better than Ed Reed in the secondary."
Reed may someday say he never played against a better coach than Belichick. But unlike what Kraft did Friday, this isn’t the time to talk about history when it will still be shaped by what transpires Sunday.