Bill Belichick’s Lone Season With the Denver Broncos Taught Him Countless Lessons

We all know Bill Belichick as the coaching genius who turned the New England Patriots into a great NFL dynasty. But everyone starts somewhere. One of his first jobs came with the Denver Broncos in 1978 when he served as the Assistant Special Teams Coach and Defensive Assistant. Belichick only spent a year there, but it left a mark on the legendary strategist’s career. He still remembers his time in Denver fondly. 

A year in Denver shaped Bill Belichick’s career forever

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Joe Collier is not a name that rings bells for most football fans. That’s understandable. He spent the prime of his career as the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator for 16 years. His record as a head coach amounted to a mediocre 13-17-1. But his impact is felt every time the Patriots step on the field.

This is because the 1978 Broncos season is where the sports genius first began to bloom. In the words of the man himself, it was a “tremendous experience,” reports ESPN

This was Belichick’s third team in four years. (He worked for the Ravens and Lions in the years prior). The young coach arrived ready to do whatever it took to prove his worth. Collier gave him time-intensive entry-level jobs. For example, he broke down film years before digital video made sorting every play easy. Rather than get overwhelmed, Belichick let his obsessive attention to detail lead the way. 

“He wasn’t about chatting people up. Some guys want to interact with the players, be a part of the players’ conversations and all of that,” Broncos cornerback Louis Wright told ESPN. “He was all ‘Just do your job’ about his job. And I loved that. He wasn’t just looking around at practice, talking to whoever was closest to him. Every time I saw Bill Belichick that year he was writing something down in a notebook I always saw in his hands. And I mean every time. He was always taking notes, writing, always writing. That man wasted no time.”

Belichick credits Collier with teaching him the nuances of the 3-4 defense Denver ran. Collier was the architect of the system, and the Broncos’ “Orange Crush” defense terrorized the league for years. In ’78, they finished with a 10-6 record and the league’s second-best scoring defense, falling just two-tenths of a point per game behind the Steelers’ fabled Steel Curtain.

That same Steelers team would end Denver’s season in the divisional round of the playoffs that year, and Belichick, having played an important role from the sidelines, moved to the New York Giants to further burnish his reputation. 

The only comparisons to Belichick’s greatness are in history books

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick
Patriots coach Bill Belichick talks with Tom Brady | Dominic Chavez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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Belichick became the Giants’ defensive coordinator to tremendous effect. New York won two Super Bowls in four years, led by the punishing “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” defense. After mediocre stints with the Browns and Jets — it’s hard to hold these years against him — Belichick became the Patriots head coach in 2000. His first season ended with a 5-11 record. New England hasn’t finished under .500 since. 

Belichick is the defining coach of the 21st century, and no one else even comes close. In a league that prioritizes parity, the Patriots have been consistently great for two decades. Belichick holds the records for most Super Bowl victories (six), Super Bowl appearances (9), and playoff wins (31). He’s accomplished these things due to his unmatched ability to adapt and attract talent.

So many coaches become obstinate about the “right way to play” and refuse to change things when results begin to decline. In a way, New England’s great run began when Drew Bledsoe got injured and gave Belichick the chance to put his faith in a sixth-round pick from Michigan with only a year of professional experience. 

Having Tom Brady obviously gave him an advantage most of his competition, but the Patriots didn’t just throw their way to success. They’ve reinvented themselves year after year, at times being a defensive juggernaut, and a peerless offense at others. Belichick also knows when to get rid of players when their impact on the salary cap is bigger than their impact on the field.

There are mistakes here and there, but no one gets those decisions right as often as Belichick. Playing for him might not be very fun, but it’s hard to complain when you win this often. Belichick is currently third for the most regular season wins in NFL history. It’s only a matter of time before he tops that list. 

Can he make the Patriots dominant once again?

The Patriots are reinventing themselves again this year, with the changes coming under center for the first time since 2001. The team didn’t seem disheartened losing Brady to Tampa Bay. But replacing him with a more mobile, less precise quarterback like Cam Newton completely changes the gameplan. 

The season started with plenty of promise. The Patriots won two of their first three games — the only loss being a narrow one to the Seahawks on the road. But the wheels have fallen off in the past three games. It’s impossible to ignore the effects of COVID-19 on these losses. But the fact of the matter is that New England is more vulnerable than they’ve been in a long time.

The Dolphins’ surprising friskiness and the development of Buffalo’s Josh Allen mean New England may miss the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. This is clearly a team in transition. A lot of key decisions will be made over the next few years. You wouldn’t want anyone more than Belichick to lead them through this period.