Bill Belichick-Jets dynasty that wasn’t came down to ‘control’
In a weeklong series, The Post is looking at alternate realities in New York sports. We are examining “what if” scenarios for our teams, reversals of fortune that would have radically changed not only the franchises themselves but dramatically altered their leagues, too. There are two rules: The scenario must be grounded in reality and have taken place within the last 30 years.
Keyshawn Johnson stood in the back of the room as Bill Belichick walked to the podium in the Weeb Ewbank Hall auditorium on Jan. 4, 2000.
Belichick, looking disheveled and nervous, began a bizarre 50-minute press conference that left the Jets wide receiver and everyone else in the room stunned.
“Due to the various uncertainties surrounding my position as it relates to the team’s new ownership, I have decided to resign as the head coach of the New York Jets,” Belichick said.
“I was basically like, ‘Oh damn,’ ” Johnson recalled this week.
Belichick’s decision to bolt from the Jets after one day as the team’s head coach had Johnson saying “oh damn” in surprise. In the subsequent 20 years, it has left Jets fans saying “oh damn” in thinking what might have been.
Belichick’s surprise resignation is one of the strangest days in the history of a franchise that has had more than its share. It also created the biggest what-if for the Jets. What if Belichick had remained as the Jets head coach?
“I think the Jets would have had a Super Bowl or two by now,” Johnson said.
Instead, Jets fans have watched its team devolve from Super Bowl contender to a non-factor over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, Belichick has won six Super Bowls and overseen the greatest dynasty in NFL, and maybe sports, history. Along the way, he has been recognized by many as the greatest coach in NFL history.
Jets fans have been tortured by what might have been, watching their division neighbors to the north dominate the NFL.
“I think every Jets fan feels that way, that should have been us,” said ESPN host Mike Greenberg, a longtime Jets fan.
The Jets believed they had the perfect plan in place. By contract, Belichick, the team’s defensive coordinator, would be elevated to head coach when Bill Parcells retired. He had received a $1 million bonus at one point from owner Leon Hess to remain with the Jets and wait on Parcells.
Parcells triggered Belichick’s ascension when he retired after the team’s final game of the 1999 season. That came on a Sunday night. Belichick held a staff meeting on Tuesday morning to go over the plan for draft preparation. By Tuesday afternoon, Belichick had decided he did not want the job and famously handed Jets management a piece of paper telling them he was resigning as “HC of the NYJ.” He became the coach of the Patriots weeks later after a battle over compensation with the Jets.
What exactly happened remains debatable. Some believe Belichick wanted to get out from under Parcells’ shadow. Others believe he saw an opportunity in New England, where he could have complete control over the operation.
“I think what he wanted to be able to do was have control over his own culture,” said Mike Lombardi, who is close with Belichick and worked with him both with the Browns and the Patriots. “That’s the most important thing. I think Bill wanted culture control, not power control.”
In ESPN’s “The Two Bills,” Belichick said his issue was with the Jets ownership situation. Hess died before the 1999 season and the ownership situation had not been resolved.
“Essentially the problem I had with the whole arrangement eventually was when all of this transpired there was no owner,” Belichick said. “Mr. Hess passed away before the ’99 season. There were two potential owners and that was [Woody] Johnson and [Charles] Dolan. I hadn’t spoken with either one, but I had issues with both, and it wasn’t Mr. Hess anymore, which was the original agreement or the original context we talked about. That whole ownership configuration at that point in time was a major factor in my decision much more than a personal relationship.”
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At the time, Belichick’s resignation was not seen as a great loss for the Jets. The back page headline of The Post was “Belichicken.” Many columnists thought the Jets were better off if Belichick truly did not want to be with the team. He had failed as head coach of the Browns in the early 1990s and was not viewed as a sure thing.
“I was still young so I didn’t fully grasp what he was,” Johnson said. “We got along well, but I didn’t fully grasp what kind of coach he was and what he would turn out to be. I didn’t know. I knew him as a defensive coordinator and a failed Cleveland Browns coach.”
Belichick would have inherited a good team if he stayed with the Jets. The team was a Super Bowl favorite in 1999 before quarterback Vinny Testaverde tore his Achilles tendon in Week 1. They still managed to go 8-8 with a strong finish to the season. Johnson, who was traded to the Buccaneers in April 2000, says he knows he would not have been traded if Belichick stayed and believes he would have won a Super Bowl with the Jets.
Lombardi believes Belichick would have had success with the Jets.
“He’s the greatest coach of all time for a reason,” Lombardi said. “He was going to win no matter where he went.”
There is another giant what-if that comes with this Belichick conversation, though.
“The biggest what-if is not if Belichick had stayed as much as it is if Belichick had stayed, would he have drafted [Tom] Brady?” Greenberg said. “If Belichick and Brady had done what they had done with the Jets, then all of a sudden we’re fans of the greatest dynasty in the history of professional football. That sounds a hell of a lot better than what it’s been for the last 20 years.”
We will never know what might have been or how many Lombardi trophies the Jets might have now if Belichick had not fled for Foxborough.
The Belichick-Brady dynasty might have been draped in green and white instead of red and blue.
That’s enough to make any Jets fan say, “oh damn.”
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