Column: Time for Belichick to leave on his terms (sort of), before he’s shoved out the door

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This is starting to feel like Tom Landry’s final days as an NFL coach, just before he was ingloriously put out to pasture. Or maybe it will be more akin to Don Shula, who trudged into a retirement that seemed forced on him.

Athletes rarely know when it’s time to go, and that unwillingness to face reality certainly applies to coaches, too.

Which brings us to Bill Belichick.

He’s stubborn and ornery and downright defiant about his future, insisting that he’s looking no farther than New England’s upcoming game against the Chiefs.

“I’m getting ready for Kansas City,” Belichick droned over and over and over again when the subject of his future came up this week.

But the Patriots coach needs to start thinking about his legacy. Secure as it is, Belichick’s obstinance is starting to look more like delusion as the game clearly passes him by.

Time for the 71-year-old grumpy lobster boat captain to call it a career, with some degree of dignity, before the Patriots are forced to toss him back.

New England owner Robert Kraft would certainly be justified in handing Belichick his pink slip if he won’t go quietly into the night.

Since Tom Brady departed at the end of the 2019 season, the Patriots are 28-35. Given this season’s 3-10 debacle — only the Carolina Panthers have fewer wins — it’s become crystal clear that the only chance Belichick has of rekindling one of the greatest dynasties in American sports history would be to invent a time machine for his former quarterback.

In a sense, Belichick has already stayed on too long. His reputation has taken a huge blow these last four years, as it’s become apparent how much of an impact Brady had on New England’s amazing, nearly two-decade-long run.

When Brady left the Patriots after the 2019 season, he landed in Tampa Bay and immediately captured another Super Bowl title with the Buccaneers. Two more division titles followed before Brady finally retired for good.

Belichick hasn’t come close to matching that level of success, with a single one-and-done playoff appearance in the post-Brady era.

The Brady-less offense is the obvious culprit in New England’s decline. The Patriots’ averaged 26.2 points per game in their final season with Tom Terrific, ranking sixth in the league. This season, they’ve put up half that figure (13.0) to place last among the 32 teams.

Belichick shrugged off any attempt to dive deeper into that disturbing trend.

“I don’t really see the big picture,” he said. “I see week to week. That’s what I see.”

His lack of vision aside, some might argue that Belichick has more than earned the chance to leave under his own terms, given his half-dozen Super Bowl titles as a head coach and a lofty record that currently stands at 301 victories — a total surpassed only by Shula and George Halas’ 318 wins.

But that’s simply not reality.

Everyone is expendable. No one has the right to hang on as long as they want, certainly not a coach whose success seems largely tied to one player — an unfair as that might be — and already was stained by Spygate, Spygate 2.0 and Deflategate.

Let’s not forget, Landry was one of the NFL’s greatest coaching innovators, the guy who came up with the flex defense, popularized the shotgun offense and transformed the Dallas Cowboys into America’s Team.

He may have been the fashion opposite of the hoodie-wearing Belichick, coaching in a suit, tie and fedora, but Landry had similar success on the sideline with 20 straight winning seasons, 18 playoff appearances and two Super Bowl championships.

Still, when things turned sour, those longstanding accomplishments didn’t count for much. Three straight losing seasons, culminating with a 3-13 debacle in 1988, prompted new owner Jerry Jones to fire the 64-year-old Landry exactly one day after closing on his purchase of the team.

There was plenty of sympathy for Landry, and lots of contempt for Jones’ cold-blooded tactics, but there is no doubt it was the right move in the end.

With Jimmy Johnson taking over as coach, the Cowboys needed just four seasons to capture the first of two straight Super Bowl titles. They won another under Barry Switzer during the 1995 season, giving them more championships in the first seven years of the post-Landry era than they had in his nearly three decades at the helm.

Shula has more wins (347, counting the regular season and playoffs) than any coach in NFL history, a record that Belichick seemed sure to break just a few years ago but now seems totally out of reach.

Unlike Landry, Shula had plenty of success right up to the end of his 33-year head coaching career. The Miami Dolphins were on a run of four straight winning seasons, three playoff appearances and two AFC East titles, but there was a growing sense that Shula wasn’t the guy to get them over the championship hump.

So, after a 9-7 campaign in 1995 that ended with a loss to Buffalo in the wild-card round, Shula announced his retirement at age 66 — a move that definitely seemed forced on him by owner Wayne Huizenga, who had taken over full control of the team a year earlier.

At least Shula, who won two Super Bowl titles with the Dolphins, was granted the dignity of a farewell news conference, though he dropped more than a few hints that it wasn’t entirely his decision to call it a career.

“This is the day you never think is going to happen,” he said that January day in 1996. “Now it has happened.”

In an interesting twist, Johnson was the guy who also replaced Shula. It didn’t work out like it did in Dallas — Johnson retired after just four seasons, and the Dolphins still haven’t won a Super Bowl since the early 1970s — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong move.

Landry never coached again. Neither did Shula. And now, Belichick is approaching that same fate.

The only suspense is how he leaves.

Does he go out like Shula, not necessarily on his terms but with his head held high and maybe afforded one last chance to trade a few barbs with the media he seemed to loathe so much throughout his career?

Or does he get shoved out the door like Landry?

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Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

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