Patriots sweep all-decade team, coach, MVP

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Over the course of 50 years, Steve Belichick stockpiled football books. He scoured shops across the country, always hunting for a title he didn't yet own.

Belichick's son began compiling in the 1970s. Their pursuit grew into what's believed to be the planet's largest collection of football books outside the Library of Congress and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Belichick collection -- stocked with 500 works that include "Practical Thesis in Football" by Amos Alonzo Stagg and "American Football" by Walter Camp -- is contained within the U.S. Naval Academy, where Steve Belichick coached 33 years.

As history advances and more books are added to the shelves, there will be an increasing percentage with Bill Belichick's name in them alongside other sideline legends.

ESPN.com selected Belichick as its all-decade coach for guiding the New England Patriots to three Super Bowls and four AFC championships and at least tying for the AFC East's best record each year since 2001.

That same résumé is why ESPN.com also chose Tom Brady as its MVP and the Patriots as its team of the decade. The honors were bestowed with consultation from NFL general managers, coaches, scouts and players.

When a team wins three Super Bowls in four years and plays in its conference championship game five times in a decade with one season to go, the choices crystallize.

"You have to recognize championships because, ultimately, that's what we're playing for," Belichick said when informed of ESPN.com's selections.

Belichick is more than a head coach. When the Patriots hired him in 2000, owner Robert Kraft essentially gave Belichick total control over football operations. Belichick handpicked his supporting cast and signed off on every major decision.

"He's made some great moves, brought in some players who had been released from other places. And he's done it year after year," said Ted Marchibroda, the coach who gave Belichick his start with the Baltimore Colts in 1975.

The Patriots went 5-11 in Belichick's first season but haven't had a losing record since. After a mostly miserable gig with the Cleveland Browns, he is 102-42 in the regular season for the Patriots, a .708

win percentage.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy won two more games this decade for a .722 win percentage. Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher had a .647 win percentage.

The difference, though, is the Lombardi Trophy. Cowher and Dungy won one apiece. Belichick won three in a four-year span.

"It's definitely an honor when you consider the other great people that are involved in that, Coach Cowher, Coach Shanahan, Coach Dungy, a lot of great coaches there," Belichick said. "It's certainly an honor to be placed among the coaches of that time."

What about all-time? The Pro Football Hall of Fame has drawn up all-decade teams since the 1960s. The list includes Weeb Ewbank, Don Shula, Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells. The first three are enshrined in Canton. The fourth is on his way.

When I mentioned this to Belichick, he might've blushed for a half-second. He quickly praised his players, counting off a long string of names critical to the Patriots' success. Many of his players, however, were players other teams considered unworthy, malcontents, washed up.

"It's certainly flattering to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys, but honestly I don't sit around a

nd think about it a lot," Belichick said. "We're so in the moment. We always have another bridge to cross.

"But I'm certainly proud of what our teams have done, proud to have been a part of them. I understand that it's not run-of-the-mill. We've had some great moments in this franchise. I've been pretty fortunate."

Fortune smiled most brightly -- and had a cleft chin -- in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. New England picked an awkward Michigan quarterback many viewed as a project.

Paul Brown had Otto Graham. Vince Lombardi had Bart Starr. Tom Landry had Roger Staubach. Chuck Noll had Terry Bradshaw. Walsh had Joe Montana.

Belichick and Brady will be linked forever.

Sooner than anybody could have fathomed, Brady supplanted Drew Bledsoe as the starter and led the Patriots on a final-minute drive to win their first Super Bowl title.

One of the enduring images from their upset victory over the St. Louis Rams, known as the "Greatest Show on Turf," was a boyishly exuberant Brady popping Bledsoe on the shoulder pads and yelling "We won!"

Belichick's "greatest move is when he replaced Bledsoe with Brady," Marchibroda said. "Nobody really believed it at the time.

"We on the outside hadn't seen Brady that much, but we'd seen Bledsoe, and it's hard to give up on a guy like Bledsoe. But [Belichick] did it and he was right, and Brady was a winner. To say that I could see that kind of success with Brady, I couldn't visualize that at the beginning."

In deciding the all-decade MVP, discussion came down to Brady and Peyton Manning. Some of our consultants claimed LaDainian Tomlinson might have won had he not shown signs of slippage last year.

Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury on opening day, but actually seeing Tomlinson as less than his usual, dominant self made an impression on our NFL experts.

Manning fans will point to the Colts quarterback's prolific passing stats, but where Brady sets himself apart is postseason performance. Brady won as many postseason games as Manning played in.

Brady is 14-3 this decade, while Manning is 7-7. Brady has thrown 26 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Manning has thrown 22 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

Also of note, Brady won three Super Bowls with an uninspiring group of receivers. In the one year he had Randy Moss and Wes Welker, the Patriots set several NFL records.

"The guy's just a winner," Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor said. "He knows how to win, period."

Taylor was named to ESPN.com's all-decade defense. Taylor has sacked Brady more than anybody else has, and you won't find a bigger Brady fan.

"He's got the talent. But everybody at this level has talent," Taylor said. "Maybe he does have a little more God-given ability than some others, but between the ears he's as good as they come."

Some Patriots critics still scoff at their success because of the Spygate scandal, one of the biggest NFL stories of the decade. Belichick was turned in for illegally videotaping opponents' defensive signals. The NFL fined him and stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft pick.

But ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, the former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs coach, laughs at the overblown notion.

"If you're naïve to believe that helped him win a Super Bowl, you're kidding yourself. I don't believe that," said Edwards, who on one of the tapes submitted into evidence could be seen waving to the Patriots' cameras.

It also should be noted the Patriots went 18-1, nearly pulling off the NFL's first unblemished season since the Dolphins did it in 1972, after the Spygate mess.

About 30 other NFL franchises wish they could fail like that.