Three decades since stint as Browns coach, Bill Belichick is still evolving

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Patriots prepare to face a team that includes a former New England player and coach Bill Belichick is peppered with questions about it leading up to kickoff, he often downplays the significance.

So it goes in the NFL world of free agency, he says. Almost every week you can find a player who fits the storyline.

This week, with the Patriots preparing to host the Cleveland Browns in an intriguing matchup of 5-4 teams (1 p.m. ET, Sunday, CBS), Belichick headlines a coaching-type version of it.

A lot of football has been played in the 30 years since he was first hired as Browns coach, making PB&J sandwiches on the side. This will be his 10th game against his former team and, in some ways, the even number provides a clean springboard to reflect and highlight how Belichick has evolved as a coach from his early Browns' days.

"Those were some up-and-down years," recalled Steve Belichick, the Patriots' outside linebackers coach and playcaller who was 5 at the time the Browns hired his father, but has vivid recollections of how it ended.

"A memory I'll never forget, unfortunately, when my mom picked me up on Valentine's Day and broke the news. I don't keep track of all the head-coaching firings around the league, but Feb. 14th is a little bit of an awkward time to separate. That was tough for the family. Our family wasn't well-liked by the public there, unfortunately."

The story is well documented, with Bill Belichick having the Browns on the rise in 1994 before owner Art Modell announced in 1995 that the franchise was relocating to Baltimore. Things spiraled quickly downward from there.

Belichick was fired by Modell, came to New England for the '96 season as a special assistant on Bill Parcells' staff and followed Parcells to the New York Jets for three seasons before returning to the Patriots as head coach in 2000.

Belichick, 69, has been ringing up regular-season and postseason victories ever since, his 316 ranking third all time among head coaches behind Don Shula (347) and George Halas (324).

In a reminder of how much time has passed since his Cleveland days, Belichick's youngest son Brian -- who now serves as the Patriots' safeties coach -- said he has no recollection of them. How would he? He was just born as they were starting.

But he's had a better view of the past 22 years in New England, first as a youngster visiting the Patriots' facility and now in his sixth season on the coaching staff.

"We moved here when I was 8. I was in third grade. So from a coaching perspective, obviously I didn't have much of an idea of what's going on until I got older. But he's been steadfast in his approach to life for a long time and one of the things that's always been remarkable about my dad is how he's willing to change his philosophy on the team," he said.

"There's obviously things he loves to have as core principles, but he's not afraid to evolve ... he's not rigid in his philosophy on the team or scheme, or whatever it is. I think everyone can see that if they watch our games, that we're not always doing the same thing. Whether it's week to week, year to year, he's willing to change. Not every team is like that, and not every coach is like that."

Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown, who played for Belichick from 2000 to 2007 and now serves as a returners/receivers coach, shares a similar viewpoint.

"I would say for Bill, just his ability to adapt and change to the way the game has been played, the change and the shift in the way different generations approach the game and life," he said. "He's been able to relate to all the different players who have come along the way [over that time]."

Belichick is the only head coach in NFL history to win six Super Bowl titles, and his 47 consecutive years as an NFL coach are most in league history, passing the 45 by Dick LeBeau. The only other coach with at least 40 consecutive NFL coaching seasons is Tom Moore (41).

What Modell had envisioned for Cleveland has instead unfolded in New England, where Belichick has upped his total of playoff victories to 31, easily an all-time high among head coaches (Tom Landry is next, with 21).

And for those who might have a different perception of Belichick from his Cleveland days, Brown passed along another nugget.

"He's a pretty private person as far as everybody else is concerned. I think people take it the wrong way. He cracks jokes all the time. He laughs and he tells stories," he said. "He's not like some old Grinch that doesn't like to have fun."