Bill Belichick's hollow coaching tree

As Josh McDaniels drove away from the Denver Broncos practice facility with a honk of his car horn and smile presumably meant to convey how unsinkable he remained despite just being fired Monday, it was hard to forget it was just 23 months ago that Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen kept mentioning McDaniels' Bill Belichick pedigree when he presented the Broncos' new 32-year-old head coach -- same as Jets owner Woody Johnson did when he introduced another Belichick protégé, Eric Mangini, as his new head man five seasons ago.

I covered Mangini's introductory news conference, and I've always joked that Johnson sounded that day like some starry-eyed horse racing mogul raving about his latest purchase at the Keeneland yearling sale:

"Mangini, out of Parcells, by way of Belichick?!"

"I'll take him!"

But there's a risk to buying too heavily into coaching trees. Every time Belichick and his Patriots surface stealthily like some U-boat rising from the depths to torpedo a supposed front-runner as comprehensively as they walloped the New York Jets on Monday, a shellacking that was reminiscent of how the Pats used to lobotomize Peyton Manning all those years, other win-starved football executives look at Belichick and think that if they can just hire someone who sat at the knee of the Great Man Himself, they'll get a winner. What they've ended up with is a bunch of $2 claimers instead.

The New England Patriots' media guide proudly touts Belichick's coaching tree. But if you haven't noticed, it's been tough sledding for Belichick's spinoffs once they became the head man.

Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator for the Pats' Super Bowl champion teams, was an insufferable flop as Notre Dame's coach who acted as if talking to alumni was beneath him. Mangini, who was hired at 34, went from being an embattled Jets head coach to being an embattled Browns head coach who had to tamp down player and fan revolts just a half season into his new gig. And remember who preceded Mangini as head coach of the Browns? It was Romeo Crennel, who won three rings as defensive coordinator for Belichick's Super Bowl teams, but then went only 24-40 with Cleveland.

Crennel did pull off one coup. He didn't leave town hated or accused of unwarranted arrogance, something Mangini, McDaniels and Weis can't claim about their failed tenures. All three have been mocked for trying to copy Belichick's many quirks and Kremlin-like methods despite lacking his portfolio of winning seasons. Ideally, the formula works the other way around: Proven gravitas, then hubris. Win, then act as if you've got the world figured out.

Crennel and Weis now work as coordinators for fellow Bill Parcells understudy Todd Haley, who is 8-4 with the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West this season after a 4-12 debut. Haley got into it with McDaniels earlier this year -- refusing to shake hands, wagging a finger in McDaniels' face and warning him that people around the league were tired of his shtick -- after the Broncos seemed to be rubbing in their 49-29 win over the Chiefs on Nov. 14.

Haley apologized later, but the reprimand turned out to be a harbinger. McDaniels' cocksureness cost him his job, not just some strained friendships around the league.

McDaniels was fired after two members of his own coaching staff ratted him out to management for what's being called Spygate II. Belichick, of course, perpetrated the original.

Hardly anyone except the league office seems to buy McDaniels' story that video coordinator Steve Scarnecchia acted alone when he taped the San Francisco 49ers' final walk-through before this season's game in London. (The Broncos lost anyway.) McDaniels' alibi was that he never looked at the tape and therefore didn't report Scarnecchia's transgression. The NFL looked a bit too eager to merely fine McDaniels and the team $50,000 each and declare the whole mess closed within days.

Perhaps McDaniels could've survived if his won-lost record or personnel decisions weren't such a disaster. But McDaniels brought in 40 of the 53 players on the Broncos' current roster. The problem? Gone are a slew of future draft picks as well as talents such as Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Peyton Hillis, who are all starring elsewhere. In their places came draft-day reach Tim Tebow, Brady Quinn and ex-Pats running back Laurence Maroney, benchwarmers all.

The Broncos have gone 5-17 since McDaniels got off to a 6-0 start in 2009. Memorably, one of those first six wins ended with McDaniels punching the air and galloping around the Broncos' home field as if he had fire ants in his copycat Belichick hoodie. The Broncos had just beaten the Patriots in Week 5 and, mystifyingly enough, Belichick, the undisputed king of the you're-dead-to-me postgame handshake, didn't hold that display against McDaniels. He actually sought young Josh out in the Broncos locker room to congratulate him. Or burp him. Who can be sure now?

The idea of Belichick being charitable about any loss was a curveball. But then, charting the unexpected twists and incestuous turns in the Belichick coaching tree is like trying to read "Wolf Hall," Hilary Mantel's blockbuster historical novel about Tudor England under notorious King Henry VIII.

Talk about palace intrigues.

Did you know, for example, that before getting fingered for Spygate II with the Broncos, Scarnecchia was Mangini's video coordinator when the Jets dropped the dime on Belichick's Spygate operation in New England, where all three of them had worked together before? Did you know Scarnecchia's father, Dante, remains a Pats assistant coach though Belichick was personally fined $500,000 and the Pats another $250,000 for the team's little espionage ring?

Belichick's personal Cold War with Mangini predates both Spygates. It supposedly traces back to Mangini ignoring Belichick's advice to remain Pats defensive coordinator and instead taking the division rival Jets' head-coaching job in 2006, an Oedipal break from Belichick that mirrored Belichick's own Oedipal break from his mentor, Parcells, in 2000. Remember that?

Belichick accepted the offer to succeed Parcells as the Jets head coach, then changed his mind a day later during a treadmill workout and infamously jotted down a note that read, "I resign as HC of the NYJ" just before his introductory news conference was set to begin. Effusive Belichick is not.

Belichick has managed to navigate the bizarro twists with his genius credentials intact because of his Super Bowl rings, 10 consecutive winning seasons and triumphs such as Monday's spanking of the Jets. It just stands to reason that if Belichick's success is explained by his system alone and not the magic he breathes into it during the week and on game days, then his success would have been at least approximated elsewhere by one of his understudies by now, same as how Bill Walsh's West Coast offense and Tony Dungy's Cover 2 defense helped Mike Holmgren and Mike Tomlin, respectively, win Super Bowls.

That hasn't happened.

The secret to the Patriots' greatness is Belichick himself, all right. Or -- to be completely accurate -- Belichick and Tom Brady. McDaniels' swift firing is just the latest proof.

The 2010 Patriots are now an NFL-best-tying 10-2 despite their flaws and look like Belichick's best coaching job yet.

If football genius is the measure, the Belichick coaching tree remains a forest of one.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.