Belichick, Reid lead the way

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- One veteran NFL writer, a man who has chronicled league events for more than four decades and witnessed most of the previous 38 Super Bowls, opined this week that New England's Bill Belichick rates among the five greatest coaches in professional football history.

Another reporter suggested that, if someone administered the SAT to all head coaches in the league, Belichick would score the highest grade.

Oh, yeah, and then there's that Andy Reid guy who has been hanging around this week. You know, the other Super Bowl head coach.

There has developed a certain mystique about Belichick that he is the superior head coaching persona in Super Bowl XXXIX. That he is the mastermind and his Philadelphia Eagles sideline counterpart is just a lovable meathead. That the brainy yet brooding Belichick could probably preside over a Mensa convention while Reid is a good-natured mensch.

Don't believe it for a second. Belichick and the people around him certainly don't.

"I think [Belichick] respects everyone in his profession, to tell you the truth, but you kind of know when he really admires a coach," said Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. "Just the way he's talked about Andy Reid, the things he has mentioned about that staff, you know he holds them in high regard. I'm sure, if you look past the physical [dimensions], they probably are a lot more alike than people realize."

In many ways, notably the sway each coach commands within his own organization, that is precisely the case. It is not unusual for any NFL team's head coach to become the face of the franchise. But these two Super Bowl coaches have, with their own methods, extended their respective organizational presences from countenance to clout. Despite being surrounded by superb support groups on the sideline and in the front office, both are essentially the masters of their domain.

And unlike many of their league peers who have recently floundered when given such encompassing influence, Reid and Belichick have made it work. Each man owns at least one Super Bowl ring, although Reid earned his as an assistant, helping to guide Green Bay over New England in 1997. They are among the highest-paid coaches, possess profiles that eclipse those of many of their own stars and rate by any measure at or near the top of their profession. And they are coaching "lifers," guys who never played the game in the NFL, but whose combined résumés total 45 seasons in the league.

They are the consummate Boy Scouts, coaches who heed well the "be prepared" credo, and have fashioned it into a shared hallmark of their separate existences. But part of their success has been their ability to fashion terrific football teams with the players that they basically hand-picked to fill out their rosters.

It is not just happenstance that, of the 105 players on the two Super Bowl XXXIX rosters (the Patriots came here one player shy of the 53-man limit and it is not certain if they will fill that spot before Sunday), 69 are home-grown products who have played only for the Pats or the Eagles. There are 127 players on the two teams, counting those on injured reserve lists, and 67.7 percent of them have never drawn a paycheck from any other NFL team. Nearly 80 percent of that group joined the clubs under the stewardships of Belichick and Reid.

"Sure, I think you could say that these teams mirror their coaches," Reid said earlier this week. "I mean, that isn't too out of the ordinary, is it?"

Not at all. What is unusual, though, is that the Super Bowl XXXIX coaches have succeeded at applying their personal thumbprints to their clubs at a time when the NFL is moving quickly away from the notion that one man could fill the roles of both head coach and personnel director. To retain his job in Seattle last year, Mike Holmgren was forced to surrender the general manager title. The same fate befell Green Bay head coach Mike Sherman two weeks ago. Butch Davis so clearly botched his double-duty responsibilities in Cleveland that he was ousted before completing even three seasons with the Browns.

The head coaches in this Sunday's game, however, have the luxury of going into battle principally with warriors they chose. It is, for sure, a luxury well-earned.

"We have said all along that the key to our success, in both business and football, is to surround yourself with good people," said Patriots owner Bob Kraft. "And our good people know they have to have good people surrounding them, too, OK? Bill certainly understands that, in terms of staff, and players, too. He's a good judge of people."

Belichick's one-time mentor, current Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, noted that he shouldn't be asked to cook the meal if he wasn't permitted to first shop for the groceries. Translation: "The Tuna" wanted control over his roster. Ironically, that statement was trying to extricate himself from his contract as coach of the Patriots, so that he could move on to the New York Jets.

Eight years after Parcells departed the Patriots, Belichick is buying New England's groceries. And plucking his kind of players in both the gourmet and generic aisles. The same is true of Reid, who has made excellent personnel decisions for the most part.

That doesn't mean, of course, that Belichick and Reid are piloting the shopping carts with no help. Neither the Patriots nor Belichick would enjoy their current status without the work of vice president of personnel Scott Pioli. Clearly football soulmates, Pioli and Belichick have developed an uncanny knack for viewing prospects through precisely the same prism. There is an inexplicable Vulcan mind-meld of sorts between Belichick and Pioli (who should be named NFL executive of the year for a second straight season for having helped develop the depth that carried New England in 2004) and there is no doubt it is critical to what the team has accomplished.

There is also little doubt that, while Belichick counsels with Pioli on virtually all player transactions, the head coach has final call.

In Philadelphia, personnel chief Tom Heckert, one of the NFL's most anonymous but respected talent scouts, has done excellent legwork for Reid. The team's recent drafts, for instance, have been underrated and, upon closer inspection, have provided the Eagles a degree of depth that approximates the New England bounty. But Reid holds the title of executive vice president of football operations, a responsibility many outsiders felt he hadn't yet earned when it was bestowed on him by owner Jeff Lurie and president Joe Banner, and the Eagles roster carries his personal endorsement.

Both coaches have noted this week that, at a time when the demands of their on-field jobs have become so time-consuming, they lean heavily on their support groups. Few teams have assembled such impressive behind-the-scenes troops. But Belichick and Reid are disciplined enough to understand the select the kinds of foot-soldiers they desire under their command.

Belichick was asked at his Monday no-news conference about how the Patriots seek out intelligent and selfless players to fit into their system. Much has been made, certainly, of the Patriots' penchant for choosing players of great aptitude. Not surprisingly, Belichick spoke of the process that goes into mining football talent, and of the involvement of the entire New England operation is assessing prospects. But both the Super Bowl XXXIX franchises seem to bring in mature players, guys who possess football instincts and off-field awareness as well, and that points to the priorities of the head coaches.

"They know players, what makes them tick, what guys are their kind of people," Banner said. "You look at Andy and [Belichick] and what they've done in terms of molding their teams, creating rosters that reflect their principles, and it's amazing. It is a gift that has allowed both of them to be so successful."

It is, too, a luxury that permits each coach to know that, win or lose, the game will be determined by his guys, not someone else's team. Games still come down to execution, to planning the blueprint, and then adhering as closely as possible to the design. There has to be, players from both teams have agreed this week, a sense of contentment when a coach has personally chosen most of the people he is asking to complete the task at hand.

"These are two guys in control," said Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison. "And they really are in control, because they're playing with the guys in whom they have the most faith, the most trust, guys they felt were their kind of people."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.