Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, noted football historian, understands what a visit to the banks of the Ohio River means Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the undefeated Patriots play the enigmatic Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. And for Belichick, Paul Brown is underlined.
Not Chuck Noll, the man that Belichick can pass Sunday with a victory into fifth place on the NFL's all-time wins list.
"His offensive mind and the West Coast offense that really should be the Ohio River Offense because it's really Paul Brown's offense that (Bill) Walsh took out of there," Belichick said during Wednesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media, returning to a theme he always embraces when the Patriots play Brown's team with Brown as the father of the game.
"He was so far ahead of his time in all other organizational things, a lot of schematic things. The preparation that we do, it's all very, very similar to what he did half a century ago. The more I know about Paul Brown the more I'm impressed by him."
The Bengals run a latter-day version of the West Coast under offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and when quarterback Andy Dalton settles under center Sunday, Belichick says that scheme is the most significant contribution Brown made to the game that you still see on the field today as the Bengals yearn for the balance Brown crafted.
"I would say the possession passing game and the balance he brought to the offense when he went to Cincinnati," Belichick said. "You can pass the ball for five, six yards and that's a good play. It moves the chains and it keeps the down and distance in your favor. The pass doesn't have to be 15-to-18 yards downfield, where a big gain or an incomplete pass and you have a lot of second-and-10s."
Belichick says he likes to dig around the old NFL Films, so he's actually taken a look at those first few Bengals teams with running back Paul Robinson a big cog in an offense Walsh was the receivers coach before he became the quarterbacks coach and later perfected it all in San Francisco. The film is an archeological dig for a guy like Belichick. You can see the beginnings of what Belichick used to do so well with two tight ends and what the Bengals are trying to do now with Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.
"He was able to use his backs in the passing game, which is such trademark of the West Coast offense when they had Robinson and those guys," Belichick said. "Using the tight ends on short, intermediate routes. Not always the 12-to-15-yard routes. Being able to get them the ball. The whole catch-and-run principles that were in those drive routes, those underneath crossing routes where it's a two- or three-yard pass, but you get the ball in the hands of a good player and you can make 15 out of it."
Belichick can go all the way back to the days when Brown dominated the '50s in Cleveland with guys like a big, athletic running back in Marion Motley.
"The balance he had offensively, he was so far ahead of his time, even going back to Cleveland. You saw a lot of that even back in that day," Belichick said. "Those toss sweeps that they ran, as well as the inside running game, and they did a good job getting the ball down the field as well. I just think it was expanded to a different level, and one that is more familiar to the current NFL when he went to Cincinnati in the late '60s and implemented what is now the West Coast offense, which to me is Paul Brown's offense."
Belichick passed Brown on the wins list with his 167th nearly three years ago. He and Noll, a former player for Brown, are knotted at 209. Sunday is also a matchup of the two most-tenured coaches in the league, Belichick in his 14th season with the Pats and Marvin Lewis in his 11th in Cincinnati, and one thing they've noticed about each other is the ability to adjust and rebuild.
"Sometimes you have to find different ways to win. The way you do it one year might not work the next," Belichick said. "It might be the way your team is set up or matches up. The bottom line is we're trying to find a way to win. Marvin and his staff took a rookie quarterback three years ago and moved on from a guy that was the face of the organization and did things differently and found a way to go out there and have a good team and win consistently."
Belichick, 61, has been in the NFL almost twice as long as Lewis, 55. In his 39th year, he did every job imaginable breaking in.
"This is a team that offensively, other than the line, is a little unique to their standards because they are not the typical New England team with the veteran players as much. They're going through a little bit of a transition," said Lewis, in his 22nd NFL season. "Somebody said they have seven rookies and 14 young guys all together. Normally their thing is the veteran player. Bill's got a great ability to input the veteran player. He's able to plug those guys in and get the things done that they want to get done offensively and defensively.
"From times as a coordinator, to being the head coach in Cleveland, to the Pats and Jets and back to New England as the head coach, since I've been in the NFL, I've been able to follow his path. I think you have to point to his diligence and the detail of what they want to get done, and how they try to take away what is the perceived strength of the opponent. He's been able to devote full attention to that."
Bengals president Mike Brown has high regard for Belichick and it has been said that when head coach Bruce Coslet was putting together his staff before the 1997 season and Belichick was leaving New England, Brown urged Coslet to explore looking at Belichick as defensive coordinator. Coslet had his eye on another pretty good one and plucked Dick LeBeau from the Steelers.
"I've always had great respect for the entire Bengals organization starting at the top with Mike and the whole family. Their dedication to football and the NFL. They're one of the pillars of the league," Belichick said. "Coach Brown, going back to Mike's dad, there's a great tradition there and Marvin has done a good job of that. He's taken over a program and building it into a playoff team the past couple of years. That consistency is not easy to get in this league. There are plenty of teams that get up there and then go down and vice versa. He's been very competitive on a consistent basis, has got a lot of young players in all three phases of the game. They're tough and explosive and I think that consistency comes from him, Mike and the entire organization."