ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For one season, Bill Belichick was a Bronco.
In 1978, the eventual eight-time Super Bowl champion spent a season on the sidelines in Denver as the team's assistant special teams coach and as an assistant to defensive coordinator Joe Collier. The Broncos' 1978 media guide listed him as "Director of Films."
It was just his fourth season in the NFL. To that point he had been a special assistant to the head coach for the Baltimore Colts, an assistant special teams coach for the Lions and a tight ends/receivers coach for the Lions.
But it was under the guidance of Collier, the "Orange Crush" defensive maestro, and his staff that Belichick would learn from one of the NFL's most innovative minds.
"I learned to see the game through the eyes of Joe Collier and ... Joe, how he had me break it down for him, I could see how he looked at it as a defensive coach," Belichick said Tuesday on a conference call with Denver media. "That was valuable. Not everybody looks at it quite the same way, but Joe was very skilled at analyzing offenses and what they did and when they did it. He was good at anticipating very well. He did an excellent job of setting that up. I broke down the games for him, but the way he had me do it was a little different than the way I had done it in Baltimore. It gave me a lot of insight there.
"When you coach offense, or when you're a head coach, and you know how defensive coaches think, they don't all think the way that you do, but guys that think like Joe or guys that think like some of the great coordinators and coaches in the league, it's good just kind of have an idea about how they see the game."
Another thing that Belichick observed, he said, was how Collier focused on defending in particularly vulnerable situations — in the red zone and on the goal line.
"This was in '78, but another thing that I thought that Joe was ahead of the game on was red-area defense," Belichick said. "He had at that time, I thought, very unique and ahead-of-the-curve coaching points and adjustments in the red area that you just didn't see as much from. … That really helped me understand that part of the game and how innovative and creative he was, and [then defensive backs coach] Richie McCabe was with that too. The Bronco 3[-4] that we played is now something that you see a lot of teams in this league play a version of, if they're a zone team.
"That was a great learning experience. That certainly stayed with me — red-area defenses and goal-line defenses. They had some of the best goal line — for me, [they had] as good of goal-line defenses as we've seen in the National Football League — them and the Vikings were certainly two of the best. And the way that Joe played goal line, that's definitely something there that I learned a lot about there, as well. That was a great year, a great experience. Loved working for the Broncos in '78."
Given the Broncos' defensive successes in those years, Belichick would have been hard-pressed to find a team for which to work that season. Fresh off going to Super Bowl XII, the Broncos' defense was perhaps even better in 1978; it ranked second in the NFL in points per game and sixth in yards allowed per game.
"That was a tremendous experience, and I learned a lot that year about serving in a 3-4 defense and the way that Joe taught it," Belichick said. "There was a number of great players on that defense. [Billy] Thompson and [Steve] Foley — they were really good players — Louis Wright, [Tom] Jackson, Randy [Gradishar], [Joe] Rizzo, [Bob] Swenson was a tremendous player, … a really good nose tackle in Rubin [Carter], Barney [Chavous], Lyle [Alzado]. It was a really good, solid, sound group that played well together. … They were talented, but it wasn't just the talent. It wasn't an elite talent. It was a really good level of talent, but they just played well together; they had good instincts and really knew how to play."
In addition to working with Collier, Belichick also worked with McCabe, linebackers coach Bob Zeman and defensive line coach Stan Jones. In that role, he was part of the defensive meetings and practices and broke down film for Collier.
"I didn't know it at the time, but looking back on it, I really have an appreciation for how well Joe and Richie and the rest of the coaches put that group together and how consistently they played," Belichick said. "It wasn't just game to game. Honestly, it was play to play, even in practice. They didn't make a lot of mistakes. They were very disciplined — a good fundamentals and technique team. They took a lot of pride and responsibility in their role."