Decades before Bill Belichick led the Patriots to four Super Bowl wins, he spent a year early in his coaching career as an assistant for the Denver Broncos.
In 1978, Belichick served as an assistant special teams coach and defensive assistant for head coach Red Miller and defensive coordinator Joe Collier.
"It was very good and beneficial, the year for me, working with Joe Collier, Richie McCabe on the defensive side of the ball," Belichick said Wednesday on a conference call with the Denver media. "There was also Stan Jones who was on that staff as well. But in particular [I worked] with Joe. Joe was a great guy to learn from and that was kind of my first pro exposure to the 3-4. We ran a four-man line in Baltimore and Detroit was an odd-spacing but it was a four-man line concept, too."
Belichick's year in Denver followed one season with the Baltimore Colts and two with the Detroit Lions.
"It was a little bit different in Detroit but Joe's defense was different the way he played it with the way they mixed up the fronts," Belichick said. "They had a couple of good coverage concepts that I wasn't familiar with or hadn't had a chance to really coach before, so being able to see that first hand, the way Joe looked at the game. I broke down all of the games for him."
That first year gave Belichick the background with a 3-4 defense that would help him in New York as an assistant and later in Cleveland and New England where he's racked up 234 wins as a head coach.
"The way that [Collier] called the game and the breakdowns that he did – Joe's really a very, very smart coach and I thought he was a very good situational coach defensively," Belichick said. "That was quite a bit different than the 3-4 that we ran with the Giants with Bill [Parcells] which was similar to the way Coach [Chuck] Fairbanks ran it from what they did in New England when he was up there with Fritz Shurmur. So there were some things that Joe did that were different and that was interesting and when I coached the linebackers and eventually became a coordinator there was a lot of 3-4 background from Denver that definitely had some applications of the things that we did."
The learning didn't stop at the line of scrimmage. Belichick learned about the finer points of the secondary in Denver, which was an important basis of knowledge to have when he went to New York and transitioned from a special teams coach to linebackers coach to defensive coordinator.
"The systems are a little bit different but there's still some carryover, definitely some fundamentals," Belichick said. "And then when I ended up coaching the secondary with the Giants and Al Groh came in and coached the linebackers in '89 I think it was, '88 or '89, somewhere in there. Going back to the time I spent with Richie and Joe, watching them coach the defensive backs, that was helpful, too. So it was a great year defensively. I also worked with Coach [Marv] Braden on special teams and I learned a lot there about the kicking game as well, so it was a good learning year."
Belichick is 8-9 vs. the Broncos since he became the head coach of the Patriots in 2000. The Broncos are the only team against which Belichick has a losing record as a head coach, and the Broncos have found even more success against him in the playoffs. Including Belichick's tenures with other teams, he is 9-5 in conference championship games. Three of those losses have been to the Broncos in Denver.
In the NFL, many coaches make a series of stops. And Belichick's path led him through Denver in 1978. He'll return Sunday for yet another chapter in a long series of memorable battles.