But when everything is taken into account, we might have to reconsider the importance of Eric Mangini to the Patriots, and subsequently to the potentially Super Bowl-bound New York Jets.
No longer affiliated with either team, the fact still remains that Mangini, or at least his presence, has had an impact on both teams, an impact which is still being felt as the Jets are set to take on the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game this weekend.
The relationship between Belichick and Mangini goes way back. Belichick got the ball rolling when he was a big part of Mangini's rising through the lower ranks of the Cleveland Browns system, ending up as an offensive assistant. When Belichick joined the New York Jets in 1997 as an assistant head coach, he reunited with Mangini and hired the fellow Wesleyan alumnus as his defensive assistant. Mangini then followed Belichick to New England when the latter shocked the New York franchise by resigning as "HC of the NYJ."
Upon taking the reins in New England, Belichick appointed Mangini his defensive backs coach from 2000-04 and promoted him to defensive coordinator for the 2005 season. During their joint time in New England, the Patriots won three Super Bowls and distinguished themselves as the dynasty of the decade. Belichick and Mangini's relationship was seen as a true example of a mentor/protege dynamic, mutually beneficial and symbiotic. However, it was not to last.
When Mangini left the Patriots to become head coach of the New York Jets in the 2006 season, the relationship between the two coaches began to sour. Though both publicly declared nothing but respect for each other, it was clear that tensions existed between the old master and his younger apprentice. Speculations about the nature of the rift spread, but until Sept. 9, 2007, when the infamous "Spygate" scandal broke, there was no hard evidence to support any theories of a fractured relationship.
NFL commissioner Roger Goddell eventually fined Belichick personally $500,000 and the Patriots organization $250,000 for their involvement in taping New York Jets' defensive coaches signals on the sidelines during the September game. The Patriots also lost their 2008 first-round draft pick as a result of the incident. All of this would have been embarrassing enough for the organization, but the fact that it was Mangini, Belichick's former coordinator, who blew the whistle on the big, bad Patriots made it sting that much more.
It was also the first week of what would become the Patriots' undefeated regular season, just the second in NFL history. Many claim that the Spygate scandal detracts from the Patriots' accomplishments that season, and several members of the media wondered out loud and in print if the resulting fallout would add even more drama to the Patriots-Jets rivalry.
While Mangini's tenure in New York produced a mostly mediocre record (the Jets went 23-25 during his time there and 2-5 against the Patriots, including a playoff loss), New Englanders privately rejoiced when he was fired following the 2008 season. However, Mangini's influence on the Jets, and subsequently on the Patriots, was not over.
Mangini, shortly after his firing, was hired as head coach of the hapless Cleveland Browns (replacing another fired Belichick former confidant, Romeo Crennel). When draft day came around in New York, Mangini found himself at the middle of a complicated deal that allowed the Jets to draft USC quarterback Mark Sanchez with the fifth pick in the first round.
Since the draft, the Jets have exceeded expectations with their rookie quarterback and rookie head coach Rex Ryan. They finished the season with a 9-7 record, won the AFC wild-card game against the Cincinnati Bengals and the AFC divisional round game against the highly favored San Diego Chargers. They now stand on the precipice of playing in their first Super Bowl since 1968.
Granted, the success of the Jets team this year has been largely due to the team's rushing attack and strong defensive corps, and is not solely a result of Sanchez's often pedestrian play. But the fact remains that without Mangini's involvement, the Jets wouldn't have their franchise quarterback in Sanchez, whom they've come to refer to as "the Sanchise." Joe Namath he's not, but Sanchez has developed over the course of the season and with the right environment, could be successful in New York — and a thorn in the side to New England — for years to come.
If the Jets win their matchup with Indianapolis this weekend and put up a strong showing in the Super Bowl, Jets fans will continue to thank Mangini for his involvement in bringing Sanchez to New York, while Patriots fans will continue to curse him.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are faced with another long offseason of unmet expectations and disappointment. Since losing Mangini, the Patriots have managed to put up impressive numbers, but their fourth Super Bowl title continues to elude them. While still an unquestionably talented team stocked with Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers, the Patriots nevertheless have not been able to recapture the magic that made them the team of the decade.
The media have openly questioned whether Belichick, long-heralded as a genius in New England, has become arrogant with his play calling, and there are whispers that the coaching autonomy he enjoys is not good for him or the team. The team has stopped relying on the defensive strongholds (those run by Crennel and Mangini) that served as the backbone for their championship teams.
Despite the fact that Mangini continues to struggle mightily in Cleveland (5-11 this season), there is no denying that he is partially responsible for the Jets' current state of affairs. And while the Jets appear to be on an upward trajectory, Mangini's other old team, the New England Patriots, may be traveling in the opposite direction. Perhaps the "Mangenius" has finally gotten his revenge against his old boss after all.