Belichick impressed with rookies, castoffs

Posted Jan. 20, 2011 @ 10:16 a.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

Bill Belichick seems to be immune to many things. He's immune to losing some of his top coordinators and finds ways to reload his coaching staff. He's immune to the risks of getting rid of veterans, as seen through the team's offensive surge after trading Randy Moss and Laurence Maroney. He also is immune to any sense of fashion. And some observers think he's immune to smiling.

When Belichick won the 2010 Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Writers of America Coach of the Year award — his third time earning the honor — he showed that he's immune to something else: the trend that the award usually goes to coaches who can turn a team around.

"On behalf of our entire coaching staff, we are very appreciative of this award," said Belichick. "Any recognition of coaching must include all the assistant coaches, who are responsible for coaching each player on a daily basis. Of course, without the performance of the players all season long, we would not have been in consideration. It is always a true team effort."

Since 1990, the Coach of the Year has been awarded to coaches who led a sub-.500 team to the playoffs every season but five. One went to Dom Capers in 1995. Another was Andy Reid in 2002. The other three? Belichick.

And Belichick had some worthy competitors this season who had résumés worthy of a Coach of the Year: Todd Haley, Steve Spagnuolo, Raheem Morris and Lovie Smith, to name a few.

Once again, though, Belichick proved immune to these turnaround coaches challenging for the award. Why is Belichick allowed to win an award usually saved for upstart coaches who surprise the league by getting the most out of a club with low expectations?

Well, Belichick isn't much different from those coaches who exceed expectations. A coach is judged on what he can get out of his team. Belichick hasn't built a dynasty with Hall of Fame players, aside from one important one — QB Tom Brady. He has built a dynasty with players he wants who fit into his system.

"He gets the most out of his team," said OLB Tully Banta-Cain, who has spent six seasons with Belichick. "Through preparation and attention to detail, he really doesn't leave any stone unturned when it comes to getting ready for a game."

In 2010, it's as if the football gods wanted to make things difficult for Belichick to see how much he could do with less.

The laundry list of season-ending injuries began in the offseason when two starters, DE Ty Warren and CB Leigh Bodden, and a top reserve, S Brandon McGowan, went down. Then the season began, and lost were RB Kevin Faulk, PK Stephen Gostkowski, OT Nick Kaczur, OG Stephen Neal, DE Ron Brace and DL Mike Wright.

No problem; let the rookies handle it.

CB Devin McCourty led all rookies with seven interceptions. TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez caught 16 of Tom Brady's 36 touchdown passes. LBs Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes were regular starters. P Zoltan Mesko, a fifth-rounder, improved the team's net punting average from last in the league to tied for 10th.

But it was the undrafted guys who demonstrate Belichick's eye for talent, shown in the team's back-to-back nail-biting wins over the Ravens and Chargers.

With 1:45 to go in the Patriots' Week Six tilt with the Ravens, Baltimore had the ball in a 20-20 tie. Ray Rice was targeted out of the backfield on a second-down pass, but he was brought down quickly by Dane Fletcher. The Ravens' 3rd-and-6 play failed, and they punted, leading to overtime.

Dane who?

Fletcher, an undrafted rookie linebacker out of Montana State, had the speed to keep up with Rice, a situation game-planned by Belichick earlier in the game. The Patriots won in the extra period.

Next week, another rookie took his turn.

As New England led the Chargers 23-20 with 1:14 to go, San Diego was approaching field-goal range. On 3rd-and-10, QB Philip Rivers tossed a pass to All-Pro TE Antonio Gates, who picked up eight yards before being tackled by S Sergio Brown.

Sergio who?

Brown, an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame who had been signed off the practice squad one day before the game, made the clutch tackle. San Diego missed its FG attempt, and the Patriots escaped with a big win.

In the NFL, it seems as if one coach's junk is Belichick's treasure. A prime example of that is RB Danny Woodhead, whom Belichick scooped up from the Jets' cutting-room floor. The diminutive Woodhead ably replaced Faulk, tallying 926 combined yards and six touchdowns.

This is what Belichick does. Sure, people point to his All-Pro signalcaller as a big reason for the coach's success, but Brady doesn't play defense.

And Brady didn't decide to ship out Maroney and Moss and revamp the offense on the fly during the season. Belichick had his doubters, only to see Deion Branch and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have huge seasons, with Brady winning MVP.

Doing a lot with less. That's a mark of the Coach of the Year. You might think that the Patriots are a dynasty and Belichick doesn't have to do much, but this season proved that he is almost immune to what the football gods throw at him.

Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who embodies the exact opposite of Belichick in terms of personality, put it simply before their divisional-round matchup.

"(Belichick) will go down in history as maybe the greatest football coach in the history of this game — or gonna be close to it."

 

Pro Football Weekly's annual awards issue (dated Jan. 23) is on sale now, featuring All-NFL, All-Conference and All-Rookie teams, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Offensive Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, Most Improved Player of the Year, Executive of the Year and Assistant Coach of the Year — all selected by PFW editors and contributors along with members of the Professional Football Writers of America — as well as a Golden Toe Award selected by PFW editors only. The print edition also contains a preview of the draft outlook for the first four teams to make selections in April, as well as previews of the two conference championship games. The print edition is available at retail outlets around the country and also online at PFWstore.com , where you can purchase a print copy or an electronic (PDF) version.