It is so extraordinary that even the millions of football fans who despise the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick, should take notice. Why? Belichick has taken a very young, inexperienced team that was very flawed and mediocre at the start of the 2010-11 season and coached it into one of the best teams in the NFL - all within a few months.
I know it sounds like I'm embellishing, but, it's true. I've watched all the games. At the start of the year, I told my brother the team was simply not good enough to make it this season. It looks like this will be a "rebuilding" year, I said. "If this team makes the playoffs, it will be one of Belichick's best coaching jobs ever.." I said.
Then, I witnessed the miracle with my own eyes: The team got better and better, and, now, it has not only made the playoffs, but, just clinched the AFC East with a 13-2 record, the best in all of football. I know some of you are thinking: "What's the big deal? The Patriots are always good. They have Tom Brady....And, it's true that Brady has been off-the-charts this season, but, trust me: The more astonishing part is that this team has improved so much - so fast - that it's now contending for a Super Bowl.
Though it's hard to believe, one key explanation appears, convincingly, to be that Belichick and his assistant coaches have taught many of these young players how to play better and better as the season has progressed. The Patriots, with Belichick, have always placed emphasis on instructing each player to "do his own job well" within "the system." If they do that, the players have learned, Belichick will give them a terrific game plan uniquely aimed at the weaknesses of each opposing team each week - and, good execution will often lead to a win.
What's been amazing is that Belichick has pulled this off with so many kids on his team this year!
The Patriots' roster had already been injected with a lot of rookies before last season, and, that 2009-2010 edition ended with the Baltimore Ravens coming to town and kicking the shit out of the Patriots by a score of 33-14. The team made no big moves in the off-season, and added even more young players, but, many football observers still guessed the team might win up to 10 games. Watching the Pats in the first few weeks, it was easy to imagine them winning less than 10 games and failing to make the playoffs.
The improbable aspect of this turnaround has been Belichick's ability to mold and tweak this Patriots team to success despite the glaring weaknesses of its defense. Again, he's found ways to make "the system" work despite the lack of many "star" players. At the start of the year, the defense, particularly, its pass defense, was HORRIBLE. No matter which team they played and who was at quarterback, their opponents could throw pass after pass and just drive down the field. Patriots cornerbacks were either badly beaten, or, in position, but flailing helplessly as the football went into receivers' hands. The Patriots were OK against he run, but flawed in that department too. They had no pass rush, as expected.
The Patriots, reportedly, have the youngest defense in the NFL and one of the youngest (or the youngest) overall teams in the league. Yet, slowly but surely, the defense has played better, and, even, found a large strength of its own by creating a lot of turnovers, particularly a steady number of interceptions. The defense is still not great. The secondary is still very weak at times. All season, the Patriots' pass defense has been one of the worst, or The Worst, of all 32 teams in the NFL. The Patriots have ranked consistently behind most teams at stopping opposing teams on 3rd down. Even now, going into the season's final game on Jan. 2nd, the Patriots' defense is ranked 27th of the 32 teams in overall defense by ESPN.
But, somehow......Belichick has found little ways to get the very most out of the talent he has. He's found a formula for his flawed defense to do just well enough to allow the Patriots offense to carry the team to victory. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that the Pats place so much emphasis on executing great offensive drives early in the game to give them a lead, thereby "setting the dynamics" for the rest of the game, and helping its young defense do its job.
The team has outperformed, or, on occasion, demolished, top-quality opponents with more "stars" or established talent on paper - like the NY Jets, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Indiannapolis Colts, Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Ravens. Usually, the Patriots play more efficiently - and, appear to play with more mental toughness and focus - than their opponents. With each passing week, the defense has played with more aggressiveness and discipline - and begun to supplement the offense more. For instance, after the first several weeks, it seemed, the pass defenders got a bit more aggressive, in general - on their tackling and getting in position to make interceptions.
The team is using the Patriots' old "bend, but don't break" approach to defense, allowing the shortest passes but tackling receivers very quickly to limit their opponents to short gains. Plus, the team is succeeding at another old Belichick goal of limiting the opposition's Big Plays. This year, after the first few weeks, the defense has gotten very good at this - even though, often, it doesn't look that good as it "allows" opposing teams to march down the field by completing short passes. But, this young Pats team - like its predecessors - gets tougher in the red zone.
Meanwhile, the Pats' offense has been prolific - the most high-scoring, consistent unit in the league. Fittingly, one of the offensive keys has been the fantastic play of the Pats' two rookie tight ends - Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who is the youngest player in the NFL. They both play like veterans. Danny Woodhead, an unknown, practice squad player for the Jets in the preseason, joined the Pats and has been a surprising juggernaut, making one big play after another.
OK, I have to state the other, most obvious part of this story: Brady is performing as well ever at quarterback. He just broke the all-time NFL record for consecutive passes thrown without an interception. When the team traded Randy Moss and Brady began focusing on the short passing game he excells at, everything "took off" for the offense, and, the team as a whole. An overlooked factor has been the terrific play-calling of Bill O'Brien, who plays the role of offensive coordinator though he still doesn't have the title. O'Brien's play-calling suddenly got much better after Moss left too. It was as if the whole offense found its identity with the approach the Patriots had used so well in past glory years - with Brady hitting the open man rather than worrying about hitting Moss for bombs.
Other factors in the team's success have been:
1) The outstanding play of rookie cornerback Devin McCourty.
2) The incredible contributions of offensive tackle Logan Mankins, who, despite missing a bunch of games at the start of the year, was playing in peak form from Day One, and has helped add more fiery aggressiveness to the entire offensive line.
3) The entire offensive line has played well all year, giving Brady time to do his thing.
4) Middlie linebacker Jerod Mayo, who leads the NFL in tackles and always seems to catch an offensive player a split second before he breaks for much more yardage.
5) Vince Wilfork, the nose tackle, who, the team has moved around to keep offensive teams off balance, and has made many "big plays."
6) The great play of two "no-name" running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Both have been consistent. Both have caught short passes well. Both have surprised the hell out of other teams and the football media.
7) The play of the Pats' special teams, which always seem to leave the team with good field position, and, that has helped Brady and the offense do their thing.
8) Wes Welker, who despite being in his first year back from a serious knee injury, is still a huge contributor to the offense getting in rhythm and moving the chains.
This year's Patriots reminds me, to some extent, of the Pats team that came out of nowhere in the 2001-2002 season and upset the St.Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. That team, like this one, had many players no one had heard of. That team, like this one, was disciplined and mentally tough and played together.
If this Patriots team loses its first game in the playoffs, I will still consider this an amazing season that I will never forget. In an era of big-name, multi-million dollar stars like LeBron James and others, it's refreshing to see a team win mainly because it excells as a group.
Bill Belichick has already received accolades and won enough to go down as one of the greatest football coaches of all time. I think that's one reason his superb coaching this year has gone a bit overlooked. Everyone just assumes his Patriot teams will be good, but, only those of us who have watched the evolution of this 2010 edition know how special this team has been. And so, regardless of Belichick's past achievements, he has demonstrated his unique talents with this particular football team in this particular year.
Belichick is the indisputable Coach of the Year in the NFL.