FOXBOROUGH — Even for a coach as successful as he is, Bill Belichick has made his share of mistakes.
Such as, thinking college wrestler Stephen Neal, trying his hand at the NFL, would be best suited on the defensive line, or that Matt Light would excel at right tackle.
Those moves, of course, weren’t the right ones. Belichick has joked that the inexperienced Neal may have gotten worse in his first training camp while playing on defense, and that he started to show he could transition his considerable athletic talents to the football field after he was moved to the offensive line.
Light will have a spot in the franchise’s Hall of Fame in the not-so-distant future as a left tackle.
The decision to have Devin McCourty start his career at cornerback may not be as flawed as those Belichick initially made with Neal and Light; after all, the 2010 first-round pick did make the Pro Bowl at the position as a rookie.
But in the year since McCourty moved to safety full time, he quickly has developed into one of the more consistent center fielders in the NFL, an indispensable leader and steadying influence in a secondary that desperately needed one.
After his stellar rookie season, McCourty got off to a rocky start in 2011. New England began the year playing more man-to-man coverage, and McCourty was better in zone; he also had the tall task of covering then-Dolphin Brandon Marshall and then-Charger Vincent Jackson in back-to-back weeks to open that season.
Targeted 25 times over those two games, McCourty gave up 15 receptions and more than 18 yards per catch. It didn’t take long for the criticism to start, and the chorus of critics only grew louder as the season went on and McCourty continued to struggle.
Late in that 2011 season, McCourty played some snaps at safety, but as the 2012 season began, injuries and attrition meant he had to remain at corner. Even coming off his poor sophomore campaign, he was the best the Patriots had.
Yet as injuries piled up in the secondary last year, with Steve Gregory down and Patrick Chung knocked out of the Seahawks game, New England was forced to play McCourty at safety in Seattle.
He’s been there ever since, and even in a relatively short amount of time, it’s become hard to imagine what the back end of the Patriots’ defense would look like if he weren’t there.
“The longer he’s been at safety, the better he’s done,” quarterback Tom Brady said last week.
It makes sense that McCourty would do better as more of a general in the backfield than sequestered along one sideline or the other — during his rookie season, Belichick said in a news conference that when it came to breaking down film with prospects during the pre-draft process, former Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis was the very best, but McCourty wasn’t far behind him in terms of knowledge and understanding the role of each of his teammates on a play-by-play basis.
That remains the case.
“I think he has a good understanding of overall defense,” Belichick said. “If you understand the whole concept, then that helps you know where you’re more needed or less needed, where the matchups are, where we’re vulnerable against certain calls, against certain formations or players that match up there. He has a good understanding of our entire defense.
“Not that he could play outside linebacker or play defensive tackle, but he knows what they’re doing and understands when they’re involved in certain things. Again, it’s just a good awareness and understanding of the total concept. I’d say not a lot of guys have that as comprehensively as he does.”
When he was a cornerback, McCourty tried to learn everyone’s role, but in his duties there, it wasn’t necessary — what the inside linebacker did on a play wouldn’t affect him.
Now, however, he knows what everyone’s job is in every situation, and that allows him to decide who might need help or where he can back off. Everything is in front of him, and he can use his knowledge and instincts to advise his teammates or influence how the Patriots’ defense will handle one play or another.
It’s common to see him directing traffic pre-snap, doing everything he can to make sure New England is in the best position.
“In any position in the secondary you have to talk because those guys have to be on the same page at all times,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “I think that with him being a very intelligent person he’s able to communicate with everybody and I think that also comes with being more experienced and as he gets older, more confident in himself to just play at a high level.
“I think he’s done a great job of not only being a great situational player but making big plays.”
Perhaps the most memorable play of McCourty’s career came last week against the Dolphins. On a deep sideline pass intended for Mike Wallace, McCourty came all the way over from the middle of the field to break up the pass.
In the air, however, he heard cornerback Marquice Cole yelling for him to try to tip the ball to him, volleyball style, because McCourty’s momentum would surely carry him out of bounds if he held onto the ball, negating an interception.
In that split second, McCourty was able to adjust, and Cole was able to make the catch and get both feet inbounds for a key turnover.
“He is a very aware player,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of McCourty. “He’s got a lot of range. That play on the sideline, that tells you everything you need to know about him. He’s a smart and selfless player. To tip that ball back inbounds to [Cole] is impressive.”
As they watched the replay on the big screens inside Gillette Stadium, McCourty and Cole knowingly joked that it would be a top-10 play on the night’s highlight shows. Of course, McCourty’s twin, Jason, a cornerback with the Titans, mocked his “older” brother, saying Devin simply dropped the interception. But that’s just how the brothers are with one another.
His twin’s feigned grief aside, it’s hard to find someone who wasn’t impressed by McCourty’s instincts and reaction in that instant.
“Devin is a great player. The play that was made the other day with he and Marquice, that was an amazing play,” Brady said. “Devin was basically on the other side of the field and took off running. To be able to cover that much ground and have that kind of range as a post safety is remarkable.
“I see that every day in practice. You really have to look Devin off. He’s really smart, he sees combinations and sometimes you try to look him off, and he knows you’re trying to look him off so he doesn’t take it. There are other times he gets great jumps on the ball. He knocks balls away, covers guys in man coverage, and then has that range in the deep part of the field where he truly plays like a safety.”
He had some moments as a cornerback, but McCourty is a natural at safety, and the move for him has paid dividends for the Patriots.