Gil Brandt, the former personnel executive who worked alongside Tom Landry for almost 30 years with the Dallas Cowboys, doesn’t want to hear that this year is one of Bill Belichick’s finest coaching jobs.
“Let me stop you right there,” Brandt said by telephone last week. “I don’t think it’s one of the finest. I think it is the best he’s ever done.”
Quite a lofty statement about a coach with five Super Bowl appearances (and three victories) in 14 seasons, with a perfect 16-0 season on his résumé, and about to secure his 11th straight season of 10 or more wins. But with the Patriots at 9-3 entering Sunday’s tilt against the Browns, with the possibility of clinching yet another AFC East title, it’s not so crazy to think that this year might be Belichick’s finest coaching job with the Patriots.
His track record with personnel and draft moves certainly isn’t perfect. And the defense once again may prevent the Patriots from reaching the Super Bowl.
But it’s hard to argue that everything’s coming up Belichick this year — from questionable personnel moves that have worked out, to rookies who are contributing immediately to a team that is cruising right along in the AFC despite myriad changes on offense and the notion that this was supposed to be a “down year.”
“He doesn’t believe in down years and moral victories,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “He believes in one thing, that’s to win football games, and his level of expectation isn’t going to change regardless of who’s in the uniform. He’s a tremendous leader, he’s got so much passion and insight when it comes to the game of football, and it’s not by accident that he’s had the success that he’s had.”
Personnel-wise, Belichick mostly pushed the right buttons in the offseason. The decision to let Wes Welker walk away in free agency certainly stung Patriots fans, Danny Amendola’s inconsistent play and injury situation this year haven’t helped justify the swap, and the Patriots probably should have made a harder run at defensive end John Abraham (eight sacks with Arizona) or another veteran pass rusher.
But Julian Edelman’s production must also be taken into consideration. He has 70 catches for 711 yards and four touchdowns, compared with 68 catches for 717 yards and nine touchdowns for Welker in Denver.
Edelman was an afterthought in free agency, signing a one-year deal with the Patriots and then having it restructured after missing much of the offseason program with a foot injury. Even with the maximum incentives in his contract triggered with his 70 catches, Edelman still only makes $1.015 million this year, an incredible bargain compared with Amendola ($8.3 million in pocket) and Welker ($4.15 million).
Belichick’s rookie class is also performing very well, on the whole. Second-round pick JamieCollins hasn’t made much of an impact yet (although he’s far from being called a bust for now), and fourth-round receiver Josh Boyce only has two catches. But second-round receiver AaronDobson has been solid (492 yards, four touchdowns), third-round defensive backs Logan Ryan (three interceptions) and Duron Harmon (two interceptions) have improved steadily, and Belichick found some steals among undrafted free agents and waiver-wire rookies. Kenbrell Thompkins has 466 yards and four touchdowns, while Joe Vellano and Chris Jones (six combined sacks) barely come off the field in filling in for VinceWilfork and Tommy Kelly.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has more than rewarded Belichick’s decision not to provide any competition for him this season. Even the switch from veteran punter Zoltan Mesko to rookie Ryan Allen has worked out well. Allen is a respectable 14th in punting average (Mesko was 30th last year), and he has capably handled his holding duties on field goals and extra points despite never doing it before.
Then factor in all of the distractions Belichick has dealt with this year:
■ Suddenly losing Aaron Hernandez this summer and dealing with the myriad issues surrounding his arrest.
■ Not having Rob Gronkowski for the first six weeks, or any of Tom Brady’s top five receivers from last year during that period.
■ Season-ending injuries to Wilfork, Kelly, Jerod Mayo, and Sebastian Vollmer, plus extended injuries for Shane Vereen, Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard (who also had legal problems), and Amendola.
Yet the Patriots can clinch their 11th AFC East title in 13 years Sunday with a win and a Miami loss or tie, or a Patriots tie and Dolphins loss.
“[Belichick has] done an outstanding job,” owner Robert Kraft told the Globe last week. “But I must say it’s been together with his whole staff. People don’t understand how hard they work. I get in there pretty early, and these guys have been in at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. meeting. When I leave at 7 or 8 at night, they’re still here.
“He loves what he does and he’s good at it, but he’s also surrounded himself with great people.”
When it comes time to award Coach of the Year, Belichick may be a victim of his own success. The NFL has several qualified candidates this year — Kansas City’s Andy Reid, Carolina’s Ron Rivera, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, New Orleans’s Sean Payton, and Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly among them — and voters tend to favor someone new.
“It was the same way for Coach Landry, who only won Coach of the Year one time,” Brandt said.
A sampling of eight NFL front office executives, scouts, and agents revealed votes for Reid, Carroll, and Rivera, but none for Belichick, who has already won the award three times (2003, 2007, 2010).
“Carroll has survived injuries at tackle, and suspensions and injuries at defensive line and wide receiver,” one personnel executive said.
“It’s got to be Andy Reid — taking that team from 2-14 to the playoffs and probably double-digit wins,” one agent said.
What’s interesting is that Belichick’s three Coach of the Year awards have come in three of his Super Bowl seasons, but arguably weren’t his greatest coaching jobs. Patriots radio analyst ScottZolak believes the 2001 team that came out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl, the 2006 team that ran out of gas in the AFC Championship game, and the 2008 team that won 11 games with Matt Cassel were Belichick’s best coaching jobs.
This year’s effort, though, might ultimately top them all.
“Regardless of where they finish, whether it’s 10-6 or 13-3, we’ll look back at this year and say this is one of his top years, absolutely, without a doubt,” Zolak said. “And we’re not done yet.”
Brandt said that Bob Quinn, the Patriots’ 37-year-old director of pro scouting, deserves a lot of credit for the team’s personnel finds this year. And no offense to the other candidates who will be up for the Coach of the Year award, but Brandt knows who would get his vote.
“Belichick is the guy that, to me, he’s on a pedestal by himself,” he said. “What he’s done this year is off the charts — as far as strategy, as far as taking opposing players out of the game with exotic coverages. I don’t know if there’s anybody ever that has been any better than he is. Personally, I’m in awe of the guy.”
One last note from Brandt, who passed along a great anecdote from Belichick as a way to explain the Patriots coach’s greatness and competitive desire.
Brandt recalled getting a phone call from Belichick one night in the offseason after one of the Patriots’ Super Bowl championships — Brandt couldn’t remember if it was the 2003 or 2004 championship. Training camp was still four months away, but Belichick had a burning question — how did the Cowboys under Landry and Brandt win an NFL-record 17 consecutive opening day games, between 1965-81?
“I said, ‘Coach, aren’t you visiting the president today?’ He said, ‘Oh, that was this afternoon. I’m on my way home now. I need to know what you guys did to win 17 straight games,’ ” Brandt said. “He wanted to know in detail what were some of the things that Tom did to have that record and be successful. I bring that up because it shows you what this guy is, how smart he is, and how much he prepares.”
JOCKEYING FOR POSITION
A quick look at order of playoff tiebreakers
With the season entering the final four-game stretch, and the Patriots one game behind 10-2 Denver for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and one game ahead of 8-4 Cincinnati and Indianapolis for the No. 2 seed, let’s refresh ourselves on playoff tiebreaking procedures.
They are, in order, head-to-head results, won-loss results in conference games, won-loss percentage in common games (minimum four), strength of victory, and strength of schedule. The NFL has six more tiebreakers, ending with a coin toss, but it’s unlikely it will get that far.
The Patriots would hold the tiebreaker over the Broncos for the No. 1 seed if they end the season with the same record because of their head-to-head victory, and Patriots fans should root for the Colts on Sunday when they face the Bengals, as the Bengals defeated the Patriots in Week 5.
But the Colts currently have a higher strength of victory than the Patriots (.500-.431) and strength of schedule (.493-.476). Denver has a strength of victory of .488 and schedule of .524, while the Bengals have a .464 strength of victory and .462 strength of schedule. The Chiefs, at 9-3 but owning the first wild-card spot, have a .382 strength of victory and .459 strength of schedule. All five contenders are currently 6-2 or 6-3 in conference games.
Moral of the story? The easiest way for the Patriots to clinch the No. 1 or 2 seed is to keep winning, and a schedule consisting of Cleveland, Miami, Baltimore, and Buffalo should produce at least three more wins. But if the Patriots slip up — road games against the Dolphins and Ravens could be tricky — they could be playing that first playoff weekend, after all.
NO HOLIDAY CHEER
Ridley’s fumble issues leave future in doubt
Patriots running back Stevan Ridley wasn’t exactly in the cheeriest mood last week, declining all media requests following his benching last Sunday in Houston. Ridley was made inactive after fumbling away the ball in three straight games — he stood on the sideline in Houston cradling a ball in his arm the entire game — and his long-term future with the Patriots is very much in doubt.
Ridley, the team’s third-round pick in 2011, will enter the final year of his rookie contract next season — if he makes it to the season. He will have a salary cap number of $939,750 next year (with a base salary of $777,750), and the Patriots can save all but $162,000 against the cap if they cut him.
But Ridley’s contract works both ways — it won’t cost the Patriots much in dead money if they cut him, but if he can get his fumbling problems under control, a cap number of $939,750 is still a pretty good deal for a running back who has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his career, with 20 touchdowns (seven this season).
Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots work Ridley back into the rotation slowly starting Sunday against Cleveland to help him regain some confidence, but also don’t be surprised if they target another running back in the draft next year to eventually replace Ridley.
Many Patriots in mix to make the Pro Bowl
For the first time, Pro Bowl voting isn’t split up between AFC and NFC because of the game’s new format, in which captains Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders will “draft” the teams. But the fans still have a significant voice in choosing which players make it to Hawaii – one-third of the total vote — and the Patriots have several players in the mix, although they might end up with a few snubs.
Tom Brady is currently fourth in voting among quarterbacks at 408,189, behind PeytonManning (926,432), Drew Brees (793,685), and Russell Wilson (481,872). Aqib Talib is second among cornerbacks (behind Richard Sherman), Chandler Jones is fourth among defensive ends, and Stephen Gostkowski is first among kickers.
Among the Patriots’ snubs: Rob Gronkowski is somehow seventh among tight ends, behind Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, Vernon Davis, Jordan Cameron, Tony Gonzalez, and Jason Witten; Nate Solder isn’t listed among the top 10 offensive tackles; Julian Edelman is only ninth among punt returners; and Devin McCourty is listed 10th among strong safeties (even though he plays free safety, and has excelled this season). Voting continues on NFL.com.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin got off easy with a $100,000 fine and potential “draft pick modification” following his sideline stunt on Thanksgiving night against the Ravens. A one-game suspension would have been more appropriate given that his actions directly affected a game, and a head coach should be held to a higher standard. But, he stood in front of the media and took his medicine for more than 20 minutes last week, which no doubt helped ease his punishment from the league office . . . The NFL settled its class-action suit against more than 4,000 ex-players suing the league over treatment with regard to concussions and head injuries, but that doesn’t mean the lawsuits are done. Last week, former Chiefs players Alex Cooper, Leonard Griffin, Christopher Martin, Joe Phillips, and Kevin Porter, who each played all or parts of their careers between 1987-93 when there was no collective bargaining agreement, sued their former team for treating concussions like benign injuries and not warning them of potential long-term consequences, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in circuit court in Jackson County, Mo. . . . Four Central Illinois NFL players, including Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and Browns backup quarterback Alex Tanney, are hosting a “Monday Night Football” watch party with a catered dinner this Monday night for 500 student-athletes at Washington (Ill.) High, who played pivotal roles as first responders when tornadoes devastated Central Illinois on Nov. 17. “I can’t imagine going through something like that, so we hope to provide comfort and a distraction from the situation for at least one night,” Hoomanawanui said . . . Jets tight end Kellen Winslow, whose team is still technically alive for the playoffs, tweeted (and then quickly deleted) last week that he thinks the championship games will be played between the Patriots and Broncos and the Panthers and Seahawks. Hey, at least he’s realistic.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.