FOXBOROUGH – Bill Belichick hasn’t been generating much buzz for the NFL’s Coach of the Year award, even though the Patriots are cruising along yet again with a 12-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Patriots’ roster is loaded with talent, and there are other coaches who have done more with less – Dallas’s Jason Garrett, Arizona’s Bruce Arians, and Detroit’s Jim Caldwell, to name a few.
But Belichick should garner serious consideration for one award still missing from his lengthy résumé – NFL Executive of the Year.
Patriots fans like to criticize Belichick the GM, saying he has prevented Belichick the Coach from winning another Super Bowl title in the past 10 years.
And they have a point. The Patriots have swung and missed on more than a few free agents during the Belichick era — Adalius Thomas, Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco, Joey Galloway, Deltha O’Neal, Chad Brown and, most recently, Danny Amendola, to name a few. And Belichick’s record in the draft is spotty, as well — Chad Jackson, Ron Brace, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, Ras-I Dowling, Jermaine Cunningham, Terrence Wheatley and Darius Butler among the misses.
But this year has been different. Everything Belichick has touched has turned to gold — at least as far as free agents and trades are concerned.
To be fair, the draft class hasn’t produced much — only a couple of fourth-rounders, center Bryan Stork and offensive tackle Cameron Fleming, have made an impact. But clearly, the Patriots took a more long-term approach with the draft, taking a defensive lineman coming off an ACL injury in the first round (Dominique Easley) and a quarterback in the second round (Jimmy Garoppolo).
And just look at the list of players Belichick has acquired since free agency began in March: Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, Patrick Chung, Tim Wright, Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, Alan Branch, and LeGarrette Blount.
Every one of those moves has worked out. Belichick is batting 1.000.
“Just looking at that list, yeah, these guys stick out,” safety Devin McCourty said. “They’ve bought into what we do, and they make plays. We may not make the biggest splash as far as big names, but usually every guy that comes in here has a role and has a big impact on the team.”
Signing Revis in March to a two-year, $32 million deal (really a one-year, $12 million deal) was certainly a big splash. But Revis initially wasn’t in the Patriots’ plans. They were content to add Browner to replace Aqib Talib, until Revis unexpectedly was cut by the Buccaneers early in free agency.
Having Revis and Browner on the outside has worked out exactly as expected. Browner’s 15 penalties lead the NFL — and in only eight games played — but the duo have combined for three interceptions and 20 passes defended, while their physical bump-and-run coverage has kept several Pro Bowl-caliber receivers in check and given the Patriots’ pass rush that extra second to get to the quarterback.
Revis and Browner ($15 million over three years) have been worth every penny.
“When he got signed it was like, ‘Whoa, plans changed with me,’” Browner said. “But then I got a call from one of the coaches who told me, ‘You’re still part of the plan. We can’t miss on the opportunity to get someone like Darrelle,’ which is understood.”
The Patriots’ front office didn’t miss on the opportunity to add several other important pieces, as well. Edelman was brought back on a reasonable four-year, $17 million deal ($8 million guaranteed), and he has once again been Tom Brady’s security blanket, catching 92 passes for 972 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games. The LaFell signing (three years, $9 million) wasn’t much of a splash, and it didn’t look like a great investment after he didn’t catch a pass in the first two games of the season. But here we are in Week 17, and LaFell has 70 catches for 883 yards and seven touchdowns, giving the Patriots another big red zone target, as well as excellent blocking in the run game.
The two cornerbacks and two receivers were the Patriots’ four big moves in free agency, but keep going down the list. Every other acquisition has been a big hit.
Chung was one of the Patriots’ draft failures, and he was a free agent bust with the Eagles last year, who cut him after one season. But the Patriots brought him back on a 1-year, $1 million contract, and Chung won the strong safety position, has been excellent in run support as an extra defender in the box, and has been surprisingly decent in pass coverage, which was always his weakness.
Belichick’s in-season acquisitions have all worked out, too. The trade of Logan Mankins for Wright before the regular season drew heavy criticism, especially when the offensive line struggled in the first four games. But the offensive line fixed most of its issues, Wright has been a great red zone target with six touchdowns, and the Patriots saved a ton of salary cap space with the swap.
When Jerod Mayo went down in October, Belichick swung a deal for linebacker Akeem Ayers, who was rotting away on the Titans’ bench. Ayers estimates he played 90 percent of his snaps in Tennessee in a two-point stance, but when Chandler Jones went down with a hip injury, the Patriots moved Ayers to defensive end and told him to get after the quarterback. Ayers held down the fort while Jones got healthy, coming up with three big sacks and an interception.
“This is the first time I’ve really done it exclusively,” Ayers said of rushing the quarterback. “The first day I was with the linebackers, and then the following day I joined the ends. So I figured, ‘OK, maybe a couple downs here and there.’ And then it went throughout the whole game and throughout the week. I was kind of surprised I was doing it that much.”
Casillas, acquired in a trade from Tampa Bay, has been a standout on special teams and filled in admirably at linebacker for Dont’a Hightower when he missed the Chargers game with an injury. Branch, signed in November after being cut by Buffalo earlier in the year, plays 15-25 snaps a game and helps clog the run lanes. Blount was a malcontent in Pittsburgh, but was scooped up by the Patriots last month for a minimum salary, scored two touchdowns in his debut against Detroit, and gives the Patriots another power-rushing element for the postseason.
“Everybody that they brought in here they felt like can help us in some way, and they have,” Vince Wilfork said. “They stick by their system, and they’ve been very successful doing it. Only thing we can do is trust their decisions and let us play football.”
Belichick hasn’t done it all himself, of course. Nick Caserio, the director of player personnel, “obviously is the key guy in all this,” Belichick said. Bob Quinn and Dave Ziegler, the top two executives in pro personnel, also do much of the legwork in scouting NFL players on other teams.
But this is one year that Belichick the GM has matched wits with Belichick the Coach.
“There’s a special aura going around this team,” Browner said. “I don’t want to say too much, we’re handling our business, but there’s a special thing going on around here.”