EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Patriots pulled into MetLife Stadium Monday night for Game No. 7 of the season, well aware the most difficult stretch of their schedule is to come. The start hasn’t looked so tough, certainly not after the Patriots made the Jets their seventh straight victim, with as convincing a performance — 33-0, with Sam Darnold throwing four interceptions and the defense forcing six turnovers — as they’ve had to date.
So here are a couple of questions to ponder:
Is Bill Belichick doing one of his best coaching jobs ever?
Could he possibly be earning votes as the NFL’s Coach of the Year, something he has won half as many times as he has the Super Bowl?
Since last earning the honor from Associated Press voters in 2010, when the Pats went 14-2, Belichick has won five AFC championships and the last three of his six Super Bowl titles. (He also won in 2007, when his team finished off a perfect regular season, and in 2003, when his team was also 14-2.) Ron Rivera and Bruce Arians have won Coach of the Year twice apiece since 2010, and Jim Harbaugh, Jason Garrett, Sean McVay, and reigning champ Matt Nagy once each.
Would you take any of them against Belichick? No chance.
By setting such a high standard, Belichick has all but eliminated himself from yearly contention. Hard to imagine it bothers him, what with all those Lombardi trophies around. But as the league’s longest-tenured active head coach, as the game’s all-time leader in playoff coaching wins (31), as the third-and-moving all-time leader in regular-season victories (268), it will seem strange when he finally retires to see how infrequently he won the award.
“I think just his consistency, dependability. All of those things we talk about in a great player, it’s the same thing in a great coach,” quarterback Tom Brady said late last week. “What he brings to work every day and his commitment to our team, I don’t think you can ask for anything more than that as a player. He’s got great competitive stamina, and in my view, he’s the greatest coach of all time.”
Asked what he meant by “competitive stamina,” Brady marveled at the 67-year-old’s energy.
“You’ve got to bring it every day,” he said. “I think this is kind of the time in the year, after six weeks, where people start getting a little fatigued. You get a little tired. You guys probably feel that, too. You start getting a little bit tired, and you take a little shortcut and you don’t quite work as long. That’s the same for the players. You get a little tired during the week, so you study a little less, you don’t watch as much film, or you don’t go as hard in practice.
“I think if you do that, you shortcut yourself, and then you shortcut the team. And I think this team has always done a good job pushing through those moments, those opportunities, and you just keep grinding — I think that’s a word we use around here a lot — and you try to do the best you can do every day.”
Belichick has been the best at this job for a long time, and this year has included plenty of early obstacles. Record be damned, this year has been hard.
Start in the offseason, when Rob Gronkowski retired; when Trey Flowers and Trent Brown left via free agency; when Brian Flores left the defensive coaching staff and took three assistants with him, leaving only Steve Belichick as a holdover on that side of the ball; when Flores’s purported replacement Greg Schiano left after only days on the job.
Head into the regular season, when injuries to center David Andrews and Isaiah Wynn put the offensive line in immediate flux. When fullback James Develin went down injured and running back Rex Burkhead did, too. When the longtime kicker went on IR as well. When one wide receiver experiment (Antonio Brown) blew up after one game, and another (Josh Gordon) hit injury woes after six. When injuries to Phillip Dorsett, Ryan Izzo, and Matt LaCosse all combined to thwart the offense.
And still they win, behind a coach who put his own gameplan imprint on the defense and his own leadership profile on the entire team.
So never mind how far ahead of the AFC East pack the Patriots already stand — that’s par for the course against the weakest group of division franchises the NFL has to offer, a trio of ineptitude from Buffalo to New York to Miami that has offered neither coach nor quarterback to rival Belichick and Brady for 20 years.
But just because Belichick is dominating the division once again, just because he has his team atop the entire NFL standings once more, that doesn’t mean he’s doing it easily.
The strength of schedule (or lack thereof) is the obvious caveat to what the Patriots have done thus far; the six teams they’ve beaten are 11-27 after Monday night, and five of those wins belong to the Bills. But there is no denying the obstacles Belichick has already helped this team clear, hurdles that could (should?) reach a finish line he rarely sees anymore: Coach of the Year.