Four months ago Friday, the Patriots released Lawyer Milloy, and Bill Belichick was an enemy of the state. Actually six states. When New England lost to Milloy's Bills, 31-0, to begin the season, Belichick looked as much like the league's best coach as his Patriots did a 14-win team.
Some have learned, while others have been reminded of something over the 15 games since: The guy knows what he's doing.
The Patriots went on to win 14 of those 15 games, including the last 12, and earned a first-round bye as the AFC's top seed in the postseason despite a season-long battle with what must have been a mutant injury bug. For that, Belichick was honored yesterday as the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year.
"If you had asked me at the beginning of the year," Ty Law said, "I'd say, `Hell, no! How can you cut Lawyer Milloy?'
"But he changed my mind. He's done an outstanding job. In my opinion, he's coach of the year. He can get rid of me, I don't care [Law's contract needs restructuring]. He's still the best coach of the year."
Law, who yesterday was named to start in the Pro Bowl along with teammate Richard Seymour, isn't in the minority. Voting among a national panel of 50 sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the league was about as close as the AFC East standings. That is to say, not at all. Belichick received 35 1/2 votes; Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, who in his rookie season had the Bengals in contention for the AFC North title until the last weekend of the season, was second with 7.
Dallas coach Bill Parcells, Belichick's former boss with the Giants, Patriots, and Jets, and a two-time NFL Coach of the Year, was third with 6 1/2 votes. Philadelphia's Andy Reid, the 2002 Coach of the Year, received one vote.
The edge went to Belichick because of injuries and how well his team handled them. Belichick's team made league and franchise history even though a different team started every game; New England used 42 starters and 65 players. Those players missed an aggregate 103 games with injuries.
The injury bug's attack began when starting inside linebacker Ted Johnson suffered a broken foot late in the opener; he missed half the season. The team's marquee offseason free agent acquisition, Rosevelt Colvin, was lost for the year the next week at Philadelphia with a fractured hip. Nose tackle Ted Washington, acquired in a preseason trade with Chicago to shore up the league's second-worst rushing defense in 2002, fractured a leg against the Jets in Week 3 and missed six games. Mike Vrabel broke an arm in Week 4 at Washington (the Patriots' last loss) and sat for three. Willie McGinest missed two with a neck injury. Law has been bothered all year by a high ankle sprain.
And that's just the defense.
New England signed free agents Dedric Ward and J.J. Stokes in the same week because of injuries to the receiving corps. Troy Brown missed a month with a hamstring injury and David Patten's season ended after knee surgery the first week of November. Guard Mike Compton played in two games before undergoing season-ending foot surgery. Adrian Klemm, the opening-day starter at right tackle, is on injured reserve.
The injury bug didn't spare the special teams. Cover guys Chris Akins and Je'Rod Cherry missed four and five games, respectively. The team had three long snappers in three games late in the season.
Yet the Patriots, following Belichick's "next game" mantra, found ways to win. New England didn't win any of the first 11 games of the team-record streak by more than two touchdowns, making the Patriots the first team in league history to win 10 consecutive games by 14 points or fewer. They were the third team in the past five years to win 14 regular-season games. The 14 victories eclipsed the franchise record by three wins.
"I thought the team that's handled it the best so far has been New England," Jets coach Herman Edwards said recently. "They've done a great job, the staff and the players. They were hurt early, too, and they're getting some guys back. What you really like about what they've done is that they found ways to win games, the close games."
Belichick often is referred to as a coaching genius. His genius this season was born out of necessity. Injuries and the Milloy decision forced the Patriots into dressing as many as eight rookies, including starters Dan Koppen (center) and Eugene Wilson (safety), and backups Bethel Johnson, Dan Klecko, Asante Samuel, Ty Warren, Shawn Mayer, and Tully Banta-Cain. Tom Ashworth has stepped in at right tackle. Running back Michael Cloud and linebacker Matt Chatham have made key contributions. "It has been a team," Belichick said recently. "We've had a lot of players step up and contribute in a lot of different ways on and off the field. From week to week the inactives have changed, the playing time has changed, the playmakers have changed, from a statistical standpoint anyway. There have been a lot of different aspects and a lot of different players have come into the spotlight, so to speak. It wasn't orchestrated in any particular way. It just turned out that way."
After the way things went down in Week 1, no one would have predicted the Patriots' season would unfold this way.
Belichick is New England's second AP Coach of the Year. Parcells won the award in 1994.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.