FOXBOROUGH -- Imagine if Bill Belichick had decided to dedicate his considerable brain power to a calling other than professional football. He'd probably master cold fusion, find a cure for multiple sclerosis or figure out how to teleport to alternate dimensions.
All of those seemed more likely than him coaching the Patriots to a 6-1 record at this point of the season. Yet here we are.
The Patriots woke up this morning as the only one-loss team in the National Football League, and in large part they have their stolid savant of a head coach to thank. In Belichick They Trust.
"I think a lot of guys have taken his coaching, and I think that’s been a very fun part of this season for the players, is that what he comes in and says is usually the way it plays out in the game," quarterback Tom Brady said this morning during his weekly appearance on WEEI (850). "There’s no better coaching a player can have than a coach who goes in there on Wednesday and tells you the way the game is going to go, and that's how it happens on Sunday."
What Belichick is doing this season with this rendition of the Patriots is nothing short of sublime and rivals his work in the hallowed 2001 season. Belichick has lost three trusted veteran starters for the season to injury (Leigh Bodden, Ty Warren and Kevin Faulk), endured an acrimonious sit-out by his best offensive lineman (Logan Mankins) and traded away a recalcitrant receiver who scored 50 touchdowns over the last three-plus seasons (Randy Moss), and somehow made his team not just better, but the best in the NFL.
And to think some idiot said this guy was the third-best coach in town a month ago. Hand me a hoodie to cover my head in shame.
His team wore throwback uniforms yesterday in its 28-18 win over the Minnesota Vikings, but we've been getting vintage Belichick ever since the loss to Vociferous Rex and Jets.
Sure, the Patriots have had a little good fortune this season to win five in a row -- the Vikings gave them a gift reception and a gift interception that led to touchdowns yesterday. San Diego's self-inflicted wounds were the football equivalent of that gun-twirling twit who got killed off on the original "Beverly Hills: 90210" show. Rest in peace, Scott Scanlon.
But for the last four weeks Belichick's team has consistently out-played, out-witted, and out-lasted their opponents. This is old-school Patriots where you're not quite exactly sure how they won, and you're pretty sure the team they beat has more raw talent. But they just keep winning.
The Patriots are even starting to run some retro plays. How did you like that deft direct snap to running back Danny Woodhead on third and goal from the 3, following a timeout?
The thought at the beginning of the season was that the Patriots would go as far as their defense would allow them, and that meant it was on Belichick to coach it up. He has. Belichick is now coordinating a defense that hasn't allowed more than two touchdowns in a game in each of its last four games and is making key stops, despite being greener than a Toyota Prius.
Yesterday, Belichick's defense had rookies starting at left defensive end (Brandon Deaderick), inside linebacker (Brandon Spikes), outside linebacker (Jermaine Cunningham) and cornerback (Devin McCourty). He had a guy that the New Orleans Saints thought was a long-snapper at the other outside linebacker spot (Rob Ninkovich) and the cornerback he put on Randy Moss most of the day, Kyle Arrington, is an undrafted free agent from a school that no longer has a football program.
Still, Belichick scored another chalkboard checkmate yesterday, completely taking Moss out of the game by putting a safety over the top of him and instructing Arrington and others to rough up Randy (one catch for eight yards) like his name was Von Wafer.
Following that blueprint and some stellar red zone defense, the Patriots' defense held a Vikings team that has four future Hall of Famers on it -- Moss, Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and Steve Hutchinson -- to just 18 points.
Belichick's game-plan was so good it had Moss waxing poetic about the Patriot Way and bemoaning his own team's state of readiness. Watch your back, Brad Childress. That Moss-Favre mutiny is afoot.
Ramblin' Randy, who called Belichick "the best coach in football history," wasn't the only former Patriot with the Vikings impressed by Belichick's mastery.
"They're bringing the younger guys along," said Greg Lewis. "They're doing a good job. Belichick, he does a good job with what he's given and what he has. He finds a way to put guys in position to succeed. He has proven that over the years."
The smartest move our resident gridiron genius made didn't come on the field. It was off it. He changed the culture of his locker room, which rotted the team from the inside out last season. He parted ways with the quick-fix veterans with whom he clashed and restored the locker room to its previous Pavlovian state of obedience with a bunch of Super Bowl-winning loyalists, naive NFL neophytes, and venerable veterans (see: Crumpler, Alge).
Brady was right in the spring, when he told Sports Illustrated's Peter King the team just had to listen to Belichick because the educated coach had all the answers.
"We've got the best football coach of all time. He's got the answers. We as a team have to take the teaching and the coaching we're being given," Brady said in May, looking back on last season.
They have and by heeding their head coach they're the head of the class in the NFL.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.