When Patriots coach Bill Belichick reflects on the team's recently concluded 2006 season, it very well could rank as one of the most rewarding of his 32 years in the NFL.
It was a season in which the unexpected departure of receiver Deion Branch forced the team's passing game to evolve during the regular season instead of in training camp.
It was a season in which more crucial injuries struck -- the Patriots were once again one of the NFL's most banged-up teams.
It was a season in which the coaching staff underwent more changes, the free agent losses outweighed the free agent gains, and the team took on a younger look.
In the end the Patriots still posted a 12-4 regular-season record, won the AFC East for the fourth straight year, and were a few plays away from winning the AFC championship.
Surely, Belichick will find the time to appreciate that accomplishment, but the stinging disappointment of last Sunday's 38-34 loss to the Colts in the AFC title game has not been erased, and probably won't be for a while.
Belichick touched on those feelings in a wide-ranging, season-ending interview that included a look back, a glimpse into the future, and his thoughts on why he's looking forward to continuing to serve as head coach of the team.
While Belichick and team chairman/CEO Robert Kraft and president Jonathan Kraft have agreed to not publicly discuss Belichick's contract, the coach does not sound like someone who desires to leave New England any time soon.
"I like the people I'm working with, I like the situation I'm in," Belichick said. "First of all, it starts at the top. Mr. Kraft and his family have been tremendously supportive, giving us great support and facilities and everything that they can give to make a team competitive. I don't sit here and say, 'If we had this or had that, it would make a difference.' We pretty much have everything we need, the ability to use resources. That's No. 1 right there.
"I like our staff, and our organization. I think people work hard, they're committed, they're unselfish. The players have a real good work ethic, and I think they're tough -- physically and mentally. I think you have to be to stand up to the challenges we've had to face, both on and off the field. Not saying this negatively, because it's something I'm happy about, but we've had a lot of long seasons and short offseasons, and their ability to compete and then kind of regroup and do offseason surgeries, re-train and come back and do it against stiff competition with people trying to knock you off, it's tremendously challenging. I'm obviously very proud and very pleased with the way our players commit to that for the most part. They give us everything they have, in an unselfish but a very tough and determined manner.
"When you have those things, it's hard not to feel good about what you're doing, and it's not hard to keep doing it. I love football and I love the area. The players, the organization, the support we get. I have a great relationship with the two [people] most important to me, Mr. Kraft and [vice president of player personnel] Scott Pioli. I think all the way around, all three of us have a good relationship with each other, very workable, respectfully and complementary. It starts there."
In addition, the combination of Belichick and Pioli is the NFL's second-longest-tenured coach/personnel chief pairing, behind only Baltimore's Billick and Ozzie Newsome (nine years).
Such continuity ties into something that is clearly meaningful to Belichick -- sustained success. Achieving such annual success is the ultimate challenge in the NFL's salary cap era, where the system is designed to promote parity.
"I'm proud to a degree; it's a good reflection of what we've been able to do in that eight-year period, to win consistently," said Belichick, whose record with the Patriots is 87-39 and includes three Super Bowl championships. "There are situations where teams might win consistently, but you know it's kind of coming to an end, or you'll pay for that eventually. There are other teams that pull back, regain some resources, but it comes at the expense of winning games now."
When Belichick looks at the makeup of the Patriots, he sees a team that has consistently added younger talent -- and also has resources such as two first-round picks in 2007 -- which gives him reason for optimism. The Patriots are the only team in the NFL to have won at least one playoff game in each of the last four seasons.
"It's hard to win in this league consistently and I think it's really hard to win consistently and have room under the salary cap and get younger and try to infuse new talent on your team and still be able to remain at a high, competitive level," he said. "That's really a tough challenge. You can go out and blow a lot of money and be good for a couple years. You can go out and get veteran players that give you an experienced edge for a couple years, but it's hard to sustain that for a long period of time.
"The way we're trending gives me confidence that we're on the right track. We're not an old team, with no cap money and no choices, where when you look at it, you say, 'How are we going to get any better?' I think you can look at it and say, 'OK, we have some draft choices, a little bit of room on the salary cap, and some young players you think will improve.' "
As the Patriots transition to 2007, Belichick said this is a key time.
"Everyone thinks you just go on vacation, relax for a couple of months, but right now it's tough because you're battling on three or four different fronts," he said. "One, you want to go back and review the season. Not just the last couple of games, but you want to get the plays and schemes that you ended up using, or not using, and either developing them or getting them in the background of your system if they're not important to you.
"It's the same thing with player evaluation. You're going through and trying to take a good overview of where everyone is, what the future is for those players. The biggest mistake you can make is misevaluating your team. There is nothing worse than that, when you're out there the whole year and make a mistake on a guy. That's bad. I think we've done a good job with that.
"At the same time, you're starting the free agency process. The draft process is ongoing. Organizationally there are always a few things. There are a lot of balls in the air."
"I definitely thought the Green Bay game was an important game for us," he said. "I didn't feel like we played the way we wanted to play either against the Jets or Indianapolis [the weeks before]. I think things could have unraveled a little bit. It's a point around midseason and that was a big game to rein things back in. I think it showed the team what we could do."
Indeed, there was no telling how the season would unfold prior to that game at Lambeau Field, as the Patriots were coming off back-to-back losses at home, dropping to 6-3 on the season.
Then there was the end of the season, the Patriots picking things up following a 21-0 loss in Miami Dec. 10. The roll got started with the Patriots beating the Texans, 40-7, in the home finale at Gillette Stadium before back-to-back road wins at Jacksonville and Tennessee leading into the playoffs.
"I thought we improved a lot as a football team and played some of our best football at the end of the season," Belichick said. "There were things that had to come together and they did. Jacksonville was a tough game on the road, against a good football team playing for a lot. Tennessee was playing for a lot, so it felt like we played five playoff games at the end."
The last playoff game, of course, was a bitter pill to swallow.
"We lost a tough game to the Colts, and a couple plays one way or the other could have changed that one," Belichick said. "You could pick any one of 50 things. Some bad breaks. Some were bad plays. Some were bad decisions. Just one of those games that was very winnable if any one of a number of things happened. I'm not saying we would have won, but it could have helped a lot and might have been a difference.
"At the same time, we went out there and did a lot of good things in that game. There were a lot of three-and-outs. We scored a lot. We moved the ball, played competitively in the kicking game -- returned kickoffs, covered kickoffs. In the end, there were too many plays that we really had an opportunity to make [that we didn't]."
Asked about the scene after the game, when it appeared he brushed off Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Belichick said: "I talked to Tony [Dungy] after the game and congratulated him. Peyton, I didn't see, he kind of grabbed me, it all happened really fast. I saw Tony, I saw Adam [Vinatieri], wished him well. Saw [Dan] Klecko, wished him well. Ask any of them what happened after the game."
As for the team's postgame celebration in San Diego that drew the wrath of Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Belichick said: "In San Diego, I honestly didn't see what happened. I had seen some clips after the game, but still don't know what happened. They show LaDainian coming in and Reche [Caldwell] is there, he pulls him in. I didn't see it. I still don't know what happened."
The Patriots opened the season by dressing just three receivers -- Caldwell, Troy Brown, and Bam Childress. The team worked Doug Gabriel into the mix, but he wasn't a solution and was waived after being acquired by the Raiders in a trade, while free agent Jabar Gaffney was signed in early October and emerged in the playoffs.
Such volatility and change at the position were not ideal.
"The way the season started, we got a lot of production in the passing game from some of our inside players -- [Benjamin] Watson, [Daniel] Graham -- and [Laurence] Maroney and [Kevin] Faulk on screens, and as the passing game evolved, the receivers had more production and there was more balance in production, in games like Minnesota and Green Bay," Belichick said.
When assessing the overall state of the passing game, Belichick lauded the offensive line of left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Koppen, right guard Stephen Neal, and right tackle Nick Kaczur.
"The offensive line did a real good job in pass protection," Belichick said. "I don't know how many sacks we ended up with , but many of those were not offensive line-related." As for the running game, Belichick didn't disagree that it was inconsistent.
"We had our moments. Some aspects of it were good, some aspects of it were inconsistent, some aspects of it were just flat-out not good," he said. "For the most part, on the goal line and short yardage, we were pretty productive in those situations when we needed a yard in tough situations. At times our ability to run the ball and grind out the clock was good, early in the season, the Buffalo game, the Jets game.
"Sometimes on first and second down we lost yardage, and when you set up a long-yardage situation in the running game, you never want that to happen. It's one thing if you're sacked and it's second and 14, but when you hand off and it's second and 12, you can't let that happen."
Because of that, it would not be a surprise if the Patriots take a hard look at their scheme this offseason and consider alterations.
On the defensive side, the Patriots set a franchise record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (237).
From a personal standpoint, one enjoyable part of the season for Belichick was having his children -- Amanda, Stephen, and Brian -- on the sideline at various points of the year. Stephen and Brian kept the team's quarterback chart, which was initially a result of the team not having a third quarterback.
"It's the first time they had been around, on the sideline doing anything, and I'm glad it happened," Belichick said. "I think those kids learn a lot from seeing guys like Troy Brown, Rodney Harrison, Tom Brady, Mike Vrabel, I could name 50 other ones, right down the line. To see not just how they compete, but to see how focused they are, to see their toughness, their ability to stay calm, stay poised in critical situations. I think that's a great experience and I'm glad they were able to have it. It wasn't planned, it just happened that way."
"Overall, we have a lot of decisions to make, like we always do," he said. "I'm not saying this negatively or spitefully or anything else, but like we do every year, we just need to look back over what happened the previous years or years, and try to analyze what we did."
One area that pleases Belichick is the age makeup of the roster. "From the '01 to the '06 season -- from the first championship to this year -- the team has gotten progressively younger," he said.
As for the team's coaching staff, Belichick doesn't expect a lot of changes, but perhaps a tweaking here or there. Two years ago, the team lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Last year, defensive coordinator Eric Mangini departed.
"Somewhere along the line, there will be some type of change, or adjustments, but I really don't know exactly how that will go," he said.
In summary, Belichick said, "I'm disappointed in the way it ended, we all wanted to go further than that, but I think we have a chance to continue to be competitive based on the overall talent on the team, the youth on the team, and some opportunities to improve relative to draft choices and free agency cap spending, just general better coaching, better schemes, and improvement of younger players.
"I'm not saying we'll be the front-runner of the next decade, but I think we can be better if we can continue to improve as we did in the second half of the season. As I look at the teams through the eight years, for the most part, we do improve through the season. I think you have to credit the players for working hard, correcting mistakes, becoming more efficient, having a better understanding and execution of plays. That's the way it should be. I'm glad it's that way. We work at it to make it happen."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.