With all due respect, Bill Belichick didn't exactly do his best coaching job this season. What he did, however, was his second best. And so here we are, on the brink of the NFL playoff season and just a few days before the 2008 NFL Coach of the Year is announced, and here is the peculiar truth: Belichick may be more worthy of the honor this year than at any other time during his Patriots tenure. The one obvious exception may be 2001, when Belichick led the Pats to an 11-5 record and improbable division championship. Even then, the brilliance of his work was not appreciated until over a month later, in February 2002, after the Patriots had completed their historic run to the Super Bowl with what might have been the greatest NFL coaching job of all time.
That year, because the NFL Coach of the Year award was announced before the playoffs, the honor went to then-Chicago Bears coach Dick Jauron. Had the voting taken place several weeks later, Belichick would have won in a landslide.
The irony, of course, is that Belichick probably will not win the Coach of the Year award this season, either, but only because the competition is intense. Like Belichick, Miami’s Tony Sparano and Atlanta’s Mike Smith led their teams to 11-5 records. The Dolphins were coming off a 1-15 campaign; the 2007 Falcons went 4-12. The Patriots, as we all know, finished the 2007 regular season with a perfect record of 16-0.
The Coach of the Year last season?
Let’s be honest here for a moment, folks. Belichick deserves the Coach of the Year honor more this year than he did last, no matter where we put the hash marks. The 2007 Patriots were absurdly deep and talented, and Belichick merely put them over the top during the regular season. There is the very real possibility that anyone from Wade Phillips to Norv Turner could have led the Patriots to a 13-3 record in 2007, and none of that is meant to detract from what the New England coach did.
But this year? A lesser coach than Belichick might have led the Pats to 9-7, 8-8, or worse. With or without the easy schedule, the Pats went 11-5. Anyone who harps on the Patriots missing the playoffs is ignoring the aberrational nature of that fact, because we all know that 11-5 should absolutely, positively qualify you for postseason play.
In this case, it just didn’t.
Don’t let Belichick fool you. Given the issues, he knows this team maxed out in 2008. Whether the Pats would have done any damage in the playoffs is entirely irrelevant to this argument because, as was the case when the Pats rumbled to their first Super Bowl championship, the playoffs have no bearing on Coach of the Year balloting.
“I think that everybody that participated in this season, in the 11-5 season, has a lot to be proud of,” Belichick said on Monday, the day after the Pats officially were eliminated from playoff contention. “That includes all of the above: the players, the coaches, the organization, the scouts, everybody. We feel good about a lot of the things that we accomplished this year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for us to keep playing next week and so we’re disappointed with that. But what we did accomplish this year, I think it goes to the hard work of all of those people that are involved.
“We had some things to deal with,” Belichick continued. “We had four West Coast games. We had some weather games. Our last five games of the year were all played in difficult weather situations. I understand the teams on the other side of the field played in those same situations — I’m not looking for any sympathy there. I’m just saying those are challenges for our team to meet, whether it is rain, wind, snow, or a combination. You can go right down the list.
“There were a number of things that we dealt with this year and I think that — organizationally, including the operations people setting up the trips on the West Coast, to the players, to the coaches, to our medical staff, to everybody — they worked hard and there were a lot of positive things this year. I wish it could have been a little bit more. I think there are a lot of things that we did that I’m proud of the way we did them.’’
He should be.
Here in New England, we all know the standards went out of whack a long time ago. Three championships in four years will do that. All things considered, the 2007-08 Patriots’ season ended in far more disappointing fashion than this one did, because these Patriots had a great deal more to overcome. They lost Tom Brady in the first quarter of the first game. At times, they played without any combination of Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan, Ty Warren, Adalius Thomas, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, and Richard Seymour, among others. Their defense was a mess at times, and their secondary was an absolute sieve.
If you want to criticize Belichick for personnel decisions — Deltha O’Neal over Asante Samuel? — that’s fine. But what he did with the talent he possessed (and isn’t that what coaching is all about?) bordered on being a New York City sidewalk con game.
During his time in New England, Belichick has been controversial at times, downright uncooperative and rude at others. He is who he is. But at a time like this, despite the absence of a championship in a region so spoiled and in desperate need of humility, let’s never forget something.
On any given Sunday, with or without Tom Brady, Bill Belichick can coach the socks off just about anybody.
Tony Massarotti can be reached at email@example.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti