April 27, 2006
A Big Weekend For Belichick Coming Up
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Last in a series of positional analysis for the 2005 New England Patriots. Today: coaching.
How do you make a dynasty? One word. Regeneration.
You can keep guys around too long. You can also replace guys with substandard players who are long on projection but short on production. If you can find the right balance between knowing who to keep and who to get rid of, and still keep your championship machine running, that’s regeneration.
Bill Belichick has been on the spot all offseason long. Ever since the Patriots saw their two-season championship run come to an end in Denver back in January, it has been one of the more momentous offseasons in recent memory for this franchise. It has been momentous mostly for which players have left town for more money than it has been for free agent signings and key additions to this team.
Belichick has come off looking like the football equivalent of a baseball statnerd all winter long. It’s been all about putting the team ahead of sentiment and emotion. Hard decisions were made, plans were carried out, and through it all Belichick seems annoyed to have to keep explaining the Patriot Way to everyone. He knows what he’s doing, and he wishes that everyone would just shut up and let him do his job.
You would think that after winning three Super Bowls in four years, as well as amassing a better postseason coaching record than Vince Lombardi, people would stop criticizing Belichick for the mass exodus of players from Foxborough. Everyone out there is hemming and hawing over their favorite players leaving, but Belichick simply brushes it off with stuff like “That’s how the game works!” and “Things like this simply happen!” And again, he wishes you’d all sit down, shut up and let him just do his thing.
Belichick has sat by and watched David Givens, Willie McGinest and Adam Vinatieri hit the highway. Givens is off to Tennessee, McGinest is reunited with Romeo Crennel in Cleveland, and Vinatieri is off to buddy up with Peyton Manning. It could be said that Givens and McGinest were overpaid for, but it’s the Vinatieri departure which has everyone mad at Belichick. Instead of locking him up when they had the chance, they torqued him off with two franchise tags, which pushed him beyond any desire to want to stay in New England.
Belichick came off perhaps his finest coaching year in 2005. The 10-6 regular season record is a bit misleading. By season’s end, the Patriots looked every bit as formidable as they had in their previous championship seasons, which is remarkable given that so many key players were lost to injury in this difficult season. To have what happened to the Patriots and wind up blowing the season in Denver in a game which they win if they don’t turn the ball over, it speaks highly of the coaching job Belichick did this past year.
But Belichick has to put this behind him and concentrate on getting back up to the mountaintop in 2006. If he can get four Vinces out of six, the dynasty talk will return. That’s what Pittsburgh, the current champ, did from 1974 to 1979. Two Super Bowl wins, two misses, then two more Super Bowl wins. Four out of six. That’s what awaits the Patriots this fall.
To get there, Belichick and Scott Pioli have to regenerate. With this weekend’s NFL Draft growing closer, the Patriots have a solid chance to acquire some building blocks which will get them back into Super Bowl contention. The Patriots were championship caliber in 2005 but for injuries. It’s not that they have to gut the team and rebuild it. But a few key picks here and there should put the Patriots in great shape.
Trying to guess who Belichick and Pioli will take is the task for a fool. It isn’t worth the effort at the typewriter to even try and speculate. So instead, here are the most needy positions which should be addressed over the weekend.
Contrary to those who think the Patriots badly need a cornerback, the most stringent need is at strong safety. The injury to Rodney Harrison this past year was the most crippling blow to the Patriots. As they were able to cover up injuries in past years, this was one injury they were not able to mask. Michael Stone and Artrell Hawkins were no more than adequate fill-ins. Without Harrison out there to provide his veteran leadership, the defensive intensity suffered, and Eugene Wilson looked like a lost sheep at free safety at times.
The Patriots reacquired Tebucky Jones, but his old position was free safety. Some people think that Belichick may try and convert him to an inside linebacker. But the smart money says that he tries his hand at strong safety. Jones’ best asset is his ability to clobber receivers and ball carriers, and pass defense has always been a liability for him. Hmmm. Sounds just like a former strong safety named Lawyer Milloy. How the Patriots handle Jones bears watching closely.
But if the Patriots see a quality strong safety at 21, Belichick might want to grab him.
The next area of concern is at inside linebacker. On a recent FSN Sports Tonight, Andy Gresh mentioned that the Patriots might try and move Mike Vrabel back inside like he had to do in 2005, with Tully Banta-Cain starting outside, a move which seemed to trouble him. Some have even suggested that the Patriots switch their base to a 4-3.
Moving Vrabel to inside wastes his talents. Keep Vrabel outside and go after a guy who can become the next Ted Johnson. Jones won’t be the answer. Too bad Dan Klecko isn’t the answer either. Belichick does not have a history of drafting linebackers on day one, so this area may be addressed later on.
But some draft strategists say that Belichick may try and trade up to get some of the top linebackers that may not last until 21 (Ohio State’s Bobby Carpenter is the popular target of a trade-up move). Other experts believe that Belichick will draft a defensive end who can be converted to linebacker, something that McGinest did (as did Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Tedy Bruschi). It seems that Belichick will indeed go linebacker, the only question is when.
Finally, the Patriots would dearly love to get a second wide receiver to complement Deion Branch. Right now, all Tom Brady has at his disposal is free agent Reche Caldwell, an aging Troy Brown and the immature Bethel Johnson. Johnson may not survive training camp unless he dazzles everyone with his return skills. Brown is simply too old to play at his former levels. With Givens and Tim Dwight gone, the two wideout slot is a gaping hole.
This being a thin draft at wide receiver, Belichick may instead try to get a free agent somewhere along the way. But you never know that Belichick may pull a surprise here. Belichick mentioned that most of the top wideouts in the draft are of the smallish variety, but given Belichick’s draft record over the past few seasons, he seems to like small receivers a lot.
Belichick will also take a kicker in one of the later rounds to offer up a challenge to Martin Grammatical. This will come as significant only because of who these kickers are trying to replace. Otherwise, this will be more of a formality than anything else. Look also for Belichick to possibly draft a tackle somewhere along the way, just to provide some depth and make up for the departure of Tom Ashworth.
Belichick will head into battle in 2006 with his third defensive coordinator in the last three seasons, as linebacker coach Dean Pees has taken over for the departed Eric Mangini. Quarterback coach Josh McDaniels has been elevated to offensive coordinator, so Belichick will at least not have to worry about the offense like he did in 2005.
But before the weekends in the fall become special, this weekend in April has to be letter perfect. It will be the first step towards shutting up all the people who thought Vinatieri should never have left, and the first towards four Vinces in six years.
For once, the term “war room” will be most appropriate.
This concludes our positional analysis of the 2005 New England Patriots.
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