PATS INSIDER

Curran: Is Belichick a legit Coach of the Year candidate?

PATS INSIDER

Former Patriot (and Jet) and current ESPN analyst Damien Woody posed a great question Monday morning on Twitter.

Put aside the conversation about all the other candidates – Mike Tomlin, Kevin Stefanski, Brian Flores, Joe Judge, Sean Payton, Adam Gase – who likely have a leg up on Belichick.

Boil it down. What’s the argument for Belichick having done the best coaching job in the NFL so far this year? What’s the argument against?

For? There’s a lot.

After 20 years with the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history on his side, Belichick and his staff pivoted to the Cam Newton reclamation project. They scrapped the offense they’d used to devour defenses for two decades and went 180 degrees in the other direction.

Ugly as it’s sometimes been, jarring as it is to see the change, it’s worked.

Belichick’s outward and obvious embrace of Cam -- his empowerment of Newton to be who Newton is on the field and off -- created a dynamic that’s been fascinating to watch unfold. This former MVP, Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick has reveled in the reinvention of his game. He opens a vein weekly to talk without a trace of defensiveness about all the things he’s done wrong and has to improve.

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Josh McDaniels deserves credit for the offensive design, game plans and day-of-game adjustments, perhaps but -- as head coach -- Belichick gets credit for creating the environment for Newton to seemingly feel totally at home in Foxboro.

 

The Patriots had eight opt-outs including Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon, Brandon Bolden and their presumed starter at tight end, Matt LaCosse.

That -- and the departure of free agents like Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Kyle Van Noy -- sent younger players up the depth chart. They have contributing rookies like Michael Onwenu, Kyle Dugger, Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche. They have an All-Pro level punter in Jake Bailey (my opinion), they’re getting chip-in from undrafted players like Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers since Julian Edelman’s been down for a significant time.

The Patriots went through a wave of COVID. During that time, they did a same-day trip to Kansas City and gave Patrick Mahomes all he could handle.

In the aftermath, the team wobbled with losses to the Broncos, Bills and Niners. Then -- with a run of games against Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert -- the Patriots stuffed all but one of these ascending stars in a locker.

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The Patriots are the NFL’s least penalized team by a wide margin (45 walked off against them all season). They have twice won games at the buzzer (Arizona and the Jets) and nearly won at the buzzer against Denver and Seattle. They almost tied a game late in Buffalo despite being outplayed. That’s situational savvy.

If you described the Patriots as the most well-coached team in football, few would argue. So what’s to argue against Belichick being Coach of the Year?

Just this: He mostly created the high degree of difficulty under which he’s coaching. Why should he get points for coaching brilliantly if he created the adversity?

Consider that the Patriots were 12-4 last year. They won the division for the 11th year in a row. This year, the best they’ll finish is 10-6. And that’s if they sweep their final four games. They may not make the playoffs. How often does a coach get recognized for his team doing worse than it usually does?

When we credit Belichick for all he’s done and enabled with Newton, do we also dock him for having to go find a suitable starting quarterback at the end of June?

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Do we look past the fact he planned to use either Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer at quarterback this year after Tom Brady finally took the hint and got the hell out of town?  

Do we marvel at the innovative, overachieving, by-any-means-necessary performance of the offense and just tip our caps without noting that -- if the Patriots drafted better (or at all) at tight end and wide receiver, the need to put chips on Meyers or Damiere Byrd and lament the opt out of LaCosse may not exist?

When you’re the greatest coach in NFL history and a case can be made you’re the greatest non-player in the history of American professional sports, the expectations are real high.

 

So high that your team can go on the road and shut out a more talented team 45-0 and the reaction isn’t, “Holy crap, that’s impressive!” but instead, “Well, what do you expect? It’s Bill Belichick vs. Anthony Lynn!”

Belichick has been the AP Coach of the Year three times -- 2003, 2007 and 2010. Only Don Shula (four COYs) has won it more than Belichick and Chuck Knox. Each time Belichick’s won, the Patriots showed marked improvement from the prior year.

And that’s how it will go this year whether it’s Stefanski or Tomlin or whoever. The coach whose team improves the most generally gets the hardware.

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Yet we know -- KNOW -- that every single time the Patriots players take the field, they have a built-in advantage on their sideline no other team in the league comes close to matching.

It’s a weird dynamic. Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. But he’s not the greatest coach of this time.