ATLANTA -- The question was met with pursed lips and pregnant pauses from players, coaches and media members alike: Might this be the best season Bill Belichick has had as a head coach since finishing off the original Patriots-Rams Super Bowl with red, white and blue confetti?
A lot has happened between then and now. Belichick has become the league's longest-tenured head coach. His résumé has been littered with fantastic seasons, five championship seasons, and several more in which they sniffed Lombardi Trophies when logic suggested they never should have.
But in returning to a Super Bowl just 12 months after losing one -- something that hasn't happened since the Bills did it three times in the early '90s -- and after everything that occurred in the aftermath of that loss to the Eagles, this could easily be ranked as one of Belichick's best performances.
At 66 years old, he somehow got two of his best players to buy in when their words and actions before the season indicated that might be a challenge. He helped the Patriots overcome another slow start with his best receiver suspended, and he navigated season-long road struggles in such a way that it didn't torpedo their chances. He sought out receiver help for months, reached for a troubled one, then lost him to suspension. He oversaw a shift in offensive philosophy -- one he seemed to be planning for as far back as the draft -- that has propelled the team to postseason success. Defensively, with a new play-caller, he's been heavily involved and helped to orchestrate some of the most creative schemes we've seen from his team in years.
Understanding all that, and understanding that Belichick himself could be blamed for some of the obstacles he was left to overcome, we tracked down as many people as we could who remembered that 2001 season, who followed this season, and who have enough perspective to be able to compare both against all others.
We spoke to reporters, former players and coaches this week in Atlanta. Their answers are here, along with where they were during that 2001 season.
Should 2018 be considered Belichick's best season since 2001? Might it, with a win in Super Bowl LIII, surpass 2001?
Here's what we heard...
HOW 2018 STACKS UP: 'IT'S PROBABLY THE BEST COACHING JOB HE'S DONE'
Troy Brown, Patriots receiver: "I would say probably that it is [close to 2001]. It's probably the best coaching job he's done. But '01 obviously [is right there]. Starting the season 0-2, losing your franchise quarterback, and turning to a guy that hadn't even secured a starting job in college. This year was a 1-2 start, they had little rumblings, I guess Gronk voicing his frustrations early in the season . . . unusual things that don't happen around here. Losing to four pretty bad teams. Edelman suspended the first four weeks. Looking for receivers, 28 different guys from the start of training camp. Bringing in Josh Gordon . . . None of the teams they lost to made the playoffs. Losing two games in December. It was a very unusual team. I guess you could almost compare them to the 2007 Giants. And I guess you could kinda compare them to the 2009 [Patriots] as well. But [Belichick] was able to get this team to play the way he wanted them to at the right time. Happened late. I guess you could say this is the best coaching job that he and his staff have done in a long time. They needed it."
Willie McGinest, Patriots edge defender: "I think one of [Belichick's best]. It's one of. You can look at a lot of different years. He's been doing it forever. What's funny to me is when I watch the Patriots struggle, I go back and I watch tape and I break things down, it's not a talent thing. It's never a talent thing. It's always technique or mental errors or certain things that we harp on that's on the wall when you walk inside the building. 'ELIMINATE BAD FOOTBALL.' And all those things are under there: penalties, mental errors. All those things that are reasons why they lose. In my mind, I was like, 'OK, these things are going to get corrected. They're going to make adjustments and fix it.' And he's the best at identifying what you're doing well, but certainly at identifying what you're not doing well. It doesn't matter who you are, you're going to get called out and you're going to have to address what's hurting the team. And you're going to have to fix it."
Kurt Warner, Rams quarterback: "I know they're using the motivation that they're too old. But they weren't the same team during the season. They didn't play as well. They were trying to figure things out during the season. Part of that was the changes that happened, bouncing back from a long year, less offseason, all of those things. But to their credit, they're able to identify the things they need to get better at. Somehow, someway they put it all together come playoff time. When you're not familiar with that, when you don't understand how it works from one season to another, that's what makes it so hard. It's why the Patriots have found themselves coming back to Super Bowls whether they win or lose the following year is because they can separate those two things. I think that's a very difficult thing to do to say, 'That season's over. Clear it out of your mind.' "
Steve Mariucci, 49ers head coach: "This is the second best job he's ever done, in my humble opinion. They started off slow. They lose five games on the road. That's a little bit unlike them. You lose Josh Gordon. Gronk's gimpy. Everybody's feeling like they're good but maybe not as good as before. Here we are again. This is a terrific, terrific job that they've done."
Tedy Bruschi, Patriots linebacker: "It's always a great coaching job when you get your team to the Super Bowl. But I think the best example, if I were to focus on the offensive side of the ball, in terms of coaching by this staff is the ability to morph into a power running football team. I think it's being able to look ahead. The ability that coach Belichick and the staff has as far as where the league has gone over the last couple years and what it's gone to is the spread-it-out kind of football, throw it around 40-plus times. That kind of philosophy dominates the league lately. I'll say that. So how have defenses reacted to that? Defenses have reacted to that by putting quicker, possibly smaller, maybe safeties playing linebacker, those type of adjustments to counteract what offensive football was becoming. So it affected the defensive side. So what does Bill say? 'Well, I see that trend happening. Well, let me use this guy James Develin. Let us turn into a power running football team. Let us draft an offensive lineman in the first round and also another running back because I think I know what I want to become now based on what the league is becoming and how it's affecting defensive football.' That's good coaching in my opinion. It's been a great job offensively in terms of how they've achieved their success this year."
Adam Vinatieri, Patriots kicker: "It seems like in the National Football League, there's so much turnover and it doesn't matter who's on the team. He just inserts the next guys and they continue to win. The fact that they're back this year is very, very impressive. I'll say it publicly and to anybody else: I think he's the greatest football coach of all time. Just what he's continuously done year in and year out with what he's got."
Ted Johnson, Patriots linebacker: "I would say how does  stack up against other seasons? It's pretty impressive when you consider, 'How does Bill get this monkey off their back regarding the hangover from the Super Bowl?' He had to somehow motivate these guys in a way that I don't think he's ever had to motivate. Whatever him and Tom did because I think you got Bill behind the scenes, behind the curtain, then you've got Tom out there, face of the franchise, basically being the bell cow, the messenger, for Belichick with everything he says. That's what's going on right now."
Brian Billick, Ravens head coach: "What they do do is they play role-specific position football. Everybody has a role. Everybody knows what that role is. That role, though it may not be a Pro Bowl level, if they gave a Pro Bowl to a player who executes 20 plays and he's supposed to do a certain thing, you would give it to that player. Very position and role-specific. That's so fine-tuned and Bill has an eye for talent . . . 'A lot of it I can get later in the draft. Or I can get that free agent veteran that, no, he can't go 65 plays, but he can get me 15 pass-rushes.' It's been brilliant what they're doing."
Mike Reiss, MetroWest Daily News: "To me, this is really interesting. At the start of the playoffs, my answer to you would've been he's always great, but based on the bar he's set for himself, at that point, I would've told you this wouldn't be at the top of my list. The last two games, to me, now put it in contention. If they finish it off, it just might be [Belichick's] best ever. I think it's contingent on this last game because this has turned so late. I feel like the way they played in the playoffs, that's their best football of the season. That's a reflection on him. Up to that point, I don't think we'd be having this conversation."
Karen Guregian, Boston Herald: "This year gets high points because teams that lose the Super Bowl don't repeat. And he's coming back from benching a guy in the Super Bowl and supposedly costing the team a Super Bowl with Malcolm Butler. He's coming back with this cloud hanging over him. And after all that, for once, legitimately being questioned. For him to come back from that, and now coming back with a crotchety old team, and getting their butts kicked and legitimately looking terrible on the road all throughout the season, and having all the things, all the tenets that we were led to believe -- build and build and build, get better and be better in December -- then have them get crushed in December? Now they're turning it on in January? But, yeah. They turned it on. It's like the faucet turned on late."
Michael Holley, Boston Globe: "I will respect the degree of difficulty [in getting back after losing Super Bowl LII]. No question. But also, we gotta admit that maybe we're giving him credit for something that never happened. Maybe a lot of people believed he lost the team with that Butler move. If you buy that he lost the team with the Butler move and then got them back to the Super Bowl anyway, say, yeah. Go ahead. That's the greatest coaching job. But maybe there's something wrong with that formula. Maybe he pissed off the team. Maybe he really pissed off the team. And they were puzzled by what he did. But ultimately they still respect him and he still had their ear."
Mike Giardi, NECN: "Where does this rate in teams that Bill's had? It's at the bottom talent-wise. You've relied on a lot of unsung heroes over the course of the year. This guy doesn't make this play in a game, you don't win that game. That guy doesn't make that play, then you don't win another game. That team in '01 sort of had that same vibe to it. Different people, guys like Anthony Pleasant, would have a day. Or one play. If he doesn't make that play, they don't win that game. You don't win that game, maybe you don't make the playoffs, or the season takes a different turn. They've certainly had that this year. How many guys have done something along the way that has been very beneficial? Keion Crossen, other than special teams, what has he done as a DB? Then in the AFC title game, he's getting snaps against Tyreek Hill. Other than getting beat over the top once, he acquitted himself well. That  team had a lot of that going for itself too."
Tom E. Curran, MetroWest Daily News: "In some ways, I think Bill is a little responsible [for the adversity they faced and overcame] because of his roster responsibilities, along with Nick Caserio, of putting the Patriots in an uphill fight. But to anticipate the changes in the NFL, the way business would be done to start stocking your roster so it could run effectively, seeing the value of a fullback, Dwayne Allen, a Sony Michel, in this era is pretty impressive . . . They fixed what was a problem with the run defense. At least apparently. Clearly [Belichick] was somehow able to find a way to gain the trust of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski -- despite the fact that he gave neither a direct raise -- so they could be on board."
Giardi: "The one thing about this year is there were a couple of questionable Bill things. Whether [Brian] Flores takes the blame for what happens in Miami, Bill's the head coach. Gronk on the 15-yard line. Devin McCourty, your smartest player and can fly, on the sideline. I think that's certainly a unique decision that could've haunted them."
Warner: "He's done a lot of great coaching jobs over the years so it's hard to say this is the best or that's the best. But I think it was a great job that he did. The biggest thing he did to me was he saw what they needed to address, they continued to address it over the year, and they played their best football at playoff time. Very few teams can do that, especially when the season doesn't go quite like they want it to. To put it all together, to get their guys playing their best at the right time . . . At playoff time they're doing exactly what they need to do. Kudos to all the players, but also to Bill on that as well."
Billick: "The thing that jumps out to me about Belichick, people gotta understand, he's been in the NFL his entire... professional... life. His entire professional life. That base of institutional knowledge is second to none. I've been telling people all the time, imagine the strength of, no matter what happens in the game, whatever Wade Phillips wants to throw at him, Tom Brady can come over to Bill and go, 'Remember 12 years ago when the Ravens did this? Remember 15 years ago when the Panthers did this to us?' And to be able to draw on that, we'll never see the likes of it again."
Reiss: "I don't think you can go wrong with 2001. But if they finish this off I would be comfortable arguing in favor of 2018. Two things: I think the job is harder now because of all the things that come with it. Whether it's social media, a more aggressive, larger media. I'm not saying the job was easy in '01, but I think that's part of it. That deserves mention. And I'm a believer that when you're the underdog and not much is expected of you, I believe that eases the burden of what you have to combat when you're the best and everyone's shooting for you, and how you keep your team grounded and focused and on the task at hand. Part of me would say, 'Yeah, I love '01. That was ridiculous what he did with that team.' But I don't think that came with a lot challenges that this year did."
WHY 2001 MIGHT HAVE NO EQUAL: 'THE WOLVES WERE AT THE DOOR, LET'S REMEMBER'
Johnson: "You want me to relate it back to the '01 team and those early teams versus this year? What I would do in the defensive meetings sometimes, is I'd like to look around around the room. And I'd like to look around the room at each position group to see how we stacked up as far as star power. I'd like to see, 'What are we working with in this meeting?' I'd look back at the secondary and I'd see Ty Law, then later Asante Samuel, or Rodney Harrison. Oh man that's pretty exciting right there. I'll take that. Then I look at the linebackers. There's Tedy right there. Then I'd see the smart ass [Mike] Vrabel sitting in the back like he always does. Roman Phifer? Kidding me? The 14-year vet? Then I'd see Willie McGinest. Then I'd go to the defensive line and it's Ted Washington, I see Richard Seymour. I'm like, 'Woo man! We got something here!' "
Holley: "You know what? I do feel like  can't be surpassed. I think 2001 is total Bill. It's like all of his gifts. You got the coaching. You saw what he did there. Then in conjunction with Scott Pioli, the cap management. I think of the context. Here they are, the '99 Patriots under Pete Carroll, they finish 8-8 and $10 million over the cap. And you got coming up as free agents, Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi. In 2000 you're still trying to sort out the cap. You go 5-11. In 2001, not because they were so visionary but because they didn't have a lot to spend, a lot to work with, [they signed] David Patten and Larry Izzo and Bryan Cox and Roman Phifer. All these signings. The greatest free-agent period in Patriots history if you think about bang for the buck. Brilliant cap management. Now I haven't gotten into [Drew] Bledsoe gets hurt and Brady takes over, your fourth quarterback from the year before. And Terry Glenn gets suspended . . . I think the Patriots dynasty [started] with guys who Belichick believed weren't overall a Super Bowl-caliber team. But they won a Super Bowl. You can't say that about the 2018 Patriots. Can't say they're not a Super Bowl-caliber team when you've been to the Super Bowl three straight years. They were just there last year and the year before. It's a fine coaching job, but I don't think it really compares to 2001."
Vinatieri: "[Belichick is] a great motivator. He's a great coach. He knows the Xs and Os. He makes a great game plan and he makes a team try to beat you left-handed. Most of the time they can't. Huge respect for him. I got three rings because of him, in addition to everyone else. But we couldn't have done any of that stuff without him."
Mariucci: "The best job to me still is his first Super Bowl. When Bill first came to New England, his first year they went 5-11. And then in the second game, Bledsoe gets hurt. You gotta play this young guy, sixth-round guy. And Brady, he goes 11-5 with that team. And he gets hurt in the AFC (Championship) game. Bledsoe goes in and wins that thing and Bill says, 'All right, I gotta stick with my guy.' That was a heckuva year. Came out of nowhere, really. They were a 14-point underdog in that game. That first Super Bowl was -- I don't want to say it was a miracle -- but it was a heckuva accomplishment. Second year with a new coach, new quarterback and all that stuff. But this one is probably a close second."
Billick: "That was really a pivotal time. The wolves were at the door, let's remember. The transition [Belichick] was making with a veteran quarterback. Though nobody knew Tom Brady was going to be what Tom Brady was."
Guregian: "You had me thinking. You really had me thinking about this. I thought a couple things. The points to make are this: The first year, the first time like that year, they came out of nowhere. The reason why it was such a good job for Belichick was he didn't have the rings. When you're coaching a team and you're trying to get people to buy in, he couldn't point to the skins on the wall. That was a big thing. It's not like he had a quarterback that had won five Super Bowls with him. It's not like he had all these experienced veteran players who'd won and been there and done that. And he had a 24 year-old quarterback. But as you later find out, a lot of these players were great, great players. But that doesn't erase the great job that he did. Ultimately your star million zillion dollar quarterback went down Week 2."
Johnson: "I look at that defensive meeting room in New England now and nothing's getting me real excited. It just really lacks star power. You can call Dont'a Hightower a star, [Stephon] Gilmore would be up there, but comparatively speaking the room doesn't have the stars or the great players. But here's the thing: All these guys have been in this system and in this culture for a long time. It's not like you have a lot of new guys on that defense. Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, Devin McCourty, even though Jason McCourty is new, his brother's been here, it's not like you have a lot of turnover. They may not have a ton of stars, but there hasn't been a lot of turnover on this year's defense than maybe in the past. They know the culture. They know Bill. They know the scheme. And a lot of it comes down to in big games, situations. How do they play collectively on third down? Pretty damn good. How are they in red zone defense now? Really good. How are they doing stopping the run? A lot better now than they did. They're all collectively playing the situation better than they ever have because they've been in the system. It's not a ton of turnover on this defense over the last year or two. That's a part of it, too. Even though it lacks the big names, these guys have been in the system and know what's expected of them and how to play situational football as good as anybody."
Holley: "It's a great coaching job when you think about [Julian] Edelman being out, the Josh Gordon situation. That's huge. That's a lot. Sony Michel missing time. Gronk in decline. But I still think, overall, what we expect from the Patriots, the state of the AFC, all those factors, I think this is a very good coaching job. Not his best."
Guregian: "Maybe it was really easy because there was no pressure on them. But by the same token it's like who the hell is Bill Belichick? He had no skins on the wall. He was Cleveland. He flunked. He flunked in Cleveland."
BEST OF THE REST: 'YOU CAN PICK ANY ONE OF THEM, IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT'
Brown: "I know '06 is in there too because of the personnel issues we had, especially at the receiver position. Getting that team to the AFC Championship, and being up 24-3, I don't think anybody said that would happen before the season outside of the team. That was a heckuva job, too."
Curran: "I think  is in the top 5. There's years like 2010 I would rate above it. In 2010, that was a year after they basically blew it up. Not only did they blow it up in the offseason, they said enough is enough with Randy Moss and trade him and brought Deion Branch back. That team went 14-2 with two rookie tight ends. Tom Brady was unanimous MVP in his second year back from a torn ACL. Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis were the running backs. That was, to me, as impressive as the '01 season. It's a shame that season was waylaid by Patrick Chung, a second-year player calling for a fake punt, and Brandon Spikes, a first-year player having a breakdown in coverage on a Jericho Cotchery long gain."
Guregian: "This is gonna be a weird thing: 2007 [should be in the conversation]. Because the [crap] hit the wall with Spygate. Boom. I know they had talent up the wazoo. I know that. But right out of the shoot, right out of the gate, you have this humongous cheating scandal thrown in their face and Belichick and them. And it's like a fly on the shoulder. They somehow managed the unbeaten thing and the pressure of that all through the year. To handle that and Spygate? To get all the way to the end? I dunno. I thought that was pretty damn good. People think just because you win and you're perfect that that's easy? I think that's almost harder."
Giardi: "I keep thinking more like 2011 in the sense that I don't think that team was one of the more talented teams that he had. I think this  team is sort of down, lower on the food chain than some of the great teams that he's had. But if you put this one up with '11, then you'd have to flash back to '06 and '01, and '01 probably jumps '06 in terms of closeness to sort of the way things played out [in 2018]. There's definitely, this year -- and certainly after last year with what they dealt with with Gronk and Brady and Belichick and all that -- I think there's a closeness to this team that sort of resembles that one in '01. And '01 was obviously the first one that jumped on the 'Nobody respects us' [mantra] . . . This group sort of has that feel to it."
Holley: "I go 2008. Isn't it nuts that you could make a case for like five or six seasons in Bill Belichick's coaching career? I like '08 because you got Brady going out the first game, first quarter of the season. You put Matt Cassel in there. I know they went undefeated the year before in the regular season. But you still had a guy who sucked in the preseason, thought he was going to get cut, was terrible. When [Brady] went down, initially there were all kinds of reports that they were looking at all these street quarterbacks to come in and compete for the job. Eventually they decided, 'No, no. We're gonna go with Cassel.' I thought they were in big trouble. They made Cassel, they made him look decent. They made him look good. It got him a big contract in Kansas City with Pioli. But that was masterful. Matt Cassel gets them 11 wins! It's not magic because their flaw was Matt Cassel. That was your weak point of the team and ultimately you couldn't fool them for long. Whenever they played good teams, they got smoked . . . They couldn't beat playoff teams, but they were very competitive and interesting."
Holley: "A dark horse? 2014. You start off 2-2 and you have to deal with all that and you get your head kicked in by Kansas City. To come back and then go on that run, that was pretty impressive. I like those teams where they get on a roll late in the season. Early in the season you say, 'No way,' and by the end of the season you can't pick against them."
Guregian: "You can pick any one of them, if you think about it. You can pick the non-Brady year. You can pick the year that they didn't have Brady for the first four games. You can make cases for just about...every...single...year. "
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