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New England Patriots: Ranking Bill Belichick's Seasons as Head Coach

Nick ButterworthContributor IJanuary 8, 2017

New England Patriots: Ranking Bill Belichick's Seasons as Head Coach

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    The New England Patriots were warmly greeted by a proud throng of a few hundred fans as they returned home from their Super Bowl XLVI loss to the New York Giants this week.

    For a team who fell a couple of plays short of a fourth Lombardi Trophy, the Patriots divided media opinion from the outset. For all their offensive firepower, their defensive struggles at points during the regular season led some analysts to declare the unit the worst in the league.

    By extension, for all the praise heaped upon Bill Belichick for his coaching job with a young cast of relative unknowns on defense, his skills as a general manager came in for more criticism than ever before.

    To offer some relief from the Super Bowl post-mortem for Patriots fans, I began to wonder where this season ranked among Belichick's 12 seasons as New England's head coach. But why stop there?

    Ranking every season from 2000 to 2011, I have assessed Belichick on his skills as a coach and a general manager, not just on Super Bowl appearances and regular season records.

     

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12. 2000 Season (Record: 5-11, Missed Playoffs)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    Belichick's first season remains his only losing one as Patriots head coach, finishing last in the AFC East, some way off the pace set by the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins, who secured playoff berths.

    By any measure, 2000 was a poor season, but their inability to move the ball offensively, despite a soft schedule proved fatal.

    The 26th-ranked running game lacked any spark—Kevin Faulk led all tailbacks with 570 yards and four touchdowns—while Drew Bledsoe posted mediocre numbers in the passing game (3,291 yards, 17 TDs, 13 INT), way down on his previous season totals.

    Wins over the Denver Broncos and the Colts were highlights in an otherwise forgettable year. A 19-11 loss to the 4-12 Cleveland Browns sits at the other end of the spectrum.

     

    Belichick the GM

    The controversial recruitment of Belichick in the offseason led to the trade of the Patriots' first-round draft selection to the New York Jets. By using the top pick on himself effectively, hindsight tells us that this was one of the great personnel moves in franchise history.

    An overhauled coaching staff saw the introduction of names that would form the bedrock of the dynasty years in Charlie Weis, Eric Mangini, Pepper Johnson and Rob Ryan. The results on the field didn't yet show it, but the foundations for what came next were laid in 2000.

    As for the draft, injury curtailed the career of second-round pick Adrian Klemm, an offensive tackle that started 10 games over four seasons, while running back J.R. Redmond was a bust, fizzling out of the league in 2004 with less than 700 yards to his name.

    Oh, and the small matter of a skinny Michigan quarterback drafted 199th overall, that went by the name of Tom Brady. A canny selection based on incredible potential, or a fluke pick that paid off (and then some)? You decide.

     

    Verdict

    Baby steps. The house that Bill built was beginning to take shape.

11. 2009 (10-6, Wild-Card Playoff Loss)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    In Bill Belichick: A Football Life, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the 2009 Patriots season, one scene stands out above all others.

    Standing on the touchline in the Superdome as the Patriots are taken apart in a 38-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints, Belichick laments his team's lack of mental toughness with Tom Brady, saying, "I just can't get this team to play the way we need to play. It's so frustrating."

    A combination of factors served to undermine the team's on-field efforts. Indiscipline reared its head, with veterans Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas fined (among others) for turning up late to a morning meeting.

    Brady's 2009 season was ordinary by his standards (4,398 yards, 28 TDs) and his inconsistencies were put down to his ongoing recovery from a torn ACL and MCL that ended his 2008 season.

    But the season will be best remembered for two events; the now-infamous "4th-and-2" call in Indianapolis, and a blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round of the playoffs, after a 24-0 first quarter deficit.

    If there was an air of inevitability that this group of Patriots would fall short, it was sealed with Wes Welker's ACL tear that left the offense looking one-dimensional heading into the playoffs.

     

    Belichick the GM

    The 2009 draft didn't stand the test of time. Patrick Chung and Sebastian Vollmer emerged as starters from the class, though both are injury prone. Julian Edelman has impressed as a utility, two-way player, but figures to remain buried on the depth chart at receiver.

    Darius Butler and Brandon Tate, second- and third-round picks respectively, have already been cut and second-round defensive tackle Ron Brace could easily follow suit next season.

    The free agents brought in to add a touch of veteran leadership all failed to find the mark. Shawn Springs, Fred Taylor, Derrick Burgess and Joey Galloway were busts. Leigh Bodden was a short-term success before the relationship turned sour in 2011.

     

    Verdict

    2009 left a bad taste in the mouth. Belichick was clearly unhappy with the roster he assembled, but the blame sits squarely with him. Not his finest hour, from a coaching or personnel perspective.

10. 2002 (9-7, Missed Playoffs)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    The defending Super Bowl champions entered the season full of expectation, and a 30-14 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the new Gillette Stadium seemed to outline their credentials.

    But after a 3-0 start, the wheels came off as the Patriots lost five of their next seven and missed the playoffs for only the third time in the Belichick era.

    The running game took a backward step in 2002, ranked 28th in the league, and coupled with the 31st-ranked run defense, the Patriots could neither establish nor stop the ground game all season, finding the end zone just nine times while allowing 17 scores.

    LaDanian Tomlinson gashed the front seven in Week 4 for 217 yards and two touchdowns in a sign of things to come down the stretch.

    In the last three games of the regular season, the Patriots conceded an average of 201 yards per game, with Ricky Williams proving unstoppable in Week 17 with 185 yards and two scores.

    Belichick was powerless to plug the leaks in the defense, which lead to a re-tool of the defensive line through the 2003 draft.

     

    Belichick the GM

    Belichick found value throughout the 2002 draft, with Deion Branch in the second round, Jarvis Green in the fourth and David Givens 253rd overall.

    Daniel Graham had a rough rookie season, but the first-round pick was an eventual hit—if not an unqualified success—with seven touchdowns in the 2004 season.

     

    Verdict

    A disappointing Super Bowl hangover which Belichick couldn't shake off. A down year sandwiched by dynasty greatness. 

9. 2005 (10-6, Divisional Playoff Loss)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    Bill was thrust into a more hands-on role with the team than in previous seasons, following the departure of long-time coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. Eric Mangini took up the reins on defense, leaving Belichick to support quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels in drawing up plans on offense.

    The results were spotty; a 4-4 start to the season and the loss of Rodney Harrison in Week 3, dampened expectations of a third consecutive Super Bowl win. Losses to three eventual playoff teams underlined the shift in strength.

    Larry Coyer became the Patriots nemesis, making his mark in two victories that season as the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator, including a 27-13 playoff loss in the divisional round.

    On the bright side, Belichick and McDaniels worked with a receiving group that shared the load more evenly than ever before. Tom Brady enjoyed his finest statistical season to date (4,110 yards, 26 TDs, 14 INT) while throwing touchdown passes to 12 different guys.

     

    Belichick the GM

    An uneven year for Belichick in personnel movements. Ty Law's departure to the New York Jets as a salary cap casualty would always turn out to be a difficult pill for Patriots Nation to swallow. His replacement, second-round draft pick Ellis Hobbs, was not the solution.

    Landing Logan Mankins in the first round of the draft has given Tom Brady solid protection at guard ever since—two Super Bowl disasters aside—while James Sanders served the Patriots admirably for six seasons at safety.

    Roman Phifer and Ted Johnson left before the season started, which left the team thin in experience at linebacker, but the loss of David Patten at wide receiver was ably handled by Deion Branch, David Givens and Troy Brown.

     

    Verdict

    Injuries played their part in undoing the Patriots dominance over the NFL, but Belichick takes credit for handling a number of moving parts on the coaching and playing staff, while continuing to accumulate wins.

8. 2006 (12-4, AFC Title Loss)

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    Bill the Head Coach

    Belichick assembled a game bunch of experienced veterans who were tough to beat in 2006.

    A 38-34 shootout with the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game went down as one of the best playoff games in modern history, but without Troy Brown, they would never have gotten that far in the first place.

    Staring down the barrel of defeat in the divisional playoffs, the Patriots were losing 21-13 to the top-seeded San Diego Chargers. A Tom Brady interception on fourth down to Marlon McCree was stripped by Troy Brown and recovered by Reche Caldwell.

    The ensuing touchdown, two-point conversion, forced punt and field goal to lead 24-21 with 1:10 left to play was a remarkable display of clutch football in all three phases of the game, which typified the leadership and tenacity across the roster.

     

    Bill the GM

    The departures of Willie McGinest and Adam Vinatieri to the Browns and Colts, respectively, were overcome with minimum fuss, but the receiver position took a critical hit, which eventually caught up with the Patriots in the playoffs.

    Losing Deion Branch to the Seahawks and David Givens to the Titans, while replacing with Reche Caldwell and second-round prospect Chad Jackson, was an unmitigated failure, limiting Brady's options and forcing the team to lean on the running game and defense for key plays.

    The 2006 draft will go down as a black mark on Belichick's record. To leave with a bust running back (Laurence Maroney) and wide receiver (Jackson) is a poor return in a year where Johnathan Joseph, Greg Jennings, DeMeco Ryans and DeAngelo Williams were all available with New England on the clock.

    Stephen Gostkowski was a solid find in the fourth round, but emerging with a kicker as the sole contributor remaining on the roster is an indictment on the scouting and selection process.

     

    Verdict

    A clear example where Bill the GM undermined Bill the head coach, leaving the Patriots under-powered in their AFC title shootout.

7. 2008 (11-5, Missed Playoffs)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    From a pure coaching standpoint, leading the Patriots to an 11-5 record with a backup quarterback ranks as one of Belichick's finest moments, particularly when set against the context of the Colts' 2-14 collapse without Peyton Manning in 2011.

    From the moment that Tom Brady went down with a torn ACL and MCL in the first quarter of the Week 1 clash with the Kansas City Chiefs, Belichick worked wonders to prevent the sky from falling in Patriots Nation.

    Josh McDaniels must take some credit for developing Matt Cassel in the system that Brady made his own, but while the play calls came from McDaniels, the concepts were all tried-and-tested Patriots, from Brady's game-manager days in the early 2000s.

    The Patriots were fortunate to land a cupcake schedule, and by the season's end, were in a groove, dispatching weak teams like the Arizona Cardinals and the Oakland Raiders with some ease. They could consider themselves unlucky not to land even a wild-card playoff berth with an 11-5 record.

    But against quality opposition, the gulf in class was evident on both sides of the ball, as evidenced in the 33-10 blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

     

    Belichick the GM

    This was a down year for Belichick the personnel man, in his first year without Scott Pioli. First-round pick Jerod Mayo is the only drafted player still on the roster from 2008.

    An aging defense lacked speed and dynamism, which ultimately cost the Patriots a place in the postseason. In particular, the linebacker corps needed a major overhaul of youth and talent in every position, and calls from the fanbase for an elite pass-rusher grew by the day.

    Deltha O'Neal, Lewis Sanders and Fernando Bryant were all poor veteran free-agent signings, and the team's issues in soft zone coverage were a direct result of failing to address the cornerback position with quality acquisitions.

     

    Verdict

    One of Belichick's finest years as a pure coach, taking a more hands-on approach to cover deficiencies at quarterback, and in the second and third levels of the defense.

    The lack of quality across the roster couldn't take advantage of a weak schedule, but Bill emerged with his reputation enhanced.

6. 2010 (14-2, Divisional Playoff Loss)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    Shades of 2007 dominance were evident at times during the 2010 regular season. Belichick had assembled a fearsome offensive unit, with new recruits Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez making key plays throughout an eight-game winning streak to close out the year.

    Tom Brady collected the first-ever unanimous league MVP award, after a clinical season throwing 36 touchdowns to just four interceptions, whilst shattering Bernie Kosar's 20-year record of pass attempts without an interception with 358 (previously 308).

    Victories over six eventual playoff teams in the regular season appeared to underline the Patriots' Super Bowl credentials, before a tough loss to the New York Jets at home in the divisional playoffs exposed a weak running game that couldn't control the clock with the game on the line.

    The inexperienced defense epitomized the "bend, but don't break" coaching philosophy by conceding huge chunks of yardage while generating a steady stream of turnovers.

    The Patriots ended with a league-best plus-28 differential, before their opportunistic efforts dried up in the playoffs.

     

    Belichick the GM

    The bid to clean up the locker room began with the offseason departure of Adalius Thomas, before the Week 4 release of Randy Moss stunned the fanbase.

    Both demonstrated the "me first" attitude that permeated the 2009 roster, and Belichick's decision to revert to high-character recruits—the effects of which are felt more than ever today—reaped dividends.

    Deion Branch was brought back to New England to replace Moss, and despite age robbing him of his early-career sharpness, his presence as a No. 2 wideout created a balanced passing attack that excelled on short and intermediate routes.

    2010 was also a return to form in the draft, with Belichick collecting Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Spikes, who all figure to provide the backbone of the team for years to come.

     

    Verdict

    A solid year for Belichick, both as a coach and a general manager. The lack of a postseason win was a major blot on the record, but to deliver 14 wins in a rebuilding year was remarkable.

5. 2011 Season (13-3, Super Bowl Loss)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    A shortened preseason following the labor dispute led Belichick to install a more conventional base 4-3 defense and a slimmer playbook for his 2011 roster. The early results were shaky, giving up an average of 369 yards passing over the first four games.

    Over time, the team grew in confidence and their consistency from week to week earned them a reputation for mental toughness, which Belichick put down to the maturity and hard-working nature of his players.

    The emergence of tight end Rob Gronkowski as a genuine superstar—surpassing NFL single-season yardage and touchdown records for tight ends—elevated the offense to almost unstoppable heights, while contributing to a 36 points per game average across the final eight regular-season wins.

    A fifth Super Bowl appearance in the Belichick era surprised many who dismissed the Patriots defense as lacking in talent. Key performances by Vince Wilfork and Sterling Moore in the playoffs proved that the unit was capable of making plays in pressure situations.

     

    Belichick the GM

    The end justified the means. Many questioned Belichick's sanity after releasing a boatload of experienced members of the secondary.

    Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, Darius Butler, Leigh Bodden and Jonathan Wilhite were all discarded, with career special-teams talent such as James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown and Antwaun Molden taking their place.

    Even wide receiver Julian Edelman finished the season as a two-way player, taking crucial reps at the cornerback position down the stretch.

    The effects were at times downright ugly. By conceding 4,703 yards in pass coverage, the 2011 Patriots were statistically the second-worst defense in NFL history.

    Belichick's new signings took the best part of a season to settle in, but the unit was transformed in the playoffs, forcing 3-and-outs and playing with a drive and urgency previously unseen.

    Free agency delivered Mark Anderson, Andre Carter and Brian Waters to New England, all of whom were pivotal in the team's success. They outweighed the mistakes made in recruiting busts Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco.

    Another solid draft appears to have secured the future left tackle for the franchise in Nate Solder, along with potential core contributors in the backfield with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.

     

    Verdict

    Belichick's impact on the 2011 roster was felt in a number of ways. His impact as a coach and a motivator took the Patriots to within a couple of plays of their fourth Lombardi Trophy, while managing the disruption of a major roster overhaul.

4. 2003 (14-2, Super Bowl Win)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    With 15 straight wins to secure their second Lombardi trophy in three seasons, the 2003 Patriots were a consistent, efficient machine, with the stingiest defense in the league (238 points allowed at 14.9 per game).

    Their mental toughness was displayed in the goal-line stand that kept the Indianapolis Colts at bay for a 38-34 victory in Week 13, with Willie McGinest dropping Edgerrin James in the backfield as time expired.

    Overtime victories at Houston and Miami cemented the belief that this Patriots vintage had the momentum to beat all comers with the game on the line.

    With a defense that pitched three shutouts in the regular season and held three more opponents to 10 points or less, they would reach Super Bowl XXXVIII by picking off Peyton Manning four times in the AFC Championship game and sacking him four more.

    And in what was becoming an inevitable occurrence, Adam Vinatieri kicked the winning field goal in the dying seconds to win 32-29.

    With room for improvement on the 12th-ranked offense, this was by no means the perfect roster, but it was pretty close. Belichick presided over a team that would remain undefeated for 13 months.

     

    Belichick the GM

    Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel, Dan Koppen and Tully Banta-Cain all emerged as key contributors from the 2003 draft, making it one of the richest hauls in Belichick's history.

    The loss of Lawyer Milloy to salary cap pressure took time to pay dividends, as Milloy's Buffalo Bills handed the Patriots an embarrassing 31-0 beatdown on the opening weekend.

    But new recruit Rodney Harrison would more than compensate for the gap at the safety position with a brooding intensity that etched him into Patriots folklore.

     

    Verdict

    The most tenacious team in the Belichick era—and the best defense—the 2003 Patriots fought tooth-and-nail to establish an era of dominance in New England.

3. 2004 (14-2, Super Bowl Champions)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    How do you top a season like 2003? By bolstering your running game with a "bell-cow" called Corey Dillon, that's how.

    The 2004 Patriots repeated the feats of the previous season with a revamped offense that finished fourth in points scored (437), in part thanks to Dillon's 1,600-yard season which yielded 13 total touchdowns.

    Thanks to a run of injuries, Troy Brown saw extended time as a two-way player, covering the cornerback position following a depth crisis. He finished the year with three interceptions and a forced fumble.

    Outside linebacker Mike Vrabel would line up as an eligible receiver in red-zone packages, catching two balls in the end zone and emphasizing the versatility and professional attitude that the 2004 roster exemplified.

    The playoff run was arguably more dominant in 2004. First, they limited the Colts to just three points in a blowout victory in the divisional round. Indianapolis crossed the 50-yard line just four times as the Patriots controlled the clock, and the game.

    And in their final two games, the defense would produce six interceptions from Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb combined to put the exclamation mark on the dynasty era.

     

    Belichick the GM

    The Corey Dillon trade was a short-term success, replacing Antowain Smith with a malcontent who bought into the "Patriot Way" to set career and franchise single-season rushing records.

    Nose tackle Vince Wilfork was drafted 21st overall and has grown into a key leader of the present-day defense. Benjamin Watson was a physically-gifted athlete who never scaled the heights of his pre-draft measurables, yet contributed through the 2007 season.

     

    Verdict

    A truly dominant season. Repeating the success of 2003 is arguably a more difficult achievement. That they did so with a versatile roster that compensated for injuries is testament to the team designed and coached by Belichick.

2. 2007 (16-0, Super Bowl Loss)

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    Belichick the Head Coach

    The perfect regular season. Touchdown records for Tom Brady and Randy Moss. Asante Samuel's dropped interception. That catch by David Tyree. Bill Belichick coached his 2007 Patriots to within a play or two of being considered the greatest team of all time.

    As it is, Super Bowl XLII will go down as one of the biggest upsets in sports history.

    Until the 17-14 defeat to the New York Giants, the Patriots were seemingly invincible, scoring a record 589 points in the regular season at an average of 36.8 per game.

     

    Belichick the GM

    Another strong performance. Recognizing the roster hole at receiver, and that the 2007 draft class was relatively weak, Belichick began to deal.

    Trading away a first-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers, he received their 2008 first-rounder—which ultimately became the seventh overall selection—and a 2007 fourth-rounder, used to trade with the Oakland Raiders for Randy Moss.

    Wes Welker arrived in free agency, too, costing the Patriots a second- and a seventh-round pick. These two trades alone make Belichick's performance that year one of his best ever.

    Adding Donte Stallworth, Sammy Morris and Adalius Thomas in free agency further underlined the "win now" intentions of Belichick and Scott Pioli.

    Brandon Meriweather, taken in the first round, became the only draftee to stick with New England for any amount of time, before being cut in 2011.

     

    Verdict

    Was this the greatest team in Patriots history? The record books say no, but the dominance of the 2007 roster—finally broken in Super Bowl XLII—was unprecedented.

1. 2001 (11-5 Super Bowl Win)

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    Bill the Head Coach

    Magical memories. In 2001, Belichick underlined his credentials as one of the finest tactical brains in the NFL, by masterminding a 20-17 victory in Super Bowl XXXVI against the 14-point favorite St. Louis Rams.

    The "Greatest Show on Turf" was derailed by an aggressive game plan, which involved chipping and bumping Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt off their precise routes. When lined up in the slot, Marshall Faulk was jammed at the line of scrimmage by Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest.

    With New England's defensive backs focusing on the receivers more than the quarterback, Kurt Warner's timing was affected, and while he threw for 365 yards, his two interceptions ultimately cost the Rams 10 points.

    The Mo Lewis hit on Drew Bledsoe in the Week 2 loss to the New York Jets was meant to bookmark the end of any hopes of a winning season. However, a young, relatively unknown quarterback called Tom Brady was ably supported by running back Antowain Smith and a strong, underrated defense that made plays at critical moments.

    The 2001 team rode their luck—the "Tuck Rule" game is testament to that—but with a nerveless clutch kicker in Adam Vinatieri, a star and a dynasty were born.

     

    Bill the GM

    After a disappointing debut season as Patriots head coach, Belichick and Scott Pioli commenced a clear-out that would transform the identity of the roster for good.

    In his book The Blueprint, author Christopher Price notes that 65 of the 85 Patriots on the training camp roster of 2001 were brought in by Belichick and Pioli, a staggering turnover of staff.

    The philosophy that delivered success—few stars, and filling out the middle and bottom of the roster with above-average talent—brought in names such as Antowain Smith, David Patten, Joe Andruzzi, Mike Vrabel, Anthony Pleasant and Roman Phifer, among many others.

    Even the draft approach, focusing on the best player available rather than specific needs, pulled in franchise cornerstones like Matt Light and Richard Seymour.

    This is unquestionably the finest year of Belichick's stewardship from a personnel perspective.

     

    Verdict

    Belichick's finest hour. He blended supreme coaching with a recruitment system that dominated the next decade—an almost unheard-of level of consistency in the salary cap era.

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