A dog with a long leash has the ability to stray far from the tree.
Bill Belichick strayed far from the tree of typical coaching in the New England Patriots' thrilling 34-31 victory over the Denver Broncos, taking the wind instead of the ball after winning the coin toss in overtime.
As we've seen in the past—4th-and-2 anyone?—Belichick is not beholden to the fans, media or his owners. He will do what he feels gives his team the best chance to win. If he fails, he fails. He knows that it won’t cost him his job. He has certainly earned the latitude to make those sorts of decisions.
With this latest unexpected triumph, Belichick has solidified himself as the leader in the Coach of the Year race.
Before the Patriots game Sunday night, I speculated that the Patriots might choose to employ the “Thurman Thomas Strategy,” created in Super Bowl XXV when the Giants—led on defense by defensive coordinator Bill Belichick—allowed Thurman Thomas to run wild in order to corral the explosive passing attack of Jim Kelly.
The Patriots mirrored the Giants' 2-4-5 formation—that they used nearly 24 years ago—for much of the night, with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich able to put their hands on the ground and transform to a base nickel look.
The fine play of the Denver interior line—especially Manny Ramirez and Zane Beadles—combined with the light boxes that they were running into, allowed Knowshon Moreno to rush for 224 yards. However, 117 of those yards came in the second half and overtime—nearly full three quarters where the Broncos only were able to score one touchdown.
Knowing that tempting Manning to go deep to his myriad downfield threats wasn't a good idea with many of his defensive backs playing at less than full health, allowing the Broncos to run was his best option. Belichick was successful in limiting big plays—Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker combined for only five catches—and put his banged-up defense in winnable situations.
Enduring Injuries and Roster Turnover
Every NFL team has injuries and needs to bring up reserves from the practice squad or off the street. Every NFL team has new faces that it needs to integrate into the existing offense or defense. Not every team, however, is able to do both of those things while maintaining an 8-3 record.
In this morning’s media conference call, Belichick touched on injuries.
As you know, this is a game of attrition. It’s a game of just staying power. There’s great competition every week. You've seen all the players throughout the league that have gone down, that aren't playing, that are on Injured Reserve and so forth. Every team is dealing with it. You have to have depth, you have to have guys to step up and replace guys. You have to have your key players out there play well at critical times in the game and obviously in critical games and at critical points in the season. It’s a combination of all those things.
With injuries decimating the middle of the Patriots defense—captains Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo are both on injured reserve—and the defensive backfield suffering a recent spate of injuries, Belichick has had to be very creative in deploying his resources, both schematically and personnel-wise.
There were some speed bumps along the way, especially as Brady got to know his new cadre of receivers in the first weeks of the season. Fast forward to Week 13 and the Patriots offense is starting to hit its stride. Despite uncharacteristic fumbles the last three weeks, the Patriots have averaged 32.2 point per game since their loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5.
While the defense has lost a bit of its luster after Wilfork and Mayo went down, the Patriots seem to be building capacity in some of their backups. Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon are three rookies that seem to be taking off in the absence of the normal starters. Belichick is often chided for his odd mid-round NFL draft selections, but he might have hit on those three.
No team seems to handle distractions better than the New England Patriots.
A team that garners more than its fair share of national media attention, the Patriots were quick to quash any potential media circus when they signed Tim Tebow to a contract in early June.
Tebow was only a small part of the issues in the land of Rex Ryan last year, but the constant media attention to a backup quarterback certainly took its toll on Jets players, coaches and fans. Not so in New England.
In addition to Tim Tebow, Belichick has had to deal with the outrageous Aaron Hernandez saga, Gronkowski's injury status, two questionable endings involving officiating and the return of a Patriots legend that Belichick seemingly shooed out the door. That legend—Wes Welker—ended Sunday’s game with only four catches and a costly error on a punt return.
Through of all these issues, Patriots coaches and players have toed the line and kept their focus on the task at hand: winning the next football game.
One of Many
Belichick is only one of many deserving coaches this year. Bruce Arians has taken a woeful Arizona Cardinals team to new heights and a 7-4 record. Pete Carroll has the Seahawks atop the NFL with a 10-1 record. Andy Reid has turned the Kansas City Chiefs around and has them sitting at 9-2 and looking at an almost certain playoff berth.
However, now that the Chiefs have had some injuries to their top defensive players—Tamba Hali and Justin Houston both left Sunday’s game against the Chargers—we’ll see if Reid can be as creative and resilient as Belichick has been without Wilfork and Mayo.
With five games remaining in the regular season, the race for Coach of the Year is certainly still up for grabs. That said, the Patriots faithful’s mantra of “In Bill We Trust” certainly has rang true through the first 12 weeks of the season.