February 4, 2012

Belichick's best performance? This year might be it

By DAN POMPEI / Chicago Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — Picking Bill Belichick's best coaching job is a little like choosing Rembrandt's preeminent painting, Bach's consummate composition or Shakespeare's greatest play.

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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talks with strong safety James Ihedigbo (44) during practice on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012, in Indianapolis. The Patriots will face the New York Giants in NFL football Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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And beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

But there is much to be said for what Belichick did in 2011, and if his Patriots beat the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI many will proclaim this his finest season.

"He has had a lot of good coaching jobs," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "He's a fantastic coach and we're privileged to have him."

Previously, many believed Belichick's finest hour came in 2001.

Coming off a 5-11 season, Sports Illustrated picked the Patriots to finish last in the AFC East. In the second game of the year, quarterback Drew Bledsoe was injured, forcing the team to go with a second-year replacement who was a sixth-round draft pick.

The Patriots started out 1-3, but eventually that kid, Tom Brady, did OK. The Patriots finished 11-5 and advanced in the playoffs with a little help from the tuck rule. Belichick subsequently won his first Super Bowl as a head coach.

This year, Belichick has had to coach around having the 31st-ranked defense in the NFL.

"He has done an unbelievable job, particularly with the defense, getting them to play at a higher level, really developing the scheme based on the available talent," Patriots assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia said.

These Patriots have come a long way from those of 2001. Belichick has won with a completely different philosophy.

"He has adapted his defensive mentality to what wins championships now, which is offensive football," Fox analyst and former Ravens Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick said. "He has been brilliant."

Belichick has been at the forefront of the two tight-end revolution. He has taken a wide receiver in Julian Edelman and put him on defense. He has taken a scrap-pile cornerback in Streling Moore and made him a starter.

"He has made some bold decisions roster-wise," Kraft said. "Some of the people who have been cut ... some of the people who were brought in ... Bill is a savant in understanding personnel and product, understanding chemistry, balancing core veterans with youth."

Revolving defense

If you want to know why the Patriots gave up the second most passing yards in NFL history this season, take a look at their list of transactions and roster composition.

Through the course of the season, the Patriots cut five players who they once regarded highly _ safety Brandon Meriweather, safety James Butler, cornerback Leigh Bodden, cornerback Darius Butler and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.

The Patriots have started 11 players on defense who were not drafted.

On their current roster, they have 11 defensive players who have been cut before.

They have had 40 players take snaps, including 16 defensive backs. At least two undrafted free agents are expected to start in the secondary against the Giants.

Numbers games

The Giants are the first in NFL history to make it to the Super Bowl after a regular season in which they scored fewer points (394) than they gave up (400).

The Patriots, on the other hand, scored 171 more points than they allowed. They had the third best point differential in the NFL, behind only the Saints (208) and Packers (201).

The Giants were the only team in the NFL that had a winning season without scoring more than they gave up.

But in their last five games, the Giants are plus-74. Don't get too excited, though. During the same period, the Patriots are plus-97.

Front office chess

When you see Giants receiver Victor Cruz racing through secondaries, and when you look at his numbers (82 catches for 1,536 yards), it's hard to believe he was an undrafted rookie a season ago.

Even Giants general manager Jerry Reese, in his wildest dreams, could not have foreseen Cruz becoming a salsa-dancing sensation in his second year.

Reese said the Giants didn't even have Cruz ranked as a priority free agent. In fact, all three Giants scouts who evaluated Cruz before the draft ranked him the same way _ as a good "local" free agent.

That means the Giants were only interested in Cruz, who is from New Jersey, because he wasn't going to cost them much.

At 6 feet, 205 pounds, Cruz has average size. With a 40-yard dash in the high 4.5s, he has average speed. He played against a lower level of competition at Massachusetts. He wasn't a return specialist. There were plenty of receivers available.

And so no other team even made an offer on Cruz.

"In scouting, it's not a perfect science," Reese said. "I don't even know if it is a science at all. It's not a crapshoot. But every now and then, you get lucky with guys like that."

There was something about Cruz that was difficult to identify.

"He's a fighter," Giants receivers coach Sean Ryan said. "He wants that ball. ... It's an underlying theme in every facet of his success. ... He has a great desire to go get it."

 

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