Whoops, They Did It Again

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This was the year.

This was the year the Jets (or maybe Dolphins) would take back the AFC-East from the New England Patriots.

The Pats were rebuilding.

They had rookies at tight end. Moss was getting up there in years and you just needed to double-cover him to erase him from the game. Welker was coming off major knee surgery and couldn’t possibly be one-hundred percent. Brady looked less than sharp the season before.

They had the youngest defense in the league and couldn’t get off the field on third down, much less rush the passer. They cut ties with their malcontent “stud” linebacker, Adalius Thomas.

The team couldn’t win on the road or finish games last year due largely to many of the elder team leaders no longer being with the organization, the Patriots were now seen as “soft.” Belichick didn’t hire a defensive coordinator, he would do that job and be head coach. And the same offensive coordinator who had proved so predictable the year before was still calling the plays.

The Jets and “Pedipus” Rex Ryan loaded up on free agent talent for their shot at glory. The Dolphins looked like they would give the Jets some competition. Yes. This was The Year. No one gave the Patriots much of a chance when the season started to make it much beyond a Wild Card berth.

Then the Patriots traded Moss … and brought back the aging Deion Branch. Then they traded Maroney, the #1 running back. Then Kevin Faulk was lost for the season to a knee injury. Then Gostkowski, the booming kicker, was lost for the season with an injury. Ty Warren – gone, injury. Leigh Bodden – gone, injury. Fred Taylor – sidelined, injury.

No way the Patriots could even win the division like this, right?

Wrong.

The New England Patriots now stand atop the league at 13-2. They are the highest-scoring team in the league. They also lead the league in interceptions. They have a +27 turnover differential with one more week to go and haven’t turned the ball over once in six games.

So how did this happen? The same way it happened in 2001, kind of.

Who Are These Guys?

A big part of a Belichick team is that he gets “good, smart football players.” Guys who will work for every opportunity and then make things happen. A lot of these guys come into the league as undrafted rookie free agents. Or are guys who just aren’t appreciated where they were. Wes Welker is a classic example of that. But this year’s team has a bunch of these guys who either joined the team this year or transitioned from special teams.

OLB Rob Ninkovich – after bouncing around the league he ended up as a special teamer on the Pats and started making plays. He’s now in the starting rotation with 2 sacks and 2 interceptions.

CB Kyle Arrington – like Ninkovich, fans started hearing his name on special teams more and more, and he played his way into the lineup. He’s played solid coverage, is 4th on the team in tackles, and has 1 interception for a TD.

Dane Fletcher hitting Favre

ILB Dane Fletcher – undrafted rookie out of Montana who has a nose for the ball, as a reserve LB he has a sack, an interception, and a forced fumble.

DE Eric Moore – was signed from the UFL and in just 3 games he has 2 sacks and a forced fumble – and he played the week he was signed.

WR/RB Danny Woodhead – signed from the Jets just before Faulk went on IR, he’s proved nothing short of miraculous with 528 yards on the ground, 379 yards in the air, and 6 TDs. Not bad for a guy who’s barely 5’8″ tall.

RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis – the “Law Firm” kicked around the team after being signed as an undrafted rookie. This year he got his chance to be the starting RB and is on track to break 1000 yards – the first time a Patriots RB has done that since Corey Dillon was with the team.

The Rookies

And what about the guys the actually drafted?

CB Devin MCourty has 6 interceptions and teams no longer throw to his side of the field. He also has a sack and 2 forced fumbles.

TE Rob Gronkowski has 9 TD’s and 444 yards. TE Aaron Hernandez has 6 TD’s and 563 yards. The two rookie TE’s combine for over 12 yards per catch.

Virtual rookie WR Brandon Tate (he was injured most of his actual rookie year) has 350 yards and 2 TD’s as a WR and 2 more TD’s as a kick returner.

LB Brandon Spikes had 61 tackles and an interception before being suspended on a rather flimsy substance violation.

The Real Deal?

This team still has to prove it can win in the playoffs, but they are heading in the right direction. In the last five weeks they have outscored their opponents 191-64. Meanwhile, the New York Jets, the team that was to dethrone New England, has been outscored 120-91 and has lost three of the last five games (including a 45-3 thrashing up in Foxboro which began their slide). Another characteristic of Belichick-coached teams is that they are geared to play their best football starting around Thanksgiving and get better heading into January.

James Sanders intercepts Peyton Manning

On paper, the Patriots defense is not good. But what it looks like from here – from watching it on the TV screen – is that Belichick has sort of gone Zen on the old “They can’t win if they can’t score” adage. He’s gone one further and now says: “They can’t win if they don’t have the ball.” It looks and feels like the Patriots defense comes out with a certain look and then sizes up the opposition for the first half. Then they come out of tunnel for the third quarter and start making plays. Routes have been analyzed and are being cut off or jumped. QB’s or RB’s who don’t secure the ball get it stripped. And bread-and-butter plays are sniffed out and stopped.

It’s pretty genius when you think about it. They don’t have a strong pass-rush package, but they do have a lot of quick, young athletes who are exceptionally smart and flexible. So, why not line a DB up as a LB? Or a LB in coverage? Or move Wilfork to DE. Maybe you can’t get to the QB, but you can force his throw – and with this bunch of LB’s and DB’s, that’s all you need – get that QB or WR just a little out of phase.

This team was ranked 11th in interceptions in 2009 and 15th the year before – this year they’re ranked 1st. You’d figure with so many rookies and 2nd year players in the secondary things would get worse, not better. Last season they were +6 in turnover differential, this year they’re +27. With so many rookies and “nobodies” on the defensive line and at linebacker, things should have gone downhill. They didn’t. It’s no accident. It has to be due to the Belichick Master Plan™.

Will The Real Genius Please Stand Up

Belichick is coaching his butt off during every game. Using every time-out to coach his young players. Sometimes putting guys into unlikely positions – like lining up CB Kyle Arrington as a LB, or having ILB Dane Fletcher bumping off WR’s at the line – because they have the right skills to do that specific task. He uses everyone who’s activated. Other teams may have more “stars” but the Patriots have depth that is tough to match.

And, keep in mind, this is a rebuilding year. What other team in this league manages even 10-6 during a rebuilding year, or when they lose so many key starters? And you have to give Belichick and Kraft credit for sticking to their principles and gambling on their young players. They chose high-character kids in the draft and in free agency and released “me first” guys like Adalius Thomas. That’s a bold move. Letting an all-Pro or Hall-of-Fame or first-round player go is a gut check. The Patriots cleaned house en masse.

Alge Crumpler

And there were some subtle things as well. Things which show just how well thought out things are in New England. A great example is the signing of veteran TE Alge Crumpler in the off-season. If you’re going to have two rookie TE’s, you better have someone to teach them how to play the position at the Pro level. And who better than one of the best in the league? Crumpler got a bad reputation in Tennessee for being overweight. But upon signing with the Patriots he got himself on a new fitness regime and took the weight off. The end result, the “cubs” have a mentor, and Crumpler was named a team captain after only being with the team a few weeks. Oh, and lets not forget the crushing blocks he delivers to help the RB’s out either.

The point here is that Belichick seems to like to have veterans on hand to counsel the younger players. When Brady was younger, there was always a veteran QB around for him to talk to – be it Flutie or Testaverde. Crumpler’s value to the team exceeds his individual performance – but that’s what leadership is – making the guys around you better. That isn’t just smart football, that’s just plain smart. And the bonus for Alge Crumpler is that he’s still playing, and now he’s playing for the best team in the league.

Coming into this season there was speculation that Belichick had “lost it.” No DC, a very young staff, a lightly experienced OC, and so many new players and radical personnel moves. But he keeps winning and making his players better and better. The players who fit the model, that is.

Meanwhile, other teams hoping to tap the tree, have found that there’s no substitute for the real thing. Eric Mangini is a losing coach on his second team. Josh McDaniels got bounced out of Denver after a horrible collapse of the team. Romeo Crennel never made it as a head coach in Cleveland, nor did Charlie Weis at Notre Dame.

Deja Vu All Over Again

It all feels a lot like 2001 when the Patriots took the league by storm when the snow started flying. “Who are these guys?” the experts asked.

Well … whoops, they did it again.

And with a little luck – and plenty of snow in Foxboro – they’ll keep doing it right through the first week of February.

And even if they don’t win it all this year, it’s frightening to ponder just how much better this team will be next year once all the new players have had a whole year in the system, and Belichick can bring in the next batch of bright-eyed youngsters to sample his Kool-Aid.

Yes, this was the year.

Dan Connolly's 71-yard Kick Return