By Dan Pompei
If I told you there is a coach who made it to the AFC Championship Game despite losing maybe four of his five best players to injury, would you call him Coach of the Year? And what if I said he had to find a way to score without his five top leading receivers from the year before?
Would you believe it if I said he also got his team to wear blinders through the two biggest distractions of the NFL year -- having a tight end charged with murder and the addition of the most polarizing, controversial quarterback/evangelist in the league?
What if I threw this in -- he spurred his team to overcome 24, 14 and 13-point deficits? What if I claimed he won an overtime coin toss and decided to kick to Peyton Manning -- and won the game? What if my tale included getting his team to bounce back with victories twice after heartbreaking losses that turned on questionable officiating calls?
Hollywood would laugh heartily at this script. Denver will not.
Bill Belichick makes every other coach in the league look bad if they can't do loaves and fishes. Considering he may be the best coach of all time, he could win the Coach of the Year award almost every year. But he had more to overcome in 2013 than probably ever before, and that's how this award tends to be measured.
"What he has done with numerous challenges this year is second to none," said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, a former Belichick lieutenant. "Time and again, I am amazed at how he adjust to the challenges of the season -- whether it's injury, suspension or losing a player altogether, how he's able to be creative and capitalize against teams that are full force. It's another masterful job by a Hall of Fame-caliber coach."
What's funny is he might not be voted Coach of the Year because, since 2001, Belichick is expected to paint the Sistine Chapel every time he takes out his palette. "Bill has set the standard so high with his past performances that he is at a disadvantage with the way he is perceived," said NBC information man Scott Pioli, once Belichick's general manager. "What he has done this year has been absolutely remarkable, but people almost expect it from him."
What Belichick does better than anyone is deal with the unexpected, because he anticipates the possibility of everything.
With his team of pass catchers severely depleted, Belichick was forced to rely on two rookie wide receivers (an undrafted free agent and a second round pick), two 5-10 inch veterans (one was undrafted, the other a seventh round pick) and a journeyman tight end.
Belichick creates functional depth on his roster probably better than anyone. He and I had a long talk about it once. On a lot of teams, the starters get most of the reps in practice and even in training camp and the offseason. Not so with the Patriots. The reserves get 1/3 of the reps. "We keep everybody involved," Belichick told me.
Another way he maintains this philosophy is by using more than just his starters on game day. For instance, he'll use three linebackers to play two spots. "That's how you try to create [depth]," he said. "Have a bit of a rotational system. If one guy gets knocked out, you still feel you have some quality players in there."
Rookies like receivers Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and linebacker Jamie Collins work overtime on the practice field and are required to spend extra time in meetings. At Southern Miss, Collins was an inconsistent performer. Scouts thought he did not fit neatly into a role on a pro defense. He was perceived as a raw athlete who was not NFL ready. In fact, he played just two snaps in the Patriots' season opener, and averaged ten snaps per game in their first ten games. But there he was Sunday in their divisional playoff victory over the Colts, making an interception and a sack. Clearly, he had been developed and prepared for the moment.
Belichick has found a way to get value out of Collins. He has found routes that little Julian Edelman can have success with. And he has taken advantage of the considerable cover skills of cornerback Aqib Talib, even using him to shadow -- and shut down -- Saints all pro tight end Jimmy Graham.
This is something else Belichick does exceptionally well -- he capitalizes on players' strengths. He is able to because of his deep understanding of both sides of the ball as well as personnel. "Knowing personnel is very important to us," he said in that talk we had. "Know what they can do and what they're good at, and put them in that position as often as we possibly can."
The Patriots needed Collins last week because Brandon Spikes was out. Spikes had joined tight end Rob Gronkowski, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive linemen Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead and seven others on injured reserve. Without Wilfork, Kelly and Armstead, Belichick recognized the Patriots couldn't two-gap as effectively, so he changed up the pass rush with their replacements.
Belichick also has rethought the Patriots offense. Repeatedly. In the offseason, there was going to be the Patriots offense with Aaron Hernandez but without Gronkowski. Then there was the Patriots offense without both. There was the Patriots offense with Gronkowski back. And there is the Patriots offense without Gronkowski. They have become more dependent on a spread offense and the running game. They have a fullback on their roster this year after going without one a year ago.
We think of Belichick's offensive and defensive systems fitting certain parameters. But the reality is his parameters can be rearranged like folding partitions.
This is what he said in a press conference earlier this week: "We like to win. So, whatever we need to do to win really is good with me. Win running, win throwing, win shutting them out, win outscoring them, win in the kicking game -- whatever it takes. We just have to find a way to do it this time of year. Every team we play is good. Every game is bigger than the next. We just have to try to find some way to come out on top next week. That's really all it is."
So should we give Belichick the Coach of the Year award? Or should we just call the award the Belichick Trophy?
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.