Barely more than a month ago, the New England Patriots were a study in mediocrity. They were 2-2, and the wins were against inept Minnesota and Oakland. Media voices howled about Bill Belichick losing his touch at personnel selection.
Nobody suggested he was no longer a brilliant coach, just that in an NFL of ever improving competition, it’s too much for even a genius to be both head coach and general manager. His draft picks weren’t producing, and too many of his players were too old.
One Boston reporter had the temerity to ask if he was considering replacing 36-year-old and suddenly scatter-armed quarterback Tom Brady. Belichick replied with a dismissive monosyllable that sounded something like, “Huhmph.”
Every question about the sagging of his team was met with the same response: “We’re on to Cincinnati.” It was his mantra.
So in came Cincinnati. Out went Cincinnati, thoroughly dismantled, 43-17 losers in Foxborough. It was the beginning of perhaps the greatest Patriots turnaround since the Battle of Saratoga. It was the first of six victories in a row by Belichick’s team, and all but one were by margins greater than two touchdowns.
Belichick did what he always does when his team hits a lull. He reinvents it. He doesn’t change quarterbacks. Tom Brady is the one constant, the finest, most resilient big-game quarterback of this era. But lots of other positions get remade.
Belichick traded his most accomplished offensive lineman, Logan Mankins, sensing, correctly, that his best days were behind him. For Mankins, he acquired a draft pick and sure-handed Tim Wright to re-establish his trademark two-tight end offense that lost half its composition when Aaron Hernandez went to jail before the start of last season.
The Patriots had a problem at center, where Ryan Wendell was providing little pass protection. So Belichick switched Wendell to right guard, making use of his quickness to open up holes for runners. And he installed rookie Bryan Stork at center, which gave the team more power up the middle and also tightened protection for Brady.
And speaking of power, Belichick summoned Jonas Gray, released by the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins. Gray rushed for 201 yards Sunday night in Indianapolis, and now he’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Gray explained to SI the key to New England’s enduring excellence: “I’ve been on two other teams, but nothing compares to here. Everybody comes to work. . . . They put in extra time. It’s about winning and it’s not about winning. It’s about the process.”
Belichick patiently waits for his players to develop in his process. Nobody in the media anticipated much from Stork and Gray this season, but Belichick was watching their progress, and when they were ready – but only then – he installed them in the lineup, and they “instantly” produced.
His defense was soft against the run, so Belichick called on little-used first-round draft pick Dominique Easley, finally recovered from a knee injury, and 6-6, 325-pound journeyman Alan Branch. They came through big in Indy. The Colts rushed 17 times for 19 yards.
We see this pattern again and again, players seemingly pulled out of nowhere and making critical contributions. This is how you run a dynasty.