EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 23, 2008

Players, not Belichick, should be under the microscope


On Pro Football

Bill Burt

"We will find out how good of a coach Bill Belichick is in 2008."

How many times have we heard that the last two weeks? Maybe 250,000.

If the New England Patriots go 9-7, finish in second or God forbid, third behind the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, Belichick will be over-rated as a coach.

Wow.

So his coaching during 2001 season, playoff run and eventual Super Bowl title win in New Orleans over the St. Louis Rams was apparently a mirage.

What about the 20-3 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Divisional game, the same Colts team whose quarterback threw for 49 TD passes in 2004?

Or the next week, when the Patriots scored 41 points against the NFL's best defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the AFC Championship, in Pittsburgh?

We could point toward other games and more specifically, other game plans that would make the opening line of this column seem foolish, but I don't have the space.

Maybe it's time for some of the brunt of this season to fall on the players.

Maybe it's time for Tedy Bruschi, Randy Moss, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel, to name just a few, to step up and take charge of the 2008 season.

Doctors have confirmed that Tom Brady is not walking through that Gillette Stadium tunnel again in 2008.

Leadership is apparently in question. And Cassel doesn't have enough cache or experience yet to start pointing, shouting or demanding answers.

For a long time, Belichick and, most recently, Brady have copped a lion's share of the credit for what has happened around here since 2000.

While both have been categorized among the all-time greats among their coaching and quarterbacking peers, you can bet, quietly, many Patriots players have bit their tongues.

With Brady gone, opportunity is knocking like it's never knocked before inside of Gillette Stadium.

As the Patriots have learned, the vast majority of American football fans are rooting against them. Sunday was a holiday of sorts as the Patriots were pasted by a team that won only one of 21 games.

The disappointing Patriots, not the upstart Dolphins, were the story. Heck, they had won 21 straight regular season games, which we have come to realize isn't as sexy or as important as winning one Super Bowl.

Losing to the Dolphins was painful enough.

Losing to the Dolphins the way they did, getting shoved (and tricked) around, was as painful as watching Brady's left knee twist.

There were some ugly missed tackles (see Deltha O'Neal's weak attempt on Ronnie Brown's 62-yard TD run in the second half and Ellis Hobbs' being plowed over by Brown on a 15-yard TD run in the first half).

And the Patriots Big Three on the defensive line - Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren - were non-factors when it was still a game in the third quarter.

This is not to let Belichick off the hook. While his players were being outplayed, he and his staff were outcoached on Sunday. They had no answers, especially to the trickery when Brown was taking direct snaps and Chad Pennington played wide receiver.

But if the Patriots are going to shoot for the moon this season, and finish 13-3 or 12-4, and be a legitimate Super Bowl threat, then Belichick will only be a bit player.

Remember, eight Patriots were voted to the Pro Bowl last season. Two of them, Brady and Asante Samuel, now with Philadelphia, won't be around. But that leaves six - Moss, Vrabel, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen and Wilfork - healthy bodies. That does not include Seymour and Thomas, both of whom are Pro Bowl alums. Both are in the prime of their careers, with Seymour making about $14 million over this and next season and Thomas will paid/guaranteed $22 million from the Pats through this season.

Should we raise the expectation bar on both of them, too?

Cassel's development will also be key here. But the point is he shouldn't be put in position to having to do it alone like he was Sunday, when he wasn't up to it.

This is not going to be easy. Brady's injury leaves a big hole on the Patriots roster.

If several Patriots were looking to get what is likely theirs - credit - it's there for the taking.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.