Personnel decisions spark Pats

Coach Bill Belichick has done a remarkable job this season, but the Patriots front office should not be overlooked.

Updated: November 22, 2003, 9:56 AM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

By shutting out his former boss, Bill Parcells, last Sunday, Bill Belichick continued to make a strong case as this season's NFL Coach of the Year.

Often, the award goes to a new coach who takes over a losing team and produces a winning record. Rarely does an existing coach who has a vast improvement from a 7-9 or 9-7 season merit enough consideration for the honor. Sure, Parcells and Marvin Lewis have done the best jobs among the new coaches. But how are Dick Vermeil, Tony Dungy, Jeff Fisher, John Fox and Belichick, especially considering the injury situation, accounted for in their efforts to make good teams great?

Perhaps the most difficult award in pro football is Executive of the Year. Though the trend may be to rob some of the power away from the head coach/general manager model, the pure general managers are established and it's gotten to the point in which owners draw votes. Here's my point: If Belichick is the Coach of the Year to this point -- and I think he is -- the Patriots deserve Executive of the Year as well. As good as Belichick's coaching has been, their front office maneuvers fueled their 8-2 start and set them up to be a contender for years to come.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady certainly makes life easier for Bill Belichick.
Two years ago, Belichick stressed "team" in stealing the Super Bowl from the Rams and no front office is more of a team than New England -- which makes it hard to reward their successes. You could give the award to owner Robert Kraft, and that works, but handing it to those who work with Belichick in making personnel decisions goes against the organization's team concept because Belichick's philosophy is not to put an individual ahead of the team.

Vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli and his staff have done the best job in the quietest manner in football. However, if the Patriots did the best front office job this season, the award would go to the Patriots, not an individual.

Irregardless, Belichick and the front office have made a number of great moves during his tenure.

Belichick took over a Patriots franchise that was high on cap numbers and low on quality depth four years ago. Several players had some of the higher cap numbers at their positions -- quarterback Drew Bledsoe, cornerback Ty Law, linebacker Ted Johnson, safety Lawyer Milloy, linebacker Chris Slade, etc. Belichick didn't have the luxury of doing a Parcells and coaching up the team Jerry Jones handed him.

The Patriots had to break down the roster before rebuilding it. Ultimately in this salary-cap era, that can be the best way to rebuild a champion as long as you don't go as far as the Lions and break down a roster before identifying the replacements. Dick Vermeil breaks down franchises by chasing away the malcontents, losing the first season and being in Super Bowl contention by Year 3.

Belichick's Patriots model really isn't different. His first team had an offensive line in which six of the top nine returning players failed their training camp physicals. He scrambled for two starting guards off the waiver wire the week before the regular season opener. Depth was equally bad at other positions. The result was a 5-11 season.

Sometimes great coaches can be their worst enemies in rebuilding. Chuck Knox in the 1970s and 1980s and Parcells this year miss out on the chance to get a high draft picks prior to their second year because of the turnarounds executed in their inaugural campaigns.

Conversely, Belichick pulled defensive tackle Richard Seymour out of his second draft. Tom Brady, a sixth-round afterthought at the time, was the Pro Bowler Belichick pulled from the 2000 draft. Unlike most turnaround situations, the Patriots did the unlikely. They won the Super Bowl in Year 2. A tough schedule followed and they missed the playoffs in Year 3 even though they had the same record as the division-winning New York Jets.

The remarkable story of what the Patriots have done going this year is how the organization made a 180-degree change in their player acquisition style. The Super Bowl year was partially credited to the signing of 21 veterans -- many to one-year contracts -- to give Belichick the depth and smart starters to make a Super Bowl run.

Eight of those veterans remain -- linebackers Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer and Larry Izzo, defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant, halfback Antowain Smith, backup quarterback Damon Huard, safety Je'Rod Cherry, and punter Ken Walter.

The Pats front office maneuvering is the gift that keeps on giving. They have two No. 1 picks, two No. 2s and two No. 4s along with all of their other choices for next year's draft.

The Patriots were equally aggressive hitting the free agent market the next year, but they didn't have the same success. Tight ends Fred Baxter and Christian Fauria and defensive lineman Rick Lyle were the only survivors from the 2002 free agent class.

Salary cap analysts and other skeptics like myself wondered if the Patriots could build a long-term contender with one-year contracts. In that regard, the Patriots made the most dramatic strategy change of the new millennium. They still kept their free agent options because of great cap room, but they churned the college draft.

I'm not saying the Patriots will win or even go to this year's Super Bowl. Four teams stand out as being above the rest -- the Chiefs, Colts, Patriots and Titans. Someone in the Chiefs front office could take Executive of the Year honors for their free agents moves of signing Vonnie Holliday and linebacker Shawn Barber. Maybe Marty Hurney, general manager of the Panthers, could win it for signing halfback Stephen Davis.

But, to me, the Patriots have already set themselves as the runaway winners for what they did and what they are doing in the draft. Six of their 10 draft choices have started games this year. Eugene Wilson established himself as one of the better young free safeties even though he was drafted to be a cornerback. Ty Warren is established as a starter along a defensive line led by Seymour. Cornerback Asante Samuel and versatile defensive lineman/linebacker Dan Klecko are valuable role players on defense. Center Dan Koppen and wide receiver Bethel Johnson have helped on offense.

And their front office maneuvering is the gift that keeps on giving. They have two No. 1 picks, two No. 2s and two No. 4s along with all of their other choices for next year's draft. While the Raiders drafted well using their bounty of draft choices acquired in allowing Jon Gruden to sign with Tampa Bay, the Raiders core of veterans broke down with injuries.

The Patriots have a great core group of draft choices from 2002 and 2003. They are getting big minutes from 2002 selections: tight end Daniel Graham, wide receivers Deion Branch and David Givens, and defensive lineman Jarvis Green.

Belichick gets the credit of overcoming a rash of early-season injuries by using 40 different starters and still posting an 8-2 record. However, credit is rarely given to the people responsible for finding those 18 backups who stepped into the starting lineup and won.

By doing so well in the draft, the Patriots had the cap freedom to cherry-pick great free agent or trade opportunities. Though Rosevelt Colvin suffered a season-ending injury, he's still a potential 10-sack linebacker who will be back next season. Free agent strong safety Rodney Harrison was probably the AFC Pro Bowl strong safety in the first half of the season, and defensive tackle Ted Washington is still a formidable run-stopper.

If Belichick had to use 18 backups as starters from his 2000 team, the Patriots would have been 3-13 and not 5-11. The talent base is strong enough now that the Patriots can keep winning despite injuries, and that base will only get stronger with 10 draft choices -- seven in the first four rounds -- next year.

Belichick was my first half Coach of the Year. Even though six weeks remain, those who work in the personnel office are my top executives. Their efforts will not only stand up for the remainder of this year, but it will carry them into restocking the offense next season.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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