Commentary

Amid turnover, Pats should not worry

The departures of an offensive coordinator and GM within days might send other teams into a spin, but not the Patriots. That's because Bill Belichick IS the system, Seth Wickersham writes.

Originally Published: January 15, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

There are very few total head coaches in the NFL. You know, guys who possess such a mastery of football that they can coach any position -- and coach it well. Most can't, unbelievable as it sounds. Most are glorified coordinators -- hello, Wade Phillips -- or motivator types -- cheers, Mike Singletary -- who delegate strategic decisions to their assistants. Guys have won Super Bowls using this business model.

The problem with being so dependent on a coordinator is if he leaves for another job, the departure can cripple the team. Many New England Patriots fans, after losing in a three-day span offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to the Denver Broncos and GM Scott Pioli to the Kansas City Chiefs, are worried about how New England will cope.

Well, the Patriots will do so the same way they did after losing assistant coaches Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini. They will cope as they did when Deion Branch, David Givens, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law and Asante Samuel and -- to a certain extent -- Tom Brady left.

The Patriots' Method: Another person, schooled by head coach Bill Belichick, will assume the role. The system that Belichick set up ensures it. That's because the system is Belichick. He can think like a GM, and teach others to do the same.

Director of player personnel Nick Caserio is the favorite to take over Pioli's responsibilities. Caserio, like Pioli, has learned under Belichick his entire career, starting in 2001 as a personnel assistant. The system works because Belichick can think like a GM, and pass that knowledge on to whoever is next.

[+] EnlargeJosh McDaniels and Scott Pioli
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiFormer Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (left) is now the Broncos' new head coach. Former Patriots GM Scott Pioli (right) is now running things in Kansas City.

True, New England didn't make the playoffs. And true, the Patriots' defense hasn't been as dominant as it was under Crennel.

And to the surprise of some, Belichick can think like a damn good offensive coordinator.

He called the offensive plays for much of his Cleveland Browns head-coaching career in the 1990s. After he became the Patriots' head coach in 2000, circumstances dictated that he become more involved with the offense. In 2001, after Patriots quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein died, Belichick met with the quarterbacks every day. In 2002, after Weis suffered complications following gastric bypass surgery, Belichick met with them daily again.

.Even last year, he met with the quarterbacks a few times a week. If you're wondering what those sessions are like, ask Brady. He told people close to him a few years ago that the amount of football knowledge he'd absorb during those private meetings with Belichick was on a different level than with the other coaches, no offense.

McDaniels arrives in Denver

NFL.com Video

Josh McDaniels addresses the media for the first time as the Broncos head coach.

Belichick's system doesn't boast a fancy name -- like the "West Coast offense." But it has four Super Bowl visits, three rings and a slew of records (single-season marks for touchdown passes and TD receptions). It works when quarterbacked by a sixth-round draft pick (Brady) or a seventh-rounder in Matt Cassel who hadn't started since high school. It's a beautifully conceived structure, and ex-Pats who attempt to run it elsewhere haven't been able to duplicate its success for one reason: They can't copy how Belichick thinks.

His playbook is different from what it was three years ago, or three months ago. It's fluid, constantly evolving, impossible to label. Players at other teams talk about how the game plan is installed Wednesday. In New England, a version is implemented Wednesday, and it undergoes revisions and tweaks and adjustments until the game ends. Belichick told me in December that only 30-40 percent of his playbook is the same as it was in 2000. "More than half has been changed, modified, improved," he says.

Face it: If Belichick weren't the coach, New England's Cassel-led offense would have been the 2008 story of the year. But it is Belichick's creation, so enthusiasm for it is going to be tempered at best. Belichick is the coach and Pats executive who turns off some media members, who's made the postgame handshake a must-see event, who got busted for Spygate and deflected any questions about it for most of last season, who many agents whisper off the record is the most brutal negotiator in the league.

But it's impossible not to admire what he's done. Only Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs and Mike Martz can rival Belichick as a developer of quarterbacks during the past 30 years. And it doesn't just stop with quarterbacks. The list of players and coaches who have struggled to carry their Patriots expertise to another team is long and undistinguished. Just ask Crennel and Weis. Branch's production in Seattle is nowhere near what it was in New England. Same for Givens, tight end Daniel Graham and others.

Now, people are talking about Cassel, a free agent who will receive the franchise tag, being a $14 million-a-year quarterback. But you have to ask: Is Matt Cassel really a $14 million quarterback, or is he trained by Belichick to play for the Patriots like a $14 million quarterback? And if Cassel is somewhere else next year, what are the odds that reserve Kevin O'Connell will play well if he's ever called upon?

Bill Walsh got into football because he was fascinated with defense and wanted to coach that side of the ball. From that knowledge sprung his revolutionary offense. It takes years to become a total head coach. Nobody cheats the process. Mangini tried to mimic Belichick in New York but didn't have the Hoodied One's command of the game. At Notre Dame, Weis is learning that arrogance mixed with losing is toxic. Former Browns head coach Crennel is wondering what his next job will be.

McDaniels, who as a low-level assistant only seven years ago got booed by players if his film cut-ups didn't include bloopers, might very well be the league's next brilliant mind. But if he had to coach Denver's defense, could he? And could he coach it successfully? Those questions will be answered the next few years.

Meanwhile, Belichick will find another coach to execute his offensive designs. Don't worry about that.

Worry when Belichick leaves.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.

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