The New England Patriots, still strangely underrated despite their successes and still short of great players, are approaching greatness as a team this year only because of the unique talents of two football men, their coach, Bill Belichick, and quarterback, Tom Brady.
Never before in the NFL's 85 years have the pros seen a coach quite like Belichick, the first defensive expert who as a head coach has ever abandoned conservative offensive football in favor of play-after-play passing. Brady, the team's field leader, combines an ideal passing style and a gift for accurate passing with a quality that's rare in a quarterback: a remarkably even temper.
Thus it won't be an accident if they win an NFL-record 19th consecutive game next Sunday, when New England plays Miami.
That achievement would raise the Patriots ahead of the 1972 Dolphins and the four other pro clubs who over the years have managed to win 18 in a row.
In this NFL parity era, how can New England win so consistently? The principal explanation, I'd say, is that Belichick, parking his conservative history in the ashcan, has created the league's only all-out passing team. With any game on the line, the Patriots routinely throw and infrequently run the ball. No other coaches dare do that, obviously. It does take some moxie, but look at the payoff.
Belichick a First-Rate Player Scout
Belichick can look back on a 30-year pro football career in which he spent 21 years as an assistant coach and nine as a head coach. The opponent he defeated Sunday in a 31-17 game, Buffalo Coach Mike Mularkey, had spent only nine years as an assistant before he got his first job as a head coach several months ago.
Some pro coaches are even less experienced. At Jacksonville, Jack Del Rio has been a coach for but eight years, six as an assistant and two as the headman.
The differences are instructive: Belichick is perhaps the best-prepared football man since Vince Lombardi, who labored for 16 years as an assistant before taking Green Bay to a record five NFL championships in the 1960s.
Belichick and Lombardi both came up in a century when, in smaller NFL organizations, assistant coaches doubled as personnel scouts. In the years when Belichick was, for instance, coaching linebackers or special teams on various pro clubs, he put in as much as half his time evaluating college prospects for the player draft.
There are some who remember Belichick as the best scout they ever worked with — the first to insist on rookie candidates with detailed, individualized credentials for each of the 22 different offensive and defensive football positions. In other words, Belichick has had a more valuable in-depth football education than most of his adversaries. No wonder he drafts and trades efficiently. No wonder he wins.
Patriots, Seattle Head for Game of the Year
One danger ahead for the Patriots is that administering self-congratulations for winning streaks in October could bring a relapse and loss of focus later on when the games mean more. That kind of thing happens in sports. So if they get past the Dolphins this week, it might be healthier for the Patriots, in the long haul, to lose the Seattle game seven days later and break the tension.
The Seahawks, with their new defense as coached by Ray Rhodes, are in any case capable of winning at Foxborough. There are those who predict it. If on Oct. l7 Seattle and New England both go into the kickoff undefeated, that will be the NFL game of the season, maybe a sneak preview of the Super Bowl.
Still, that day, the Seahawks will be facing wiser coaches than they see in their own division, the NFC West. For example, Belichick updates game plans in detail each week to counter the strengths and tendencies of each new opponent, as he did in Buffalo Sunday when the Patriots scored on two surprise plays:
On first down at the Buffalo 15, a passing down for the Patriots, they faked the pass and sent running back Corey Dillon through the Bills for all l5 yards on a specially prepared trap play. Typically, NFL teams make power-running calls in that situation. The Patriots, when they run, run deceptively, and aggressively.
On Brady's 30-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver David Patten, New England sent Patten out 15 yards on a crossing pattern and at the same time put a tight end in the vicinity. Both Patriots were accompanied by Buffalo defensive players; and as Patten ran underneath his tight end, he got the throw from Brady. It had the effect of a pick play, which is illegal, though it wasn't a pick.
New ideas are characteristic of Belichick, whose 44-14 record is the NFL's best for the last four years. He is a football coach who holds two doctorate degrees (both honorary) and who earlier this year was named one of the 100 most powerful and influential people in the world by Time magazine. He wins by emphasizing three football verities: the importance of sound defense, well-designed offense, and smart pass plays on first down.
The Rise of Mid-American Football
The Mid-American Conference, one of 11 in Division 1-A, is represented in the NFL this year by no fewer than three starting quarterbacks — more than any other conference in college football except the Pac-10, which enters six starters. The big Mid-American winner last Sunday was a surprising Pittsburgh rookie, Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio), who led the Steelers past Carson Palmer and Cincinnati, 28-17.
Roethslisberger, who faces Cleveland next Sunday, has the Steelers at 3-1 this week and first in the AFC North. In his new conference, he can't yet beat division-rival Baltimore, it may be, though he is showing the talent to handle most of the others. At 6 feet 5 and 242 pounds, Roethlisberger has the size of the NFL's best new big quarterbacks but seems to be a better leader than most and a promising passer — considering that he came into the NFL with only four years of experience as a starter on any level.
The other quarterbacks from the Mid-American are both products of Miami's great rival, Marshall. They are Chad Pennington, 6-3, 225, of the New York Jets, a 17-9 winner at Miami Sunday and still tied with New England for first in the AFC East, and Byron Leftwich of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who matches Roethlisberger in size, 6-5, 245, and who is probably the best passer of the three.
More significant, Leftwich was, in defeat, the most impressive of the three Sunday. As the Jaguars held Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts to a one-touchdown decision, 24-17, Leftwich outpassed Manning, 318 yards to 220, and threw a scare into the Colts in the fourth quarter with an accurately delivered 40-yard touchdown and a two-point conversion pass to get Jacksonville even, 17-17.
Leftwich that day showed all the symptoms of a great NFL quarterback. Quick in the pocket, and as athletic as he is big and strong, he has the quick passing motion of a born student of passing and the accuracy of an NFL veteran. His problem is the ingrained conservatism of his coach, Jack Del Rio.
Manning Hurts His Own Team in Shotgun
Manning made it hard on his team at Jacksonville with shotgun passes, which, at his request, the Colts used extensively in a low-production first half. He and most other passers prefer the shotgun, of course, because they can stand back in that formation and survey defenses — but the negatives far outweigh the benefits.
Those who've never called shotgun plays — including the San Francisco 49ers of the Bill Walsh era when they were winning all those Super Bowls — hold persuasively that the best way to play offensive football is to threaten run and pass on every play. And it's not possible to run effectively from the shotgun, in which the quarterback lines up far behind the line of scrimmage.
If a running back stands there with him, he has a long way to go just to reach the scrimmage line. If he stands closer to the line, he can take off with a surprise direct snap, but in that event there's no real pass threat to deceive the linebackers and secondary. Even on third and four, the shotgun offers no genuine run-pass threat.
So at Jacksonville, the Colts largely abandoned the shotgun in the second half, when, confronting the good Jaguar defense with running back Edgerrin James as well as Manning, they scored the two decisive touchdowns on a James run and a Manning pass.
All the same, the Colts rarely get the most out of their great talent. Too often they run on first down and other running downs, when defenses are stacked against James, and pass on third down and other passing downs, when defenses gear up against Manning. With a better designed offense — with, say, New England's offense — the Colts would be extraordinarily difficult to defeat. Even with their defense. By even the Patriots.
Bears Better but Minus a Quarterback
The Chicago Bears have won two moral victories in the last two weeks, holding lethal Minnesota to a five-point decision, 27-22 — after new Bear quarterback Rex Grossman was hurt — and holding NFC Super Bowl favorite Philadelphia to one touchdown, 19-9, when Grossman couldn't play at all. His Minnesota knee injury derailed him for the season.
It's true that if moral victories are all you win, they'll get you fired. Yet few teams can survive the loss of a starting quarterback. And in Chicago, the natives, who seem understanding, are still content with the new coach, Lovie Smith, despite his 1-3 start (which, as it happens, matches Green Bay's in the same division).
"Lovie's system is taking hold," said Latimes.com sports editor Mark Pesavento after returning from a Chicago vacation. "And he has the team playing aggressively on both offense and defense."
That, Pesavento noted, is a night-and-day change from recent years, when the Bears' 1999-2003 coach, Dick Jauron, customarily had his fans booing in the first quarter at new Soldier Field.
In time this year, Smith will be judged, however unfairly, on the production of his offense and particularly on the work of two players. One is his new running back, Thomas Jones, who started fast this year after coming over from Tampa but faded last Sunday when the Bears lacked the personnel to simultaneously threaten with passes. The other guy is the quarterback replacement, Jonathan Quinn, and that's even more unfair.
For over the winter, Bear fans, observers and experts all lobbied Bear management to bring in a veteran backup for Grossman. Still rubbing nickels together as if they were manhole covers, as the Chicago public used to say of founder George Halas, management resisted the urge to hire a qualified backup. Nor, in fact, was Grossman widely well thought of last winter, though he turned out as well as Smith predicted. With Grossman gone for 2004, and with Quinn, after seven NFL years, still learning to play football, the Bears' future will be delayed again, until 2005 at least.
Chiefs (No Defense) vs. Ravens: (No Quarterback)
The strange truth is that the Kansas City Chiefs are still trying to play football without a defense while the Baltimore Ravens are still trying to compete without a quarterback. They're beautifully matched, these stand-pat clubs. Each is about one-half of a football team.
In the end, Monday night, the Chiefs won, 27-24, but it was that close only because Baltimore scored twice on two bolts out of the blue, a punt return for a touchdown and a flea-flicker touchdown play that happened to work. It usually doesn't.
Otherwise, Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller might just as well have spent the night resting on the bench. With the fourth quarter well under way, Boller had thrown 10 passes, having completed the flea-flicker for 57 yards and a few others for an average of about 4 yards each. Boller proved last year that he's an NFL longshot, if that. What gets into a coach like Baltimore's Brian Billick that keeps him from bringing in a competitive quarterback?
And what gets into a coach like Kansas City's Dick Vermeil that keeps him from hiring a competitive defense? Vermeil had proved last year that he doesn't have one. So why is he still playing with the same defense? Vermeil's offense was, however, the difference. In a matchup of two great running backs — Priest Holmes of the Chiefs and Jamal Lewis of the Ravens — the Priest won because Baltimore's defense had to keep track of two Chiefs: runner Holmes and passer Trent Green. The Kansas City defense only had to chase a runner.