A Brain the Patriots Can Trust

Special to The Times

The New England Patriots, still underrated despite their success, and still short of great players, are approaching greatness because of the unique talents of their coach, Bill Belichick, and quarterback, Tom Brady.

Belichick is the first defensive expert who as a head coach has abandoned conservative offensive football in favor of play-after-play passing.

Brady combines an ideal passing style and a gift for accurate passing with a quality that’s rare in a quarterback, a remarkably even temperament.


Thus it wouldn’t be an accident if the Patriots won an NFL-record 19th consecutive game Sunday, against Miami.

That would raise the Patriots ahead of the 1972 Dolphins and the four other pro clubs that managed to win 18 in succession.

In this NFL parity era, how can New England win so consistently?

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. No other NFL coach does that. It does take some moxie, but look at the payoff.

Belichick Scouts Too

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 coach he defeated last Sunday, Buffalo’s 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 only eight years, six as an assistant and two as the head man.

Belichick, thus, is perhaps the best prepared coach since Vince Lombardi, who labored for 16 years as an assistant before taking Green Bay to five NFL championships in the 1960s.

Belichick and Lombardi both came up when, in smaller NFL organizations, assistant coaches doubled as personnel scouts. When Belichick, for instance, was coaching linebackers or special teams, he spent as much as half his time evaluating college prospects for the player draft.

Some remember Belichick as the best scout they ever worked with -- he insisted on detailed, individualized credentials for each of the 22 offensive and defensive 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.

Seattle No. 20?

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.


So if they get past the Dolphins this week, it might be healthier for the Patriots, in the long run, not to win No. 20 next week when the Seattle Seahawks come to Foxboro.

They might have a hard time winning anyway. The Seahawks, with their new defense coached by Ray Rhodes, seem fully capable of an upset.

If Seattle and New England both go into the game undefeated, that will be the NFL game of the season, maybe a sneak preview of the Super Bowl.

Still, the Seahawks will be facing wiser coaches than they see in their own division, the struggling NFC West.

Belichick updates game plans in great detail each week to counter the strengths and tendencies of each new opponent, as he did in Buffalo 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 new running back Corey Dillon through the Bills for all 15 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 also put a tight end in the vicinity. Both receivers 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, but this wasn’t a pick.

New ideas are characteristic of Belichick, whose 44-14 record is the NFL’s best over the last four years.

He wins by emphasizing three football verities: a sound defense, a well-designed offense, and smart pass plays on first down.

Another Good Miami

The Mid-American Conference is represented in the NFL this year by no fewer than three starting quarterbacks -- more than any other conference in college football except the Pacific 10, which has six starters.

Last Sunday, the big Mid-American winner was a surprising Pittsburgh rookie, Ben Roethlisberger of Miami of Ohio, who led the Steelers past Carson Palmer and Cincinnati, 28-17.

Roethlisberger, who faces Cleveland this week, has the Steelers at 3-1 and first in the AFC North.


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 unbeaten New York Jets, 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 is probably the best passer of the three.

Leftwich, in defeat, was the most impressive of the three Mid-Americans last Sunday.

As the Jaguars held Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts to a one-touchdown decision, 24-17, Leftwich out-passed Manning, 318 yards to 220, and threw a scare into the Colts in the fourth quarter with an accurately delivered 40-yard touchdown pass and a two-point conversion pass to get Jacksonville even, 17-17.

Leftwich that day showed all the markings 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, Del Rio.

The Stupid 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 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 hold persuasively that the best way to play offensive football is to threaten run and pass on every play. And it’s difficult to run effectively from the shotgun.

So in the second half at Jacksonville, the Colts largely abandoned the shotgun. Instead, they confronted the Jaguar defense with running back Edgerrin James as well as Manning, scoring the two decisive touchdowns on a run by James and a pass by Manning.

With a better designed offense, the Colts would be extraordinarily difficult to beat.

Bears Minus QB

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 in a 19-9 Eagle win, when Grossman couldn’t play.

His Minnesota knee injury derailed him for the season.

It’s true that if moral victories are all a coach wins, he’ll get fired. Yet few teams can survive the loss of a starting quarterback. And in Chicago, the natives, who seem understanding, are still content with new Coach Lovie Smith, despite his 1-3 start.

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 after coming over from Tampa but faded last Sunday when the Bears lacked the personnel to threaten with passes.

The other is the quarterback replacement, Jonathan Quinn, and that’s even more unfair.

Over the winter, Bear fans, observers and experts all lobbied Bear management to bring in a veteran backup for Grossman.

Still throwing nickels around as if they were manhole covers, as Mike Ditka once said of founder George Halas, management resisted the urge to hire a qualified backup.

No Defense vs. No QB

The Kansas City Chiefs are still trying to play football without a defense and the Baltimore Ravens are still trying to compete without a quarterback. They’re beautifully matched, these stand-pat clubs. Each is about half a football team.

In the end, 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.

Otherwise, Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller might just as well have spent the night resting on the bench, leaving 10 Ravens instead of 11 to flail around with the Chiefs. With the fourth quarter well underway, Boller had thrown 10 passes.


He had completed the flea-flicker for 57 yards and a few others for an average of about four 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?

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?