In the second year of his second decade as the Patriots' coach, Bill Belichick seems to have entered the "mad genius" period of his genius career, outdoing himself week to week in concocting ever crazier combinations of defensive players, particularly in his secondary, while still producing win, after win, after win.
Can Belichick keep the victories coming while granting regular starts to the likes of cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety James Ihedigbo, who five years ago faced each other before an intimate crowd of 9,211 in Amherst, Mass.? (Ihedigbo's alma mater, UMass, competes in the Football Championship Series; Arrington's school, Hofstra, would compete in the FCS if it still fielded a team.) Yes. What if he threw into the mix Antwaun Molden, a cornerback who was cut at the end of training camp this summer by a team, the Texans, that in 2010 fielded the NFL's worst passing defense in half a decade? Yes. How about if he used a player at nickelback—say, Julian Edelman—who until last month had never taken a professional practice rep as anything but a receiver or special-teamer and was a quarterback at Kent State? Yes.
Not mad enough for you? What if Belichick last week informed an even less accomplished receiver—Matthew Slater, who has both the bespectacled mien and the receiving résumé (one catch in four years) of a sophomore anthropology major—that he would be practicing with the defensive backs, and then, four days later, started him at safety against the Colts? Yes, still yes. The Patriots beat Indianapolis 31--24 at Gillette Stadium to improve to an AFC-best 9--3. Slater made seven tackles and forced a fumble. New England's orphanages have thus far gone untapped, but there is time yet.
Belichick's alchemy in the secondary has been partially forced by injury, as starting safety Patrick Chung and starting cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling have missed a combined 19 games. But only partially. In the past three months the coach has cut four veteran defensive backs—Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders—who, even if deemed no longer worthy of starting, might have provided experienced depth. More broadly, Belichick has been rebuilding his defense since 2007, when the Patriots' perfect season was spoiled by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, and he committed to the project in earnest after the Tom Brady--less Pats missed the playoffs the following season.
Now his unit has picked up a nickname: The Who. No active New England defender other than the indomitable tackle Vince Wilfork has played in a Super Bowl (page 72). Since '07 the defense has sustained the departures, sometimes willingly but mostly not, of everyone else, including linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel and defensive end Richard Seymour, each of whom played in all four of the Super Bowls Belichick has reached, and All-Pros such as safety Rodney Harrison, cornerback Asante Samuel and defensive end Ty Warren. To replace such well-known names, Belichick has populated his roster, on both defense and offense, with uncomplaining, grateful players—the type of humble nonstar he has always loved but never more than now.
Belichick has relied, in other words, on players in the mold of Troy Brown, a slight, 5'10" receiver whom the Patriots drafted out of Marshall in 1993 in a round, the eighth, that no longer exists. Through force of will Brown turned himself into a 100-catch, 1,000-yard Pro Bowl wideout by 2001. Three years later he began moonlighting in the secondary. "I would do anything to win," Brown says of the switch to defense. "I just loved playing football in general. I was awful at first—we had about 10 receivers on the roster, and I got beat by all 10, all five tight ends, a couple of running backs. But it got better the more I did it. Guys like me can't say, 'Coach, I saw something and dropped off on that play, and that's why I got beat.' [Belichick] doesn't want to hear that from any of his players, but especially the low-profile guys." When Brown retired in 2008, with 557 catches and three interceptions, Belichick said, "It has truly been an honor and a privilege to coach Troy."
"He looks for guys who will put the team first," says Dan Klecko, whom Belichick drafted in the fourth round in 2003 out of Temple as a defensive tackle but who soon found himself playing fullback too. "It's corny, and it's a cliché, but they call it the Patriot Way. As long as what [players] are doing is best for the New England Patriots, they'll be on the field on Sunday. Bill knows how to pick them, and when he sees it's time to cut bait, he has no problem cutting bait." Klecko, who spent three seasons in Foxborough and won two Super Bowls with the Pats, jokes that Belichick can sense when a player is even considering diverting from the coach's plan. "I swear he knows what everybody's thinking," he says. "He has the place bugged, I swear to God."
Belichick's current Patriot Wayers have done little to anger those who surveil them, which is why they remain Belichick's current Patriot Wayers. "We all have our roles, and we play those roles," says Molden, who as a high school junior in Ohio in 2003 received calls from confused friends when the Cardinals drafted Anquan Boldin. "That's what Bill wants us to do. You're not doing your job if you take it upon yourself to do something else."
"It's been my role to do whatever they ask me to do," says Slater. "And I embrace that."
The result has been a virtually star-free defense that has bent (a lot) but not often broken. The Patriots' scheme allows opponents to gain yards in front of the defense but not behind, forcing offenses to make long drives that most teams are too impatient or undisciplined to sustain consistently. New England ranks dead last in the league in total yards allowed, at 412.1, and is on pace to surrender 400 more passing yards this season than any other NFL team, ever. Yet it also ranks a robust 13th in average points allowed (20.6), and fourth in turnover margin (plus 8), which is good enough for the Patriots to win a lot of games. The pressing question: Is it good enough to beat the league's best, most patient and most disciplined teams, and when it counts?
And what's number 10?" the little boy in the Uggs and the Gucci hat and scarf asked his father, the hulking Patriots sack leader, Andre Carter, in the locker room after Sunday's win.
"Underwood," Carter gently replied, identifying recently signed receiver Tiquan Underwood.
"And what's number onety-eight?" four-year-old Quincy asked.
"Eighty-one? Aaron Hernandez."
"And what's number 87?"
"Eighty-seven? You know who that is."
Most everyone in New England, even little boys, knows by now who wears number 87. He is Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' 6'6", 265-pound second-year tight end. Earlier in the day Gronkowski had appeared to set the single-season record for touchdown catches at his position—14—before the official scorer minutes later ruled that his third TD of the day had come on a lateral and counted as a rushing attempt. The record will be delayed seven days or so.
While Belichick draws attention for his version of Moneyball on defense—identifying players who have some baseline talent and are unfailingly eager to submit to his tactics and his will—that is not the central reason why the Patriots appear set to seize another top playoff seeding, just as Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford were not the central reasons why Billy Beane's A's reached four straight Octobers in the early 2000s. Oakland won, in large measure, because of the three Cy Young--caliber pitchers at the top of its rotation (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito), and New England is winning, in large measure, because of the even more impressive trio that leads its offense: Tom Brady, who in his 12th season is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 passing yards; slot receiver Wes Welker, who leads the league in receptions, with 93, and yards, with 1,253; and Gronkowski, whose name is quickly infiltrating conversations about the game's preeminent tight end.
"We have to progress as a defense and get the offense the ball," says Rob Ninkovich, the sixth-year veteran whom Belichick turned from a twice-released long snapper into a full-time starting outside linebacker. "That's our job, to put the ball in their hands as many times as possible during the game, so they can do what they do best, and that's score touchdowns."
New England's historically prolific passing game does explain why its opponents' passing games have also been historically prolific: Quick strikes and quick leads cause opponents to quickly abandon the run. (Foes are attempting 40.4 passes per game against New England, second most in the league.) This is the way the professional game is evolving. The undefeated Packers are also on track to allow more passing yards than any team has before.
The worry is that Belichick's defense, soldered together with obediently functioning spare parts, will not merely bend but also break in the playoffs, as it has the past two seasons, when it is subjected to the ultimate stress test. What's more, the remainder of the schedule will not afford the Patriots even a simulation of such a test. The Redskins, Broncos, Dolphins and Bills likely will do little to prepare New England's defense for the considerably more-rounded Ravens or Steelers, or even the Texans or Jets.
Belichick would never admit as much. In the middle of last week he rudely chastised a reporter who dared to suggest that the winless Colts might not be the best gauge of his defense's progress. "You can go ahead on your soliloquy," he said—which the reporter couldn't, as he interrupted her. "I'm not sure what games you're watching here," he added.
Still, Belichick's sour demeanor after Sunday's win suggested where his concerns rest. Yes, the Patriots had won, but they had given up 21 straight fourth-quarter points and had allowed quarterback Dan Orlovsky—whose last victory came in 2004 when he was a senior at UConn—to complete 30 of 37 passes for 353 yards and two touchdowns. The concern is likely the same one that Beane once famously expressed: "My s--- doesn't work in the playoffs."
While Belichick's impressive rebuilding effort has produced an NFL-high 44 regular-season victories since 2008, New England's postseason record in that span is 0--2. Belichick will not know until early in 2012 whether he has formulated an entirely new type of champion, or whether his mad science has again produced what it has for the past several seasons—a team that wins plenty while being rebuilt but that, come January, leaves its creator with singed hair and a sooty face.
TO REPLACE ALL THE WELL-KNOWN NAMES, BELICHICK HAS POPULATED HIS ROSTER WITH THE TYPE OF HUMBLE NONSTARS HE HAS ALWAYS LOVED.
CHURN AND CHURN AGAIN
Only one defensive starter from the Patriots' Super Bowl XLII team, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork (left), was in the starting 11 for the Patriots in their Week 12 win over the Colts, a lineup that included a converted wide receiver, Matthew Slater, at one safety and street free agent Nate Jones, signed last week, at another. Here are the starters in New England's final games from 2007 through '10, and from last Sunday.
Photograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYER
WHO'S NEXT Carter (93), a midrange free-agent pickup in 2011, leads the team in sacks with nine; he joined with Gary Guyton (59) and Brandon Deaderick (71) to stuff Indy's Joseph Addai in Sunday's win.
Photographs by DAMIAN STROHMEYER
TAG TEAM Gronkowski (87) and the offense continued on a record-setting pace against the Colts, while Gerard Warren (above) and Jerod Mayo (left) harassed Orlovsky—but couldn't keep him from piling up 353 passing yards.