These are the times that fascinate Bill Belichick.
Now, don't be confused. Given his druthers, Belichick would probably rather do one round in a cage match with Kimbo Slice than lose quarterback Tom Brady for the season. But if you know much about Belichick, it is times like this that make his mind churn with ideas … certainly not self-pity.
"That's a really good way to put it," said former Patriots assistant Joel Collier, who spent the past three years working for Belichick before being let go when the team hired Dom Capers. "This will obviously present a tremendous challenge for him as a coach and as a manipulator of circumstance. But when you talk about people and their ability to manage situations and get the most out of what he has, Bill is among the best ever."
Coming from Collier, that's a mouthful. He's not only the son of former coach Joe Collier, coordinator of the famed Broncos' Orange Crush defense, but he also worked under Don Shula and Jimmy Johnson in Miami.
"I can't even begin to tell you the number of times that Bill has known how to work through a situation. It's on a weekly, even daily basis. All great coaches have a feel for the collective psyche of a group and how to handle the team," Collier said. "But Jimmy and Bill are the best at knowing when to create a crisis where there isn't one or how to downplay one where there is."
Right now, there's little question that the Patriots are in crisis mode as they make the swift transition from the record-setting Brady to Matt Cassel, a fourth-year pro who hasn't started a game since he was at Chatsworth High in California in 2000.
Then again, Belichick's rise to greatness as a coach came when he had to make Brady, a former sixth-round NFL draft pick with just 25 starts in college, the starter after veteran Drew Bledsoe went down in '01. Likewise, in Cleveland, Belichick had better success after making the unpopular move to dump quarterback Bernie Kosar in favor of Vinny Testaverde.
"Nobody adjusts to circumstances – be it in a game, around the league, over the course of a season – better than Bill," San Diego coach Norv Turner said during training camp. "Just look at what he's done over the course of the past five or six years. Completely revamped the way he plays from that first Super Bowl to now. But he can do it in a game, too."
The Patriots, 0-2 when Brady replaced an injured Bledsoe, subsequently made extensive use of running back Antowain Smith en route to their first Super Bowl title. By 2004, the Patriots made the move to get running back Corey Dillon, who helped them to their third title in four years. Since then, New England has continued to win division titles and advance in the postseason by resorting to unconventional methods, such as plugging in wide receivers for injured defensive backs.
Last season, Belichick completely changed, switching from a ball-control approach utilizing mostly short passes to a wide-open attack that featured Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss. The result was an 18-1 season, marred only by the loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl. Along the way, Brady and Moss set records for touchdown passes and receptions, respectively.
Now, comes the next challenge. Theoretically, the situation is slightly favorable. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning is currently struggling to get in sync with his offense after missing training camp after knee surgery. San Diego just lost Pro Bowl pass rusher Shawne Merriman. Jacksonville lost its starting guards, not to mention the usual array of other injuries.
Still, replacing Brady could determine the next level of Belichick's legacy. Who will Belichick turn to for the key plays? Who will he single out as the crucial person each week? What plays will he come up with in critical games?
"In terms of finding that one guy you need to have perform in a given week, he and Jimmy are the best at that," Collier said. "They both have a great way of telling a guy one-on-one in front of the rest of the team, 'You've got to get it done this week' and have that guy respond."
That's because Belichick's mind is constantly going over situations. In training camp, Belichick described how he, his staff and the players are in a constant learning mode. As he talked about the process, the normally blasé Belichick became almost animated.
"It's a continuous work in progress," Belichick said. "We do situational work in training camp based on what we've done in the past so we take those situations and then add on what may have come up the previous season or, during the season, maybe something that someone has seen in another game."
"It's a progressive thing. It's probably 80 to 90 percent the same. Second-and-1 is second-and-1 and there are certain strategies for second-and-1. Same with third-and-1, depending on what your field position is. Those have been pretty much the same since I was in Cleveland. It's the same notes, the same teaching, there isn't a whole lot new there. But there have been some other situations that have come up over the years that you can't cover every week."
Such as the game against Denver in 2003 when he instructed the team take a safety when down one point with 2:49 remaining. The Patriots got the ball back in enough time for Brady to lead a game-winning drive.
"That one was pretty obvious, but it worked out well and that's the one that everybody remembers," Belichick said.
Now, everyone will be paying close attention to see how he adjusts to life without Brady.
- Bill Belichick
- Joel Collier