A week prior to the start of the NFL draft, Bill Belichick went south to hang out with good friend Urban Meyer
Belichick spent a day at the University of Florida, working with the Gators coach during the school's spring practice – checking out the spread offense and getting an early glimpse at stud defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap, the next big thing for draft gurus.
Pioli, left, and Belichick won three Super Bowl titles together.
(Scott Dwyer/AP Photo)
What Belichick apparently didn't do was fret the loss of personnel man Scott Pioli from the New England Patriots' front office.
"Last year, we lost Thomas Dimitroff in December prior to the draft and kept ourselves, so this is really nothing new," Belichick said Monday. "Really, all the people who are here have been here for awhile now and have a pretty good understanding of the system. The only person we have who is new is [veteran NFL personnel man] Floyd [Reese].
"We're just trying to make sure we're all on the same page. It's all part of a normal offseason."
For Belichick, changes to the front office and staff are hardly new. Four years ago, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive counterpart Romeo Crennel left the staff. In 2006, Belichick lost then-trusted assistant Eric Mangini. Last year, as Belichick noted, the Patriots lost Dimitroff, who went on to be the 2008 NFL executive of the year after helping the Atlanta Falcons reach the playoffs.
But this year may test Belichick's great organizational skills. In addition to Pioli departing to run the Kansas City Chiefs' front office, the Patriots also lost offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and special assistant Dom Capers. Belichick and Pioli had been together pretty much since 1992, when Belichick hired Pioli as a personnel assistant with the Cleveland Browns.
Collectively, that's a lot to lose at one time. While Belichick works hard to develop young talent on his staff, such as handing Nick Caserio some of Pioli's past responsibilities or pulling aside young coaches such as Matt Patricia for long private talks, losing so many people at one time would push the limits of even the greatest managers you could find in the Harvard Business Review.
"You have to have people in the pipeline ready to take over when you lose people around you," said former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, who related how the team's general manager Ozzie Newsome did the same thing. Newsome is also regarded as one of the best personnel men in the league and worked with Belichick in Cleveland in the 1990s.
"Ozzie had Eric DeCosta ready for when he lost Phil Savage," Billick said. "He had Vince Newsome ready for when he lost George Kokinis. He has that plan for ascension and all those guys have been [trained] in the way that Ozzie wants things done."
For New England, the question is what impact the loss of Pioli will have on this week's draft. While the Patriots are still primed to be among the league's elite teams, assuming all goes well with quarterback Tom Brady's recovery from last season's knee injury, they are at the edge of being past their prime. Ten of their players have competed in the NFL at least 10 years and three more are about to hit that mark. Sixteen are at least 30 years old and four more will reach that age this season.
Those respective groups include most of the team's core. Aside from Brady, there's wide receiver Randy Moss, defensive lineman Richard Seymour, left tackle Matt Light and vastly underappreciated running back Kevin Faulk. Furthermore, despite the immediate returns on the 2008 draft with sensational rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo, the 2006 and 2007 drafts are not up to the previous levels that Belichick and Pioli established.
From 2001 to 2005, the Patriots selected Seymour, tight end Daniel Graham, defensive lineman Ty Warren, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, tight end Ben Watson and guard Logan Mankins in the first round. Throw in the later-round picks such as Deion Branch, David Givens, Asante Samuel and Matt Cassel and you have one of the great draft runs in NFL history.
Thus, this draft, which includes 11 picks overall and six of the first 97, becomes critical to seeing what the Patriots become over the next five to seven years. Will they hit the wall, as the Dallas Cowboys did in the late 1990s after their three-title run? Or will the Patriots transition through this and maintain their championship ways as the San Francisco 49ers did from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s?
Some of the transition is already apparent. Despite Belichick's appreciation for veteran players, Mike Vrabel was traded to the Chiefs this offseason and Rodney Harrison's return is uncertain. There have been rumors for two years that linebacker Tedy Bruschi would call it quits soon.
Caserio, the director of player personnel who has been with the Patriots since 2001, was given additional responsibility to help maintain continuity and Reese was brought in to add his experience. While some people have dismissed Pioli's role in New England by saying that Belichick made all the decisions (former NFL team executive Charley Casserly reiterated that point Monday during a conference call to promote the NFL Network coverage), that sentiment overlooks Pioli's role in building the structure of the team.
By that, it's not only knowing the type of players Belichick wants, but teaching the scouts and other members of the personnel staff how to run Belichick's evaluation system. The system was first developed when Belichick was in Cleveland, using a combination of numerical grades and written assessments. That's not unique, but Belichick tweaked his system to emphasize certain factors he considered more important than others.
Thus, as Belichick acknowledged, it can take "even a veteran scout maybe a year to really grasp exactly how we want it done."
"Basically, how you're grading someone numerically has to match up with what you're saying about them," Belichick said. "If you're grading someone as a third corner in our system, but then what you say about them sounds like a second corner or a fourth corner, you have to get that to match up and see where the discrepancy is. … You want things to be as clear as they possibly can be."
Ultimately, it's all about promoting an environment of communication. Billick referred to Ozzie Newsome being a "great listener." In his own way, Belichick wants the same result. He must get it as he works through replacing Pioli, someone he had worked with for 17 years and had grown to trust implicitly.
"Communication is a huge thing, it's the most important part of doing the evaluation so that everyone is on the same page," Belichick said. "The more that is left unsaid, the more unsure you're going to be. There's no real shortcut to communication."