FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The mantra in Jacoby Brissett’s head started after he had completely reversed the Houston Texans’ defense into a breeze: Get Bill the ball.
It got louder after he left safety Andre Hal flailing into an empty sideline, cutting back and lunging into the end zone for a stunning 27-yard touchdown.
Get Bill the ball.
Since Monday, this was the running joke for the third-string quarterback: Brissett wasn’t allowed to let the Texans get a football. No turnovers. No mistakes. No implosion – whether he was prepared for his NFL debut or not. He heard it from coaches. And teammates. And by Thursday night, probably even a few parking lot attendants. Don’t give Houston the ball. Like … ever.
So when Brissett scored New England’s first touchdown in a stunning 27-0 rout of the Texans, his programming kicked into gear. Jumping up in the end zone, he headed straight for coach Bill Belichick. And when a grinning Belichick extended a handshake to congratulate his improbable rookie starter, a single-minded Brissett stuffed the ball into his coach’s midsection.
“I was supposed to give him the ball,” Brissett said with a grin. “[Just] make sure they don’t get it.”
A few hours later in the locker room, Belichick gave the ball back, awarding the quarterback who took a crash-coursed, pared-down Patriots offense and trounced one of the most talented defenses in the NFL.
This isn’t supposed to happen in the NFL. Not against a team like Houston with its defensive standouts. The Cleveland Browns, maybe. But against a Texans team that entered 2-0 and looked ready to devour a rookie quarterback? Never.
Yet, here the Patriots are. No Tom Brady for four weeks. No Rob Gronkowski for two weeks (and at best, a limited Gronk on Thursday). No Jimmy Garoppolo. And fielding a read-option, rookie, third-string quarterback with three days to prepare.
3-0. Without Tom Brady.
Belichick certainly has more complete testaments to his coaching acumen – 13 AFC East titles in 15 seasons; four Super Bowls rings; a space waiting in the Hall of Fame. But few will be sweeter than this one: A 13-5 record with the three quarterbacks who have stepped in and started for Brady. That’s right. Brissett is now a piece of the answer to, “What has Belichick done without Brady?” Belichick still wins. Just like he did with Matt Cassel. Just like he did with Garoppolo.
Now, when this season ends, Belichick will have accomplished something he has never done before – and few coaches will ever do. He will win games with all three quarterbacks on his roster. All he needs now is to get Brady back in Week 5. And he gets 10 days to prepare for Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills, ample time to pour into finishing off a Brady-less 4-0 start that was unthinkable a month ago.
That’s how you end up with Belichick starting his postgame news conference with an upbeat line: “Well, this is a really satisfying win.”
“We really asked a lot out of the team this week,” Belichick said. “They responded. They never batted an eye.”
Belichick laid plenty of praise on his coaching staff, too. And it deserved it, with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia dialing up the kind of game plan that is going to get them head coaching interviews this offseason. It was one of the best performances by either this season – and easily one of the best tandem performances since the pair got together as Belichick’s coordinators in 2012. Add in the two turnovers forced by special teams coordinator Joe Judge’s unit, which completed New England’s domination of this impossible game.
But little speaks more loudly than how the Patriots’ offense attacked Houston with Brissett at the helm. One half was delivered with a brute-force running game that wore the Texans down. The other was with a handful of read-option plays and reverses that got the ball into the hands of other playmakers like Julian Edelman and tight end Martellus Bennett.
Belichick can praise his staff all he wants, but the reality is it conforms to his ability to accentuate talent. That meant getting the ball into the hands of veterans who could help Brissett make plays and keep the Texans guessing. It also meant keeping Gronkowski in as a primary blocker much of the game – utilizing his athleticism to slow down the Texans’ edge rushers.
Conventional wisdom suggested Brissett shouldn’t have risked running the ball. The Patriots did it anyway. All while on the other side of the field, the Texans seemed to be playing conservatively at times with their $16 million-a-year starter, Brock Osweiler.
This is the genius of Belichick. Tailor to strengths while making the opposition question theirs. And if that means putting some responsibility in the hands of Brissett, who was able to choose a handful of his runs Thursday night, so be it.
“We have an intelligent team that’s able to do a lot of different things each week,” Bennett said. “Each week, the game plans are different. Our roles are different. Last week, we catch a lot of balls. This week, it’s a lot of blocking. … Everyone buys into what we’re trying to do. The coaching staff, they just put it out there and we’re just like, ‘All right, this is what we’re doing. Let’s go.'”
So they went. Now 3-0 and looking as good as anyone could have imagined without Brady. With time off to heal, reassess and possibly get Garoppolo back against the Bills.
Jacoby got his ball. Bill got his win. And the Patriots are closer to being a complete team again. And as always, looking only forward.
“When you’re looking in the rearview mirror,” Bennett said, “you’re more likely to crash.”
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