FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The football had yet to be kicked off in the New England Patriots‘ regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins when CBS analyst Jay Feely shared his viewpoint of the unexpected position the team found itself in — with 10 wins and having already clinched a playoff berth.
“This is the best coaching job that Bill Belichick has done. He’s the best coach of all time, but I think this year, he and [offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels have done a phenomenal job,” Feely said.
Belichick’s 2021 season has plenty of competition — his résumé is pretty impressive, after all — but ESPN analyst Damien Woody can understand why Feely believes it.
Belichick leads his Patriots (10-7) into Saturday’s wild-card matchup (8:15 p.m. ET, CBS) against the Buffalo Bills (11-6) having earned the respect of many around the NFL, such as his former offensive lineman.
“You could say this is the best job he’s ever done,” said Woody, who played for the Patriots from 1999 to 2003. “He goes out and signs a slew of free agents in the offseason. Then drafts Mac Jones, fifth out of the ‘Big 5’ [of first-round quarterbacks], and proceeds to put that team together. It’s not easy to blend together a bunch of free agents and get a rookie quarterback ready to go in that culture. To be able to do that, and get that team back in the postseason, that’s a really, really good coaching job.”
Former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak, the team’s longtime radio analyst, highlighted those hurdles when discussing what makes Belichick’s 2021 coaching job unique compared to those in the past.
“They’re pleasantly surprised where they are. Bill wouldn’t admit that, but I think they’re ahead of schedule,” he said. “Maybe next year you’re thinking playoffs, where this year you’re thinking ‘find yourselves, reload, get the quarterback’s feet wet’ and then you crank things up.”
There is one area, however, that has been problematic.
“The special teams errors are surprising,” Zolak said, referencing three blocked punts and other costly penalties, such as defensive tackle Lawrence Guy lining up over the snapper during a punt on Sunday to give Miami a gift first down in New England’s 33-24 loss.
Taking a big-picture view of Belichick’s 2021 season, Zolak sees a mix of the early years and latter years of the team’s two-decade run with quarterback Tom Brady.
“We all know what it was early — a lot of older veterans that sort of had that chip on their shoulder with a young quarterback that developed. They found their way,” he said. “Later, you had the quarterback as the veteran and you’re dealing with a younger defense with the offense carrying you. Now, I think they have good balance.”
Where does Belichick’s 2021 campaign rank among his best coaching jobs with the Patriots? While officials might penalize this list for a false start because the season hasn’t concluded, here is one longtime reporter’s top 10:
1. 2001: Belichick was coming off a 5-11 season in his first year as Patriots coach and the team was 0-2 when starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a serious injury. The Patriots had fought to a 5-5 record when Belichick made the decision to stick with Brady, his second-year quarterback, in one of the most important moves of his career.
The Patriots, with what former Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf referred to as a “waiver wire team,” went on to win Super Bowl XXXVI, upsetting the heavily favored Rams 20-17.
Woody was part of that squad.
“Listen, you can absolutely put it No. 1. I won’t argue with you,” he said. “We were 0-2, then 1-3, and there was a lot of noise with people asking, ‘Is Belichick even the guy?’ To be able to navigate those waters, and beat The Greatest Show on Turf in the Super Bowl … who had expectations in 2001?”
2. 2008: This was a year that could have sunk the Patriots, who were trying to rebound after losing Super Bowl XLII and having their hopes of a 19-0 season crushed in the process. Then Brady tore his ACL on the 15th offensive play of the season and was out for the year.
“Come on now! That 2008 team, that’s up there — if not the best, it’s in the top two,” Woody said excitedly. “[Backup QB] Matt Cassel, who by the way had never started in college at USC, steps in and to get him coached up … I know you have the whole team around him, but think about how incredible that is.”
The Patriots finished 11-5 and didn’t qualify for the playoffs, benefiting from what some viewed as a softer schedule against the AFC West and NFC West divisions, which were in down cycles at the time.
3. 2014: “We’re on to Cincinnati.” Does any more need to be said? It had been a decade since the Patriots won a Super Bowl. They opened the season 2-2, with a 41-14 road loss against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football in which Brady was pulled in the fourth quarter. To recover from that, and go on to win the Super Bowl with a dramatic fourth-quarter stop against the Seattle Seahawks, was epic.
4. 2003: The Patriots had missed the playoffs in ’02, and then popular safety Lawyer Milloy was cut the week before the season opener — a 31-0 loss at Buffalo with Milloy starting for the Bills. With a 2-2 record the Patriots never lost again, led by one of the best defenses of Belichick’s tenure, en route to their second Super Bowl championship.
5. 2018: They looked buried in December with a heartbreaking loss on the final play at Miami in Week 14 and another defeat the following week in Pittsburgh, only to reinvent themselves as a power-running team over the final five games on their way to a surprising Super Bowl championship. The win at Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game was an advertisement for Belichick-led, clutch, Patriots-style complementary football.
6. 2021: Perhaps this year benefits from recency bias, but to make the playoffs with Jones at the helm (many thought he would sit this season behind Cam Newton) and so many new pieces is a credit to the excellence of Belichick and his staff.
7. 2016: Any coach who oversees a team that rallies from a 28-3 second-half deficit to win a Super Bowl is going to have that season rated among his best simply because of that comeback. Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed a good chunk of the season (25 catches), but the defense allowed a league-leading average of 15.6 points per game despite not having many bona fide stars.
8. 2007: The Patriots were loaded, but listening to veterans like Tedy Bruschi recall what was unfolding behind the scenes, they say Belichick never coached them harder than during that undefeated regular season. There was never a letdown. Sometimes the best coaching jobs can come with the best teams, by keeping them striving for more.
9. 2004: The last team in the NFL to win back-to-back Super Bowl championships, the Patriots were so banged up at cornerback they had receiver Troy Brown playing there. Belichick has long favored a rotation at running back, but he rode Corey Dillon (single-season franchise record 1,635 rushing yards) to a Super Bowl title.
10. 2006: The Patriots’ receiving corps was led by Reche Caldwell (team-high 61 catches) after Deion Branch was traded before the season began. Somehow, the Patriots were a play away from playing in the Super Bowl, if not for a crushing 38-34 loss in the AFC Championship Game to Peyton Manning’s Colts in Indianapolis. In that game, the Patriots badly missed safety Rodney Harrison, who was lost to injury in the regular-season finale.