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A case for top billing

It's hard to beat Belichick's year

Since Bill Belichick is so big into preparation, he ought to spend an evening or two during the Patriots' bye week alone in his Gillette Stadium office preparing an acceptance speech, though he'll have wasted a lot of time considering he'll probably devote a fraction of that to delivering it. If he starts now, though, he's sure not to forget anything or anyone. And it wouldn't hurt to clear some space among his awards, assuming he keeps them.

 

Belichick did the best job of any head coach in the league in 2003. He should be recognized for it when the recipient of the Coach of the Year award, given by the Associated Press, is announced Sunday. One could make an argument for several other candidates: Carolina's John Fox, Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, Dallas's Bill Parcells, Philadelphia's Andy Reid, or Kansas City's Dick Vermeil. But no coach has overcome more to do more than Belichick.

Props to Lewis for doing away with the Bungles and bringing back the Bengals in his first year at the helm. Had Cincinnati, a .500 team for the first time since 1990, made the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons, then Lewis would have a pretty strong case. Fox led a team that won one game two years ago to an 11-5 record and the NFC South title. Reid's Eagles overcame injury upon injury to win the NFC East for the third consecutive season. Vermeil's Chiefs, in jumping from 8-8 to 13-3, were the last team to lose a game this season after a 9-0 start. And the Tuna removed the stench of three straight 5-11 seasons from Dallas by guiding the Cowboys to a 10-6 mark and a playoff berth.

But what the Patriots did during the regular season seemed, to say the least, improbable considering the way it began. If not impossible.

The Patriots, in shock after Belichick released cocaptain Lawyer Milloy five days before the season opener, were shut out by Buffalo in Week 1. The next week New England went to Philadelphia and grounded the Eagles. Belichick doesn't deserve credit for keeping the team together after Milloy's departure. It was his decision in the first place. He gets points for going about business as usual.

It has taken an unusual number of employees for the Patriots to do business. The injury factor is what puts Belichick over the top, especially injuries to receivers, offensive linemen (early), and linebackers. The 42 starters he used this season were the most by a division champion since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Five Opening Day starters are on injured reserve. The Patriots have played 64 players, second most in the league. A total of 98 man-games were missed because of injury.

Yet New England hasn't missed a beat.

The Patriots posted a league-best 14-2 record. You could end the discussion with that and be in good shape, but for those who insist that it continue: The Patriots haven't lost since Sept. 28 at Washington. And that was by a field goal. New England finished the regular season with 12 consecutive victories, putting them in '72 Dolphins, '85 Bears, '98 Broncos company. Those are the only other teams in the past three-plus decades to win that many games to end the regular season.

The 14 wins were three more than any Patriots team had won in a season. They went undefeated at home for the first time in franchise history. They went 7-0 against teams with winning records, including 4-0 on the road.

Belichick could almost do no wrong. He and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis were brilliant in their use of the running back committee (Mike Cloud, Kevin Faulk, Antowain Smith). Seven draft choices made key contributions; two are starters. Belichick received national notice for taking an intentional safety that led to a victory in Denver. He did not start cocaptain Richard Seymour against Jacksonville and in the same game deactivated rookie Bethel Johnson for disciplinary reasons. No backfire. They're just on fire.

Reid was Coach of the Year last season. Parcells has twice been voted top coach, in '86 with the Giants and in '94 with the Patriots. Vermeil got his in '99, with the Rams.

It's Belichick's turn. Based on an entire body of work, maybe Vermeil, Parcells, Denver's Mike Shanahan, or Seattle's Mike Holmgren is a better coach. But if you're talking about the job that was done this year, no one outdid Belichick, who was runner-up to Dick Jauron for the award in 2001.

"How anyone can think about casting a ballot for anyone else for Coach of the Year?" said Patriots vice chairman Jonathan Kraft. "I don't know how they can do it in good conscience."

If more voters go for Fox, Lewis, Parcells, Reid, or Vermeil than Belichick, oh well, there goes the heartfelt speech (statement is more like it). As usual, though, at least he'll have been prepared.

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