I think the gap may be narrowing.
The great advantage your New England Patriots have had these past few years was the very simple fact that the coach has been smarter than everybody else. Oh, I really believe that. I don't know how anyone could watch the NFL operate in this century and come to any other conclusion. To borrow a reference someone once made concerning Red Auerbach, Bill Belichick has been playing chess as all the others have been playing checkers.
I now have a feeling we may have allowed a couple of chess-playing foxes into our little henhouse. Worse yet, one of them is in the Patriots' own division.
It's early, of course, and we need a lot more evidence before the official panic can set in, but the preliminary returns suggest that Nick Saban and Mike Nolan will be bringing a little more to the table than the garden variety NFL coach.
Saban is supposed to be Bill II, anyway. He worked under Coach Bill in Cleveland, one of the 10 stops he has made (Mommas: do not let your daughters grow up to marry football coaches) in a career than began as a Kent State graduate assistant in 1973. There are hundreds and hundreds of bright, eager men capable of running a satisfactory football operation at either the college or professional level. But most of them are locked into orthodox methods, tactics, and schemes, usually ones that are predictable and, well, safe. In the right circumstances, with the right personnel, they can win bowl games, national championships, and perhaps even Super Bowls. Most will wind up going 6-10 and 4-12 once too often and get fired. They retreat to the assistant ranks and another orthodox thinker and planner replaces them, only to repeat the pattern.
But every once in a while one of them has that certain ''it" that 99 percent of the rest lack. Rick Pitino has had ''it" with every college basketball team he has coached. Bill Belichick clearly has ''it." Charlie Weis is demonstrating already that he has ''it." And I'm willing to go on record as saying that Nick Saban has ''it." I think Patriots fans will soon be very afraid of the Miami Dolphins. A year ago at this time, the Dolphins had one of the most boring, predictable, conventional, and, ultimately, beatable coaches imaginable in Dave Wannstedt. Now they have perhaps The Next Great Thing in charge of their team.
So what does Nick Saban do? I can't X-and-O it for you, but here is the explanation once offered by Dean Pees, the Patriots' linebackers coach who was Saban's defensive coordinator at Michigan State: ''Instead of looking at the overall picture, he gives players something they can really lash their teeth into, which allows them to play more aggressively. There are a lot of guys who can draw up the X's and O's. The question is, what little things can you find to help each player play his position? That's one thing Nick is good at."
Pees has just described Rick Pitino, in case you didn't know. Rick is the acknowledged master of individual instruction. Many people don't believe it, but some people really do know more about their sport, and are able to articulate their thoughts about every last little thing, than others. If you get past what Coach Bill is not telling you about who's hurt and when so-and-so is coming back and all that bookkeeping stuff, and focus instead on Coach Bill's almost passionate daily explanations about matters of pure football detail, you discover that he is in possession of a frightening amount of empirical knowledge about the whys and wherefores of football.
Not surprisingly, Saban and Belichick are goombahs, of sorts. Saban was Coach Bill's defensive coordinator in Cleveland. He shares his old boss's disdain for the media (although, to be fair, Coach Bill has come a long, long way in recent years), and has made life a basic Hades for the Miami press. Like Coach Bill, he has been described as a serious ''no-nonsense" coach. Now, here is what Coach Bill once said about his old DC: ''Basically, if anybody doesn't want to work hard or be committed the way he's committed, then they're going to have a problem with him. Now, if they like to work, they won't have any problem at all."
Miami fans got a glimpse of coming attractions on Sunday. Gus Frerotte, the journeyman's journeyman at quarterback, threw for 275 yards and two touchdowns. The Dolphins mixed and matched running backs (Ricky Williams is serving a four-game druggy suspension, remember) to the tune of 151 yards. Old buddy Keith Traylor blotted out the sky nicely in the middle of the defensive line. Zach Thomas was his old marauding self (8 tackles, 6 assists) at middle linebacker. The great defensive end Jason Taylor had a sack, a fumble recovery, and some near-sacks. Tebucky Jones -- remember him? -- had a big day at safety. The Dolphins were completely energized.
And . . .
Most ominously, Saban pulled a Coach Bill move that showed he has some creativity. Taylor, all 6 feet 6 inches, 255 pounds of him, lined up at tight end on a third-quarter second-and-goal from the 2. He ran an inside route, taking two defenders with him, and Randy McMichael, the real tight end, caught a TD pass going the other way. Taylor explained that it was all about tapping his inner Vrabel. ''I asked Coach Saban to let me play there," he explained. ''I'm going to keep asking to play there until I catch a touchdown pass."
Like the Patriots, the Dolphins are going to be good, and they're also going to be fun. These two unsmiling coaches play creative, entertaining football.
Across the continent, another interesting story is unfolding. The San Francisco 49ers, hapless a year ago (their two wins each coming in OT against Arizona), upset the St. Louis Rams, 28-25. They did this despite a puny offensive output that included a mere 12 first downs, 217 yards in total offense, and a running game that picked up an embarrassing 1.6 yards per carry. But Otis Amey took a punt 75 yards to The House, the defense stood tall when it had to, and Nolan engaged in all sorts of trickeration.
Among other things, the 49ers used: a lateral from QB Tim Rattay to wideout (and former Notre Dame QB) Arnaz Battle, who threw a 24-yard touchdown pass; a shotgun snap to Battle (didn't work, but what the hey?); a shotgun snap to Battle resulting in a shovel pass to Frank Gore; and an onside kick recovered by SF's Terry Jackson. Nolan acknowledged that such plays were an admission that his was the inferior team. Fine. But he didn't just stand around and accept his fate by running off-tackle all day. What he did instead took the kind of coaching guts we seldom see on display the NFL. Except here.
I've been intrigued by Nolan, whose public pronouncements seem to separate him from the typical cookie-cutter NFL coach we normally encounter. He seems to have, yes, ''it."
Coach Bill is still the resident NFL smarty. But he finally has a little competition.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.