FOXBOROUGH - Bill Belichick guided the Patriots to the first 16-0 regular season in the annals of the NFL. That unblemished record overshadowed any perceived blemish left by his team's illegal videotaping flap earlier this season, and yesterday he was voted the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year.
Belichick garnered 29 of 50 votes, almost doubling the second-place finisher, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, who received 15 votes after taking the Packers from 8-8 last season to 13-3 this year. Wade Phillips of the Dallas Cowboys (2), Jack Del Rio of the Jacksonville Jaguars (2), Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1), and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy (1) also received votes.
"This is definitely a team recognition but one that I appreciate very much on a personal level," said Belichick in a statement from the team.
On Sept. 13, Belichick was fined $500,000 as part of the punishment the league levied against the Patriots after finding the team violated the league's policy on videotaping an opposing team's signals during its season-opening 38-14 victory over the New York Jets Sept. 9.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also fined New England $250,000 and docked it a first-round draft choice. Goodell said the Patriots' use of a video camera, which was seized before the end of the first quarter, for taping defensive signals, had no impact on the outcome of the contest. However, in his written ruling, he said the episode "represented a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field."
The league later confiscated more tapes from the Patriots and destroyed them.
Belichick, who said he misinterpreted the rule, apologized in a written statement and turned the messy scandal into a motivational tool that helped the Patriots become the fourth team in NFL history to post an undefeated regular season, the first since the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and the only one since the league switched to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi acknowledged last week to the New York media that the spying scandal and the fallout brought the Patriots closer.
"Yes, especially our veterans, the guys that have been around because we consider ourselves a close-knit group, and obviously, our leader, Coach Belichick, is a member of that group and in that circle and when something like that - whether it is a player or a coach that is attacked - [happens], it just sort of rallies us closer together," he said.
It is the second time Belichick has won the award. He received it in 2003, when he guided the Patriots to a 14-2 mark and their second Super Bowl title, closing the season with a 15-game winning streak, including the playoffs.
Belichick has won three Super Bowl titles with New England and will try to join Chuck Noll as the only coach to win four. The top-seeded Patriots, who have a first-round bye, open the postseason Jan. 12 at Gillette Stadium.
Belichick, the winningest coach in Patriots history with a 103-39 record, including the playoffs, in eight seasons, presided over a team that set NFL records for regular-season victories, points in a season (589), touchdowns in a season (75), largest point-differential (plus-315), and consecutive regular-season victories (19, dating to 2006), breaking the mark of 18 the Patriots established during the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
A team that prides itself on a team-first ethos also had two players break notable individual marks. Quarterback Tom Brady threw 50 touchdown passes, topping Peyton Manning's record of 49 in 2004, and wide receiver Randy Moss, whom Belichick imported in a draft-day deal, hauled in 23 TD receptions, eclipsing Jerry Rice's record of 22, set during the strike-shortened 1987 season.
There was some question whether voters, which consist of a nationwide panel of media members who cover the NFL, would punish Belichick for what has become known as Spygate, but his coaching acumen and football brilliance have never been in question. By becoming the first coach since Don Shula in '72 to lead his team to an undefeated regular season, the coach presented an overwhelming case for the award.
His players never wavered in their support.
"He's the Coach of the Year to us," said safety Rodney Harrison Nov. 15. "To me, he's the best coach I've ever played for. He's the best coach that ever coached the game, but that's to me. Whether he gets the award or not, who cares?
"He doesn't care. It's all about winning games. You can get Coach of the Year, but if you lose in the first round of the playoffs, what difference does it make? We don't care about that. Individual awards are what they are - individual. We love team awards."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.