As we pass out plaudits to the Patriots for their 14-2 regular season, the requisite credit goes to the divine duo of quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick. But after that, how about a tip of the headgear to a collection of young assistant coaches that was questioned, criticized and derided entering this season?
The Patriots started the season with eight assistant coaches, excluding the strength and conditioning crew, who were 40 years of age or younger and zero coordinators. Like the team, the callow coaching staff has exceeded expectations. Belichick's acolytes are brighter than most thought.
Rewind back to the sun-soaked days of summer and there was real debate and consternation about whether quarterbacks coach/de facto offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien was fit to be at the wheel of a Brady-led offense. He was coming off an uneven performance in his first year as primary playcaller in place of Josh McDaniels. (Whatever happened to that guy anyway?) Adding to the reasonable doubt was that after the customary one-year initiation Belichick had elected not to bestow the offensive coordinator title upon O'Brien.
There are no questions about O'Brien's competency now, not after the Patriots scored an NFL-best 518 points, established an NFL record for fewest turnovers (10), tied an NFL record with eight straight games with 30 or more points and topped 30 points in 11 of their 16 games.
Only the almost-perfect 2007 Patriots, who scored an NFL-record 589 points, have ever lit up the scoreboard more for New England than the offense the aptly-nicknamed Billy O presides over. And he did it his way.
He stood up to Randy Moss in Miami and went away from the shotgun-heavy, feed-the-ball-to-Randy approach the Patriots had featured in recent years in favor of a two-tight end, diversified attack. The Patriots still use shotgun and the spread as key element of their offense, no doubt, but it's not the offense any more. This offense appears closer in lineage to what Charlie Weis ran than what McDaniels designed.
For those who quibble about points and the nine non-offensive touchdowns the team scored this season, the Patriots still led the league in offensive points scored with 456. That was 38 points more -- or a normal Patriots' output against the Bills -- than the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Diego Charges, who tied for second.
One complaint about O'Brien last year was that his play calling and, by extension, his offense, was as predictable as the results of a Venezuelan "election." Not so this year. On Sunday against the Dolphins, the Patriots thrice ran a fake-handoff, followed by wide receiver Julian Edelman sweeping behind on an end-around.
The first time Brady faked the end-around to Edelman and tossed a swing pass to him for 40 yards. The second time Brian Hoyer feigned the end-around to Edelman and went deep to Brandon Tate for a 42-yard touchdown. The third time Edelman got the ball and gained 13 yards to pick up a first down on third and 7. The only aspect of the play that was predictable was its success.
O'Brien coming into his own is the most obvious example of Belichick's faith in young, unproven coaches being rewarded, but there are other Belichick Youth members deserving of kudos. Linebackers coach Matt Patricia, 36, is Belichick's aide de camp on defense and basically co-coordinator with Belichick. Brian Flores, who turns 30 in February, is heavily involved in special teams with Scott O'Brien. The special teams unit has produced four touchdowns this season.
Secondary coach Josh Boyer had a difficult time dealing with some of the players in his room last season, and there were some untimely coverage breakdowns last season (see: Saints, New Orleans). That is in part why the Patriots brought in former Patriots player and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown to help coach the safeties.
But while the Patriots' defensive numbers this year aren't outstanding -- 30th against the pass -- the development of cornerback Devin McCourty is. The 33-year-old Boyer has to get some credit for helping to nurture New England's first-round pick into a Pro Bowl performer and for the fact the Patriots tied for the league low in pass plays of 40-plus yards allowed (four) while leading the league in interceptions with 25.
The boyish Boyer, who looks remarkably like the other Josh who was here, has done this without his best cornerback, Leigh Bodden, who was put on injured reserve before the season started with a torn rotator cuff.
While Darius Butler has backslid in his second year and safety Brandon Meriweather is inconsistent, second-year safety Patrick Chung has made major strides under Brown. Ditto for former undrafted free agent Kyle Arrington, the starter the majority of the year at right cornerback, under Hoyer.
If you were grading on a youth-to-performance scale, then perhaps the valedictorian of what the late David Halberstam called, "Belichick U," would be precocious Brian Ferentz, son of former Belichick assistant and current University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. The 27-year-old Ferentz is listed as an offensive assistant coach, but he's the tight ends coach.
Ferentz, aided by tight end/team sage Alge Crumpler, who is six years his senior, has done a remarkable job with rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, two crucial components of the Patriots offense. Gronk set the franchise record for touchdown receptions by a tight end with 10 and has been a bulldozer in the running game. Hernandez, who caught a Patriots rookie tight end record 45 balls this season and added six touchdowns, has improved at reading zone defenses and running precise routes as the season has progressed.
That was one of the questions I had prior to the season about the younger members of this staff: Would they be able to develop the young players the Patriots were counting on this season? The resounding answer is yes, and Belichick deserves credit for believing that inexperienced coaches coaching inexperienced players could work.
They've all grown up together.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.