Red mad at the officiating, red-faced after an emotional postgame locker room gathering -- the last of the season for the 2005 New England Patriots -- and red-eyed after a middle-of-the-night flight from Denver, Bill Belichick held a conference call yesterday to give a brief wrap of his team's season.
A 27-13 loss to Denver ended his squad's quest to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls, and as evidenced by the fact that the Patriots cleared out their locker room at Gillette Stadium by midafternoon yesterday, work on the 2006 season will start soon.
How soon, even Belichick doesn't know.
''It's really hard to predict how the first few days at the end of the season will go," Belichick said. ''So we'll just kind of take it as it comes, but it'll take a little while here just to kind of clean up things and get reorganized and make sure we have all of the information we need to try to get everything in place so we can analyze it.
''It's been a long year."
One of the first things the coaching staff does at the end of a season is evaluate everything the team did during the season, from any tendencies they inadvertently developed in play calling, to personnel moves, good and bad.
The Patriots will have a jump-start this offseason compared to the previous two years when at this point they still had two games yet to play.
While being one of the 28 teams that isn't working on a game plan today isn't an envious position, it affords Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli extra time to prepare for the free agent signing period that begins after the Super Bowl.
Belichick has talked about feeling as if he has had to cram for an exam the past two seasons, in preparing to bring in free agents and evaluating draft prospects.
He had to be pleased with last year's draft, which brought to the team three players who developed into starters -- offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur, and cornerback Ellis Hobbs.
''I think that next year they will be starting from a much higher point in terms of experience and background in our system, knowing what it takes to play in the league and all of that," Belichick said. ''I think they came in at a very mature level. To avoid the second year not being as good as the first, they have to maintain their same work ethic and attitude, desire, aggressiveness, all of those kind of things that gave them a chance to be successful this year.
''I think they need to maintain that and then combine it with a good offseason and that same type of energy and preparation for the game and experience, then they have a chance to improve."
Belichick addressed the Patriots' running game, particularly Corey Dillon, who ran for fewer than half the yards he did a year ago.
''I think there are a lot of elements that go into the running game," he said. ''Certainly part of it is the back, the line, the scheme the defense plays, and so forth. So I thought Corey ran hard all year. And I'm sure there were plays that he could have read better and run better. There were plays that could have been blocked better. Certainly plays that could have been called at a better time.
''I think the important thing offensively is to be able to move the ball and score points. The running game is a significant part of it, but I don't think we can base it just on that. Overall I thought our offense for the most part was productive this year."
The Patriots' defense was far from productive for the first half of the season, but turned into one of the league's top units.
''I thought we played a lot better over the latter half of the season defensively," Belichick said. ''It was probably the biggest area of improvement on our football team and it was much needed since we were at the bottom of the league at that point."
One hole in the defense was at strong safety where Rodney Harrison, who started every game the previous two seasons, was injured in the third game and missed the remainder of the season. Six players started at the position after Harrison's exit.
With Harrison, a 12-year veteran, facing recovery from a severe knee injury, there is the question of whether he will return to form. Harrison is adamant that he will be fine, and Belichick sounds optimistic.
''I think he's coming along," Belichick said. ''We'll see how it goes. I don't know. He has a lot of work to do, but we'll see how it goes.
''I certainly wouldn't count him out at this point. I definitely wouldn't do that."
Of course, as disappointing as the season was, the Patriots remain one of the more talented teams in the NFL.
Few teams can match the Patriots' linebacker corps. Ty Warren is close to being a Pro Bowl-caliber lineman and nose tackle Vince Wilfork is headed in the same direction. The Patriots' offensive line endured major injuries yet maintained with two rookies who should only get better. And Deion Branch is quietly becoming a star wideout.
Free-agent-to-be Adam Vinatieri is the game's top clutch kicker, and punter Josh Miller is among the league's best.
And of course, no team has a better defensive lineman than Richard Seymour and no team has a better quarterback than Tom Brady, the team's Pro Bowl representatives.
Brady had perhaps his best season.
''I think that Tom has been a great leader for this football team this year and every year," Belichick said. ''But I think that Tom has had an outstanding season and he brings so much to our football team and all of the things that he does, his preparation, his work ethic, his toughness, his ability to lead this team and lead the offense.
''He's an outstanding quarterback. I'm glad he's our quarterback and I thought he had a very good year."
But he didn't play his best game Saturday night in Denver, where a victory would have meant hosting the AFC Championship game, thanks to Pittsburgh's win over Indianapolis yesterday.
The what-ifs lead the what-nexts for now. Even Belichick, so good at staying in the moment, couldn't help but look back at a couple of rulings that didn't go in the Patriots' favor -- a pass interference call against Asante Samuel that set up a touchdown and a non-reversal of a fumble that could have meant Patriots ball instead of an easy Denver touchdown.
''Well, there were some real questionable decisions," Belichick said. ''But the bottom line is we didn't play well enough to win; didn't coach well enough to win. Denver was the better team [Saturday] night.
''I think Denver deserved to win because they played better. There were certainly some very questionable decisions in that game that I'm surprised that was a playoff crew, but that didn't decide the outcome of the game. I think it would've been a lot worse if it had come down to one play and that play had been a questionable call or something like that. That really wasn't the case."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org