Plenty of subtractions, but Belichick a big plus
FOXBOROUGH - The wonderboy quarterback, one of the greatest ever, is gone for the year. The defensive captain, the physical and spiritual leader, is gone for the year, maybe for good. The corps of running backs, once so deep, is tattered, and now an undrafted guy with four names is carrying the ball. The defensive backfield is a curious quilt of smurfs, wannabes, and never weres. Randy Moss was in pass protection at the end of the last game.
And yet, they compete. The Patriots are 5-2, sharing first place in the AFC East, as they head into this Sunday's game against the once-almighty Colts.
What does this mean for their football-lifer coach? He knows and we know that it was easy last year. The Patriots were at the top of their game. They were so much better than every other team. They had their way for 16 weeks, and again through the January playoff season. Was it maybe too easy? Did it stop being fun? Did the satisfaction ever fade?
Is this actually more enjoyable? Doing it the hard way?
We'll never know. The man with the headset is not given to public introspection. He's never going to tell us what he's really thinking. But those of us in the business of armchair sports psychology can't help but wonder if this is not just a little bit more of a challenge for Bill Belichick and his able staff. Is there not more satisfaction in winning with the handicap of no Tom Brady and a depleted backfield on both sides of the ball? Are we, in fact, witnessing Belichick's greatest demonstration of coaching in this minefield of the 2008 NFL season?
Bill won't bite, of course. And why should he? Nobody likes a smarty pants. Better to remain obtuse.
What's that you say? We're winning without Tom Brady? We don't have Rodney Harrison, Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, or a D-back with any height or experience and we're still in first place? I hadn't noticed.
OK, that's not what he really said. This is what he really said:
"We don't even think about it. So, we have had guys get hurt before. That is part of football. Every team has injuries and every team has to deal with something. We just look at each game and try to figure out the best way we can be competitive with the team we are playing. I know this is hard for you to believe, but we don't ever sit there and say, 'If we had Jim Brown, then we could run this play; if we had Tom Brady, we could run that play; and if we had Willie McGinest, we could run another play.' We never sit there and say that. We just say, 'OK, here is what they are doing and what we are going to do.' You take your options and try to pick out the best ones."
Patriot players, trained in Bill-speak, echoed the sounds of the leader.
"Guys buy into the system," said veteran linebacker Larry Izzo.
"What makes us consistent is his consistency," added fullback Heath Evans. "There's no changes. He coaches hard. He coaches very precise. It doesn't change from person to person. His consistency is about that. You always know what you're going to get. You know what's expected of you, so it's easy to play that way. His coaching helps us carry on. It's easy to play when you know what's expected. There's one boss."
The boss himself wasn't having any part of an attempt to underscore his real acts of genius. We asked about him using this moment to draw on his lifetime of football immersion and got an answer that would make skulls implode (we all stopped listening after "all three phases of the game").
Undaunted, we made one last run at coach metro-drone.
"Do you enjoy the challenge? Is it harder now?"
No go. He launched into Boredom 101.
"Every team has good players, every team has good coaches, every team works hard, has a good offseason program . . ."
On and on it went. Made you want to run to the car and switch on NPR.
Then came a brief, benign moment of truth.
"It is challenging, but I definitely enjoy it," Belichick admitted. "I enjoy all the aspects of it - the preparation, the on-the-field coaching, the working with the players, the watching film with them, the game strategy. That's what I do."
That's what he does. Better than anyone else. And with all the stuff that's going on around this Patriots team in 2008, it's good to have Bill Belichick on your side.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.