Bill Belichick’s Best Moves Are Almost Always His Most Overlooked
When the New England Patriots take on the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl, the broadcast will invariably turn to the storyline of the Patriots trading Brandin Cooks during the offseason. The Patriots got a 1st-Round pick and an additional 6th-Round pick in return. The Patriots then used the pick to draft Isaiah Wynn who missed the entire season with an achilles injury. However, the Patriots also drafted Sony Michel with their original 31st pick. The combination of drafting a versatile tackle and a running back in the first round should have been a clear-tell sign the Patriots were planning to go a little old school in their offensive approach. However, everyone overlooked the moves and only started paying attention when the Patriots began thrashing opponents on the ground at the end of the season, primarily utilizing Michel as the first-half bellwether back.
This is nothing new. Bill Belichick’s best moves are often the ones that go overlooked at the time (drafting some random 6th-Round QB and holding on to four QBs to begin the 2000 season was a mere footnote 19 years ago). As with any successful Patriots season (practically all of them), there was a bevy overlooked moves that now look sensational in hindsight. Here are the Top-5 Most Overlooked Moves of the Patriots’ Season (“season” for these purposes means any roster move after last year’s Super Bowl).
No. 5 Most Overlooked Move of the Patriots’ Season: Patriots Sign John Simon
On September 1, the Indianapolis Colts cut unheralded defensive end John Simon. It took Bill Belichick 25 days to help Simon find a new landing spot. Before the Patriots’ Week 4 game at home against the Miami Dolphins, Belichick signed Simon who went on to have his best game of the season (statistically speaking): he tallied five total tackles (2 solo) as well as a sack. His statistics on the season were pedestrian: 11 games, eight solo tackles, and two sacks. However, he has admirably filled in as the edge-setting defensive end. An overlooked position by most, but a fundamental building block to the Patriots’ defensive scheme (and a position that Adrian Clayborn had issues with until a recent resurgence in the postseason).
Simon was superb in the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs. Again, the numbers do not show it (two assisted tackles and one-half sack), but he was instrumental in shutting out the Chiefs in the first half. He continuously set the edge and kept Patrick Mahomes in the pocket, which enabled Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy, Trey Flowers and Dont’a Hightower to relentlessly attack Mahomes in the middle of the pocket (Clayborn did his job equally as well). The Super Bowl broadcast might only mention Simon a handful of times, but this in-season addition has solidified a Patriots defense that was missing a key component early in the season. The best part for Belichick and the Patriots? His cap hit was roughly $1.1 million for the season. Not bad for a key cog in the Patriots defensive machine.
No. 4 Most Overlooked Move of the Patriots’ Season: Midseason Addition of Special Teams Depth
One of the most un-Belichickian themes to the start 2018 season was how badly the special teams unit performed. Kickoff coverage and punt coverage were woeful at the beginning of the season, and at one point were dead last. In a span of eight days in November (November 6-14), Belichick decided he had enough of the underperforming special teamers and signed LBers Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber. Since that time, the Patriots special teams unit been downright terrific, highlighted by McClellan’s two punt blocks in the same game against the Dolphins in Miami. However, while not as noticeable, the duo came up huge again in the AFC Championship game.
When the Patriots and Chiefs played in the regular season, the Patriots almost allowed a kickoff return, only to tackle the returner inside the Patriots’ five-yard line. In the AFCCG, with the Patriots holding on to a 14-7 lead, Ryan Allen geared up to punt standing at his own 25 (the line of scrimmage was the 39 of the Patriots). Allen hit an angled line drive to the right sideline, trying to pin Tyreek Hill. Then the Patriots special teamers, a collection of players almost always overlooked by the average fan, came up with one of the most important plays of the game:
That is McLellan and Humber in on the tackle. Not just collapsing on Hill inside of his own 10-yard line, but also forcing a block-in-the-back penalty, pinning the Chiefs inside their own 5-yard line. The Patriots would get the ball back and collect three points on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. At the time it put the Patriots up 17-7. Of course, the Chiefs stormed back and later took the lead on a couple of different occasions, but without this massive change of field position (and the three points), the Chiefs field goal at the end of regulation would be the game-winner, not a kick to send the game to overtime. Belichick constantly tinkers with his roster, and when one portion is not performing to his liking, he makes these under-the-radar moves that end up paying big dividends in the most important of moments.
No. 3 Most Overlooked Move of the Patriots’ Season: Patriots Sign Shaq Mason to Massive Extension
As of December 13, 2018, Shaq Mason was the 7th-best guard in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Mason was set to enter this season on the final year of his rookie contract. However, Belichick would not let him. Belichick signed Mason to a massive offseason extension, guaranteed at $23.5 million and where he can earn upwards of $30 million through the first three years. Many people complain when Belichick refuses to sign THE NEXT BIG THING WIDE RECEIVER, but nobody bats an eyelash when he throws a truckload of money at a man who can move trucks with his own body.
Coming out of Georgia Tech, everybody agreed Mason had the abilities to be one of the best run-blocking guards in the NFL. He has not disappointed in that regard. Where he has made tremendous strides though is in his pass-blocking ability. Combine stellar run-blocking with improved pass-blocking and you get one of the best performances of the season by anybody. Mason allowed just a single hurry all game in the AFCCG and was the primary hole opener for the majority of Michel’s runs.
People look at the Belichick trades and scoff at his history of drafting players because they only think of “skilled” players, specifically wide receivers. However, they invariably gloss over his excellent ability to draft linemen like Mason and Joe Thuney and scout for undrafted free agents like David Andrews and J.C. Jackson (also some obscure substitute from the University of West Alabama might come to mind). One of Belichick’s most overlooked abilities is to forget who was drafted where and constantly put the best player out on the field. When he sees a guard like Mason dominating at his position, he locks him up. Simple. Yet, these are the moves that build winning teams, even if people do not pay attention to them.
No. 2 Most Overlooked Move of the Patriots’ Season: Patriots Restructure Dwayne Allen’s Contract
Here are Dwayne Allen’s stats for this season: four targets, three receptions, 27 yards. His first catch of the season, in a blowout against the Dolphins, went for -4 yards. To the vast majority of fans, they would say Allen has been a bust this season. To anybody that watched the Patriots run game this season and, in particular, the last four games, they know that is not the case. Dwayne Allen, playing through an injury for a significant portion of the season, has been a stone wall in the running game. His play this season has been vital to the Patriots’ success. Without Allen, there is a little chance the Patriots make it to yet another Super Bowl.
However, most teams, after a season where Allen only caught 10 passes for 86 yards and a lone touchdown, would have cut the tight end. The Patriots are not most teams. Although they did decide they did not want to pay him what he was due for the 2018 season ($4.5 million with a cap hit of $5 million). Therefore, Belichick convinced Allen to take a pay cut to $3.38 million for the season with the same cap hit. All Allen has done this year is fill-in for Gronkowski when he was injured/on the mend and provide Dante Scarnecchia and Belichick with the equivalent of an extra lineman. He did all of this while helping turn back the clock and transform the Patriots into a run-first squad; the perfect recipe for going on the road and winning the AFCCG in a hostile environment.
No. 1 Most Overlooked Move of the Patriots’ Season: Jimmy Neck-Roll Gets Extended
One of the most important players for the upcoming Super Bowl is set to make $800,000 this season and $2.2 million over the next two seasons combined. The play of James Develin could be the most pivotal aspect of the upcoming Super Bowl. Maurice Jones-Drew even penned an article saying as much. That is not hyperbole from Jones-Drew; if James Develin is on the field for more than 30 snaps the Patriots are going to win the game. The Patriots are averaging 183.8 rushing yards over their last four games.
Michel already broke the rookie record for most touchdowns in a postseason with five. James Develin was on the field for three of those. He was on the field for every Patriots rushing TD against the Chiefs. Going off of the Jones-Drew article, the Patriots ran the ball 84.2% of the time that Develin and Michel were on the field together this season. Defenses know the rush is coming and cannot do anything about it. But while Jimmy Neck-Roll (h/t Jerry Thornton) has done his usual fair of road-grading this season, he has also scored four rushing touchdowns (ON FULLBACK DIVES!!!) and collected 12 receptions (and a 13th in the Chiefs game). Belichick sure knows how to make $800,000 go a long way.
The Overlooked Genius of Bill Belichick
The genius of Belichick is not in the moves you remember, but the moves you do not. While everybody was (rightfully) fawning over the ascendence of Mahomes and Jared Goff, Belichick already put the plans in place to revert to a more old school offensive game plan that relied heavily on the run. He took care of the offense in the offseason. Then he went to work during the season to shore up an ailing unit (punt and kick coverage) and solidify a lynchpin position (edge-setting defensive end). Even when it looked like things were going great with Josh Gordon as the No. 1 option at receiver, he refused to move on from somebody like Phillip Dorsett, even though the Houston Texans were reportedly interested in him. Dorsett is this year’s Playoff Amendola, with five catches and two touchdowns in two playoff games after three total touchdowns during the regular season.
When you watch the Super Bowl, the names of McClellan, Simon, and Develin might pop up a few times. What the broadcast will overlook though is how nobody made any mention of the moves at the time. But nothing gets overlooked in the Patriots organization. Belichick is constantly tweaking the team so that all of the smaller parts make a stronger whole. It is that method that has Belichick and Tom Brady ready to appear in their ninth Super Bowl together, with a chance to win their sixth. Those are the type of things that never get overlooked.