Good football teams lose their coaching talent as the seasons go on. It’s a part of life. But the New England Patriots are able to hold things together remarkably well despite winning two of the last three Super Bowls. And even when they do lose their assistants to greener pastures of head coaching jobs elsewhere, the infrastructure with Bill Belichick at the top of the football operation must be trusted until further notice.
Before the Super Bowl was even played and regardless of the big game’s outcome Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was going to be the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and even though the hire was not officially announced, everybody knew it. Kyle is Mike Shanahan’s son, he is 39 years old, and he has been one of the rising coaching stars on the offensive side of the ball. In his various stops, he has gotten quarterbacks of varying talent levels to realize their potential. Working under his dad in Washington, Robert Griffin III was the rookie of the year ahead of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, in Cleveland, former Tom Brady backup Brian Hoyer looked like a competent NFL starter before getting hurt, and in Atlanta, Pro Bowl QB Matt Ryan won the MVP and did not trail in the Super Bowl until the moment the game ended. Given his reputation, it is fair to assume that San Francisco’s next starting QB whether they stick with Colin Kaepernick, or they trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, or they make a less exciting stopgap signing like Matt Schaub or Brian Hoyer, or start from scratch with a kid from the draft, that QB will enjoy an uptick in production from this past year.
Regardless of the second guessing of Shanahan’s overly aggressive play calling in the second half that gave the Patriots enough clock to work with to make their historic comeback, there is a lot of hope surrounding the downtrodden 49ers and also a lot of uncertainty for the Falcons because of Shanahan. Before Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons were a good offense and Matt Ryan was a good quarterback, but with him they were a great offense with an MVP quarterback. When the Patriots experienced a period of significant turnover after their Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Philadelphia Eagles, when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis took the head coaching job at Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left New England to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Belichick promoted from within, making Eric Mangini the defensive coordinator and assuming the offensive coordinator duties himself, even though he is best known as a defensive mastermind, before eventually handing over the keys to Brady’s offense to Josh McDaniels when McDaniels was ready for the responsibility. Years later, when Dean Pees left the Patriots, Belichick assumed defensive coordinator duties until he felt Matt Patricia was ready for it.
Most coaches are not Bill Belichick, however, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, a defensive coach, did not go this way. Instead the Falcons hired former Washington and USC head coach Steve Sarkisian to run their offense in 2017. Sarkisian was most recently the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama for one game, replacing Lane Kiffin for the National Championship Game against Clemson, which Alabama lost. Sark may not be the best college head coach ever, but he does have a good reputation as an offensive play caller. The problem for Atlanta is that they are bringing in a new voice with a new philosophy when they thing they were doing was working perfectly fine. It is hard to come back from losing the Super Bowl. Most teams struggle in the following year, and the 2016 Carolina Panthers are a perfect example, and changing more than you have to certainly cannot help.
The Patriots could have just as easily been the team that lost the Super Bowl instead of the Falcons, and the last two years both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have gotten head coaching interviews. McDaniels, in fact, was in direct competition with Shanahan for the Niners job. McDaniels, who first joined the Patriots as a personnel assistant in 2001, left to become head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2009, got fired, worked for the St. Louis Rams for a season before getting his old job back in New England when offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien left to take the head coaching job at Penn State in 2012, has been careful in his pursuit for his second head coaching job to say the least. Many coaches get a second chance if they fail as a head coach once, but if you fail twice, the odds of a third head coaching job are very slim.
Two years ago, Chip Kelly was still believed to be a football genius, but a bad third season in Philadelphia followed by the awful football situation he inherited in San Francisco leaves his future as an NFL head coach very much in doubt. McDaniels wants both a good quarterback situation and a good ownership situation, as those are the two factors the best determine head coaching success. If the Colts job opened up, Andrew Luck is a very good quarterback, but Jim Irsay is not a great owner to work for. Bill Belichick even failed on the first try in Cleveland, and when he was given a second chance with the New York Jets, he famously resigned as “HC of the NYJ” after a day when the more appealing offer came from the New England Patriots. McDaniels has the luxury of waiting, as he is still only 40, and being Tom Brady’s offensive coordinator and working for Bill Belichick is by no means a bad gig.
The Patriots did lose a key member of the coaching staff, as tight ends coach Brian Daboll was hired by Nick Saban to replace Sarkisian as offensive coordinator at Alabama, of all things. Daboll, like McDaniels, left New England before, but they were the only two prominent assistants to come back for a second stint, unlike Weis, Crennel, Pees, O’Brien, or Rob Ryan. With McDaniels staying put in New England, Bama was Daboll’s best opportunity to be an offensive coordinator again, and it’s a winning program. The more head coaching jobs McDaniels turns down, the more likely it seems that he sees himself as Belichick’s eventual successor as HC of NE.
When McDaniels first came back to the Patriots, I wanted nothing to do with him as a candidate to be the Pats’ next head coach. His terrible two seasons in Denver that included the (even then) head-scratching decision to draft Tim Tebow in the 1st round was still fresh in my memory, and I thought he was just another Belichick assistant who was doomed to be a bad head coach. But as the years go by, and it becomes more and more apparent that the operation Bill Belichick has built is superior to every other in the game of football (I mean, seriously, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a model of consistency and continuity and have had the same number of head coaches since Watergate as the 49ers had in Barack Obama’s second term, and even they are nothing more than the Generals to New England’s Globetrotters, going 0-3 in AFC Championship Games against Belichick and Brady with none of those games being particularly competitive.), and the list of coaches I would rather have than Josh McDaniels to come in and try to tinker with it dwindles every year. At this point, I would have to think about Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, and that’s about it. I would rather have McDaniels than just about anyone else.
For now, the Patriots are going about their business, doing their jobs, but Brady will be 40 next season, and Belichick is probably closer to his last game as a head coach than his first, so as effective Belichick and Brady still are, a little continuity on the coaching staff certainly goes a long way.
Andrew Luck has a great career ahead of him. He and Cam Newton became two of my favorite young players in football this season, and Luck showed us a lot with that big time comeback against Kansas City last week. He and his head coach, Chuck Pagano, will do great things together in the NFL before it’s all said and done, but not today. Not this year. On a day where two dome teams went on the road to play in the January rain, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were the ones to come out on top. I remember in the baseball playoffs in 1999, when Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox was set to start against Roger Clemens of the Yankees, that the match up was dubbed “Cy Young vs. Cy Old” and this game between Luck and Brady could have been promoted much the same way, except this time the old man prevailed over the young man.
It’s rare to see the Patriots run more often than they pass. It’s even rarer to see them score 43 points without Brady throwing a touchdown pass, but the 2013-14 Pats are nothing if not versatile. They had to be. Brady’s favorite targets of the last few years are out of the picture for one reason or another, and they had to get creative. Julian Edelman shouldered the load once carried by Wes Welker. The backfield of Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, and LeGarrette Blount replaced the production the Patriots were used to getting from the tight end position. Blount was the hero of the night, rushing for 166 yards and scoring four touchdowns for the home team. The undrafted former Oregon Duck, who was close to getting cut in training camp, has proven his value to the team this year more than Tim Tebow ever could.
The Patriots defense was impressive in this game as well. Alfonzo Dennard intercepted Luck twice: once at the beginning of the game, and once at the end. Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower also had interceptions in the game. They didn’t make things easy for Luck. There always seemed to be a lot of pressure on the pocket, and while Luck did make some incredible throws, by the 4th quarter, the Colts really started to come apart. It was a good old fashioned kind of win. This is what Patriots football was when they Patriots were winning Super Bowls: tough and physical on both sides of the ball.
I realized this week that the rivalry with the Colts does not have the same venom it used to have. Peyton Manning is gone. Bill Polian is gone. Tony Dungy is gone. Jim Caldwell is gone. Dwight Freeney is gone. The old Colts were two finesse and too whiny for my liking. They were all flash and no substance. Jim Irsay is still the owner, and I’m still not a huge fan of his, but I could say that about the Red Sox’ and Bruins’ owners, as well and I love those teams. It’s really hard to hate this Colts team. They were everything the Patriots were not back then. Chuck Pagano is a great coach and a great human interest story. Andrew Luck is hard to hate, as are Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis. If they were playing the Broncos or any of the NFC teams this weekend, I would probably have rooted for them. This team is only going to get better. Andrew Luck had flashes of brilliance today, but there’s a learning curve for becoming a star quarterback. A Stanford education is only a starting point. Most QBs don’t shock the world by winning the Super Bowl in their second year the way Tom Brady did.
43-22 may seem like a lopsided game, but it was closer than that for most of the game. It seemed like whenever the Pats scored, Luck and the Colts would come right back with a few quick strikes down the field. If he stops turning the ball over, he will be tough to stop. When Reggie Wayne comes back healthy next year, he’ll have another good proven option to rely on. If he ever gets a better running game to work with than Donald Brown and Trent Richardson, then he’ll really be in business.
The season ends for the Indianapolis Colts and an illustrious broadcasting career ends for Dan Dierdorf. This was Dierdorf’s last game as a color commentator for CBS. He was always one of my favorite ex-athlete broadcasters, and before that, he put together a Hall of Fame career as an offensive lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals. Thanks for all the memories, Dan!
Tom Brady and the Patriots are back in the AFC Championship Game for the eight time since Brady took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe. As fans, we shouldn’t take for granted the consistent level of success this team has accomplished, because it might never happen again. The game will either be in Foxboro against the San Diego Chargers or in Denver against the Broncos, depending on the result of tomorrow’s game.