Bill Belichick remains the darling of the NFL media and executive community. Hardly a surprise, but thinking the New England Patriots‘ honcho should be named Coach and Executive of the Year is risible. In fact, it’s borderline insulting. Any serious pundit, writer or executive who votes for Belichick above Brian Flores as the year’s best coach is committing dereliction of duty.
Recently, Belichick was voted best head coach and front-office man of the 2021 season. At least he was in a poll of “high-ranking executives from 23 NFL teams” conducted by NFL.com reporter Tom Pelissero and NFL Media Researcher Matt Okada:
‘He’s just kind of reinvented himself,’ said an AFC executive. ‘Not the scheme, but whole new free agency (approach), spent all the money, got a rookie quarterback, bunch of new pieces and it’s all kind of come together. Took a year off, and now they’re back. It’s amazing what he’s doing.’
Pelissero also revealed: “The Ravens’ John Harbaugh, Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury, Packers’ Matt LaFleur and Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn received two votes each. The Rams’ Sean McVay, Chargers’ Brandon Staley, Bengals’ Zac Taylor and Titans’ Mike Vrabel each received one.”
It was the Dolphins’ seventh win in a row after a 1-7 start. The symmetry of seven losses followed by as many victories is unprecedented in league history:
A 7-game losing streak followed by a 7-game winning streak. Helluva thing, isn't it? I mean, the #NFL is 102 years old now, and the #Dolphins are the first team to do it in the same season. (Paul Brown's 1970 Bengals lost 6 in a row, then won their last 7 to make the playoffs.)
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) December 28, 2021
Surely Flores is due some recognition for this turnaround? Well, not it seems, as long as Belichick is still around. The truth is Flores deserves the greater credit for doing more with less.
Meanwhile, Belichick has only done the minimum for a coach with a Hall-of-Fame resume who spent big in free agency to revamp his roster.
Belichick’s achievements in 2021 are inflated
Belichick is getting a too-hearty pat on the back for basically doing a Dan Snyder. Remember all those years Washington’s controversial owner tried to buy success with one big splash after another in free agency?
That’s just what Belichick did after the Pats finished 7-9 in 2020, his first year without Tom Brady. The response was swift and expensive. In came tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. They were joined by wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
It was nothing compared to the turnover on defense, where Belichick added edge-rusher Matt Judon, nose tackle Davon Godchaux and versatile defensive back Jalen Mills. If I missed somebody, you’ll have to excuse me. There were too many incomings to keep track.
The signings even continued during the season. Belichick brought linebackers Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy back to New England. He’s trying to win now. That’s understandable for a 69-year-old in a rush to win one more Lombardi Trophy.
Belichick shouldn’t be applauded for making moves to win now then doing exactly that. His Patriots have won nine games, two more than all of last season, but wasn’t that the point of buying a team with one splurge?
Here’s the dirty secret not many people will admit about free-agency spending. Teams only spend big after the drafting has stunk. Belichick’s dismal track record trying to find wide receivers from the collegiate ranks likely motivated a different approach:
Patriots wide receivers drafted since 2010:
*Taylor Price – 2010
*Jeremy Ebert – 2012
*Aaron Dobson – 2013
*Josh Boyce – 2013
*Jeremy Gallon -2014
*Malcolm Mitchell – 2016
*Devin Lucien – 2016
Braxton Berrios – 2018
N'Keal Harry -2019
*Out of the NFL pic.twitter.com/iFRybTk7Bh
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) December 11, 2020
Things are hardly better since Bourne and Agholor came on board. Neither has hit the heights. Instead, holdover Jakobi Meyers is still the team’s leading receiver.
Other big-ticket signings have also faltered. The most notable flop is Smith, who signed on a four-year deal worth $50 million.
His production has been so modest (27 catches, one touchdown), coaches like offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is falling on his sword in public, per Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal:
On Jonnu Smith's 0 targets on Sun:
Josh McDaniels: Sometimes when the game gets out of hand, you don't get to call everything in the game the way you'd like to call it… He's a player that can do some things with the ball in his hands… I have to do better to get him the ball
— Mark Daniels (@MarkDanielsPJ) December 28, 2021
Getting the biggest signings wrong shouldn’t qualify a coach for end-of-season plaudits. Nor should an inability to beat true contenders.
Belichick’s new-look Patriots have lost at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys this season. They are arguably the class of the NFC, but surely the Coach of the Year and his cadre of high-priced recruits can beat the best?
Apparently not, and it’s a similar story in the AFC, where the Pats are on a two-game losing streak. Playoff contenders the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills have thumped Belichick’s team in back-to-back weeks.
Losing 33-21 at home to the Bills in Week 16 put a fresh perspective on the one win that has pundits drooling over Belichick this season.
Flores finding more creative ways to win
Belichick was lauded to the hills when the Patriots won in Buffalo while only throwing three passes. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones handed the ball off 41 times during a 14-10 victory, including a remarkable streak of 32-straight runs.
The Patriots defeated the Bills with 3 pass attempts; the fewest by any team since the Bills in Week 3 of 1974 vs the Jets (2) pic.twitter.com/hp0DTuOMw1
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 7, 2021
Here’s the thing. What the Patriots did was impressive, but hardly remarkable. Belichick simply adjusted to inclement weather and a team already soft against the run. Two weeks before losing to the Patriots, the Bills allowed Jonathan Taylor and the Colts to amass 264 yards on the ground and win 41-15 in Buffalo. Isn’t anybody going to name Frank Reich Coach of the Year?
The limitations of New England’s small-ball offense have shown up in recent weeks. By contrast, Flores and the Dolphins are finding more ways to win with less talent.
Those ways include scheming pressure and turnovers from a defense shorn of star names. There’s no Judon, J.C. Jackson, Devin McCourty nor Dont’a Hightower on this unit. Yet, Miami’s defense is still impacting games in a variety of ways.
— NFL (@NFL) December 28, 2021
Six and seven-man pressure looks in front of man coverage were common from the Dolphins last season. Flores has wisely tweaked the formula somewhat this year. Sometimes he sends the house, others he rushes only three and drops eight into zone.
Miami logged eight sacks against the Saints, but the manner most of the takedowns were achieved showed the flexibility of this scheme:
The #Dolphins had six sacks with four-or-fewer pass rushers in their 20-3 victory over the Saints, the most sacks on non-blitzes in a game this season.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 28, 2021
Smart coaches know the importance of adapting the playbook to avoid becoming stale. The irony here is that Flores and his defensive coordinator, Josh Boyer, probably learned this from Belichick.
Flores was Pats’ DC in 2018, engineering the destruction of Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. Belichick got the credit, but his pupil may may have been the true architect, based on what he’s doing with the Dolphins’ ferociously entertaining unit.
There’s been just as much creativity on offense, where Flores also lacks elite playmakers. Like any good coach, he’s still manufactured big gains and points.
The Dolphins ran a little bit of everything against a Saints’ defense that had shutout Brady and the Bucs the week before. Miami’s crackerjack set included the Wildcat, a flea-flicker and multiple jet sweeps, including one rookie Jaylen Waddle scored on in the third quarter:
— NFL (@NFL) December 28, 2021
Flore is making selective use of each player’s strengths. He’s letting play-caller George Godsey move Waddle, an undersized, 5’10”, 182-pound wideout, hide in the backfield.
The Dolphins are also shuttling in backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett to run the QB sneak in clutch short-yardage situations. They’re even putting defensive tackle Christian Wilkins into the lineup as a jumbo blocking back.
Using so many players in different ways has helped Tua Tagovailoa go from trade bait to a highly efficient starter with a 94 rating. It’s miracle-worthy stuff when Tua isn’t surrounded by an awesome supporting cast. He’s handing off to Duke Johnson and Philip Lindsay, two guys cut from losing teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, respectively, during the season.
Like his quarterback, Flores was dead and buried during that 1-7 start. Now he’s performing the best coaching job in the league. If he takes this lot to the playoffs, there can’t be any other choice for AP Coach of the Year.