Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Staff development helped carry Pats
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Given everything the Patriots endured en route to the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, some believe Bill Belichick should be considered for NFL coach of the year honors. Meanwhile, with the Cleveland Browns having canned its head coach on Sunday, buzz now abounds that Josh McDaniels — the Patriots' offensive coordinator and an Ohio native — could be the leading candidate to fill the Browns' sideline vacancy.
And each is deserving of such attention. This may indeed be the best job Belichick had done over his 14 seasons in New England, and since returning prior to the 2011 playoffs McDaniels has proven he deserves to be a head coach again at some point. The Patriots' 12-4 record and football's third-highest scoring offense are a credit to both.
But this season, perhaps as much as any during Belichick's tenure here, the team's success seems to be a testament not only to those who carry the highest profiles but to the entire coaching staff, considering that the challenges the Patriots have faced at every position outside of quarterback, and the work that's been done to coax the most from a roster that's been in flux and inexperienced for most of the year.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich shared some of that love with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia after Sunday's win over the Bills, saying "he does a great job of giving us all the details, all the little things that really you have to have in this game," and that "Matt has done a great job this year."
But as well as Patricia has done in essentially converting on the fly from a 3-4 front to 4-3 after losing the two most accomplished players in the Pats' front seven, and despite leaning heavily on five rookies by the end of the year, as in McDaniels' case, the kudos should go beyond the coordinators.
They should go to the position coaches, as well, like defensive line coach Patrick Graham. His unit lost Vince Wilfork after just four games, then Tommy Kelly after five, but he found a way to get serviceable work from Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga — two unwanted rookies and a thrice-cut practice squad player — while helping Ninkovich put together his most consistent season and Chandler Jones jump up to 11.5 sacks in his second season.
Linebackers coach Pepper Johnson lost his All-Pro, Jerod Mayo, but has developed top draft pick Jamie Collins into a starting player who will be a factor in the postseason, and has aided Dont'a Hightower as he's taken on more responsibility in his sophomore season and played at a level at which Belichick has generally been pleased.
Cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer has eased that position through injuries to Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington, while getting rookie Logan Ryan up to speed quickly enough that he finished with a team-high five interceptions.
Safeties coach Brian Flores has played without both Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty, but since McCourty was concussed midway through the Baltimore game, rookie Duron Harmon has played capably in his spot.
Special teams coach Scott O'Brien can almost take claim for giving the Patriots a first-round bye, since without his unit's perfectly executed onside kick New England doesn't beat Cleveland in Week 14 — and that says nothing of the work he's done with a near-flawless field goal unit, the seamless transition for rookie punter Ryan Allen, the NFL's sixth-best kickoff coverage group, or the league's eighth-best punt coverage crew.
Offensively, McDaniels has worked with assistant Brian Daboll — an ex-offensive coordinator himself who would presumably takeover that role with the Patriots if McDaniels were to leave — as well as Dante Scarnecchia, the assistant head coach who also coaches the offensive line. He lost All-Pro Sebastian Vollmer after eight weeks, then Josh Kline was pressed into service the past two weeks when Nate Solder and Logan Mankins each went down, yet the running game still averaged 4.39 yards per carry this season, the team's second-best rate in the past 30 years.
Running backs coach Ivan Fears can take credit for that, too, as he worked Stevan Ridley through his fumbling issues to still average 4.3 yards per haul, got LeGarrette Blount to lower his pad level enough that he finished just one yard behind Ridley (773-772) for the team rushing lead, developed Shane Vereen into a multipurpose threat in the mold of Kevin Faulk, and even had Brandon Bolden (4.9 yards per carry) and fullback James Develin (four carries, four first downs) ready to play their role when called upon.
Tight ends coach George Godsey had Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski when he took the job in 2012. That's a lot different than having just six games of The Gronk this season, while Hernandez sits in jail, though Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan each deserve some plaudits for the production of the run game, and each had a touchdown catch, too.
Then there's the job done by receivers coach Chad O'Shea. In his position, he was asked to make Julian Edelman a viable replacement for Wes Welker while incorporating a trio of rookie receivers, and the job became all the more difficult when the most proven of the unit, Danny Amendola, suffered groin and head injuries early. It wasn't always smooth, but in the end Brady threw for 4,343 yards, completed better than 60 percent of his passes, tossed 25 touchdowns, and only the Broncos scored more points than the Patriots among AFC teams.
Obviously the quarterback himself is a big part of that. As is the offensive coordinator who implements the system and strategy based on that personnel. As is the head coach who pulls it all together. But while Brady may get the accolades, McDaniels may get the interviews, and Belichick may get the awards, they shouldn't get all the credit and attention for what surprisingly became of a mine-filled season. Or for whatever unlikely triumphs still await.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.