With the ignominious release last week of Albert Haynesworth, the tacit and telling admission by New England officials of the botched experiment aimed at converting the supremely talented defensive tackle into a player who was motivated by more than the size of his paycheck, it had become fashionable in the past few days to question the genius of Bill Belichick as a personnel guru.
Yeah, to quietly wonder if the Patriots' head coach had slipped a bit in his ability to analyze veteran players, and to transform factory seconds into serviceable parts.
And then just like that, with the Pats' crushing triumph over the New York Jets Sunday night, the skeptics were forced into retreat.
In walloping the bombastic Jets, the New England defense started five players who had been released by other teams. Not to mention an undrafted rookie, linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, making his first NFL start. A guy who had been released seven times by the Pats logged critical downs at safety. One of the safety starters was a former Jets special teams ace, who had never started a game before this season.
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Playing without two starters in a secondary that isn't particularly good even when it is at full strength, the Pats finished the contest with a wide receiver playing nickel cornerback, and actually coming up to stop New York tailback LaDainian Tomlinson with a form tackle.
"With [Belichick], you just prepare, get ready to play that week's game and make sure you're ready if your name is called," noted Ross Ventrone, the journeyman safety who previously had been a part of 17 personnel transactions by the Pats, late Sunday night. "You really buy into the stuff that Bill says about everyone being a part [of the team]."
If the Sunday night win proved anything beyond the resilience of New England and it's coach, it might have been this: Even though the Pats clearly have some glaring deficiencies, never doubt Belichick and his resourcefulness. On Sunday night, with the AFC East lead on the line, Belichick was a gridiron McGyver, complete with receiver Julian Edelman, a college quarterback the Patriots shifted to wideout, lining up as a nickel cornerback.
Somehow, with little more than spare parts and rejects, he made it work on defense.
In the wake of the victory, Belichick did what he typically does following a win, passing credit to his players and their ability to adapt. Worthy and deserving praise, indeed. But perhaps overshadowed in the usual Belichick postgame coach-speak was the job that Belichick has done in adopting players no one else wanted, and getting them to play the Patriots Way.
For sure, there have been some whiffs, like Haynesworth. Until Sunday night, it was tough to recall the last meaningful play Chad Ochocinco made. Still, on offense, the Pats had guys like right guard Brian Waters, slot receiver Wes Welker, and tailback Danny Woodhead making plays. And on defense, well, if it wasn't the finest hour for Belichick and his staff, it was close.
"You come here and you feel that [Belichick is] going to give you a chance to prove that you're a player," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich, released by two other teams [including twice by New Orleans] before joining the Pats in 2009, and author of two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, on Sunday night.
Nowhere was that more evident than on the defensive line, where exactly half of the eight players employed by New England versus the Jets came from other franchises.
End Andre Carter established a New England single-game franchise mark with 4.5 sacks, and now has nine for the season. A solid 4-3 end with upfield skills, Carter was miscast in the Washington 3-4 scheme that Jim Haslett implemented in 2010, and released by the Redskins. But he was an excellent fit when Belichick decided in the offseason to convert from his longtime 3-4 front to a 4-3 look. So was Mark Anderson, who had 12 sacks as a situational rusher in Chicago as a rookie in 2006, and then only 13.5 sacks the ensuing four years.
Anderson's five sacks are second on the team behind Carter's nine. On other New England defender has more than 1.5
Since Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, Carter is the first defensive lineman to have more than eight sacks in a season. Sure, in the 3-4, which Belichick used until this season, the outside linebackers, not the ends, are supposed to rush the quarterback. So the defensive line sacks totals were typically modest -- in three of the past four seasons, no Patriots' lineman had more than 6.5 sacks -- and the scheme pretty much dictated that.
Still, when Belichick installed the 4-3 in the summer, he made sure he had players who fit into the front, no matter their pedigree or point of origin in the league. The Pats have one home-grown first-rounder, Vince Wilfork, in their line contingent. Besides the four imports, the group of eight used on Sunday night included a No. 7 pick and an undrafted free agent.
Said Carter after his record performance: "He just wants guys who play right."
One of the stock pronouncements that Belichick espouses after every game, win or lose, is that it's time to "turn the page." To be sure, the NFL is by nature a league given to selective amnesia, and where moments like the Sunday night victory are meant to be short-lived.
Given the circumstances, though, Sunday might have been a chapter to be savored.