Patriots Once Again Looking Up in the AFC

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 31, 2006; 11:36 AM

When the New England Patriots' coach, Bill Belichick, and front-office chief, Scott Pioli, walked alongside the field in Mobile, Ala., together and talked before one of the Senior Bowl practices in late January, it shouldn't have been an unusual sight. That, after all, is what most NFL coaches, scouts and front-office executives do at that time of the year, getting first-hand looks at the players who will be available during the draft in April.

But it was strange to see Belichick and Pioli together during Senior Bowl week because that's the off-week between the conference championship games and Super Bowl week. Belichick usually is still coaching his team then.

The Patriots, after two straight Super Bowl titles and three in four years, are defending champions no more. They lost at Denver in an AFC semifinal and were mere onlookers as the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. The only positive for Belichick and Pioli about their team being knocked from its championship perch is that this year, unlike during most offseasons in recent years, they've had almost as much time as most of the other clubs in the league to prepare for the following season.

The Patriots have had an offseason that has left many of their followers fretting and fuming, with the departures of wildly popular veterans like kicker Adam Vinatieri and linebacker Willie McGinest and other productive players like wide receiver David Givens. The Patriots weren't big spenders in free agency. But they did manage to pick up a few veterans who could make contributions, and they were good enough and lucky enough on draft day to end up with two players who could end up being offensive fixtures one day.

For Belichick, the offseason began with what has become a too-familiar exercise -- replacing his defensive coordinator. A year after Romeo Crennel left that job to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, successor Eric Mangini departed for a head-coaching opportunity with the New York Jets. Belichick promoted linebackers coach Dean Pees to defensive coordinator and, in truth, the Patriots might be better off in the short-term.

Mangini is regarded as a Belichick clone and a rising star in the coaching ranks. But he was a rookie defensive coordinator last season and provided only an ordinary performance; some people around the league said his game plans, especially early in the season, seemed designed mostly to protect the secondary that he'd overseen previously. He wasn't ready to be a head coach and got the job mostly because he's close to the Jets' new general manager, Mike Tannenbaum. Mangini probably would have developed, in time, into a superb defensive coordinator and ready-for-prime-time head-coaching candidate. But it's likely that Pees will do at least as good a job this coming season as Mangini did last season.

Belichick also promoted 29-year-old quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels to offensive coordinator after leaving the job vacant last season following the departure of Charlie Weis.

Belichick and Pioli never have been afraid to make player moves that were unpopular among the fans or even inside their team's locker room. The McGinest and Vinatieri decisions fall into that category. But the Patriots will move on because Belichick will give them no choice but to move on, just as they moved on when players like safety Lawyer Milloy and cornerback Ty Law departed. Crennel signed McGinest in Cleveland after the Patriots released the linebacker, who was to count more than $7 million against the team's salary cap in 2006. Vinatieri signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent after the Patriots declined to use their franchise-player tag to limit his mobility.

To try to find a replacement for Vinatieri, the Patriots signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers standout Martin Gramatica and used a fourth-round draft pick on a kicker, Stephen Gostkowski of Memphis. They didn't get a linebacker in a draft that was full of good ones but signed a couple linebackers released by other teams, Barry Gardner and Jeremy Loyd. Loyd was released a few weeks after being signed, but picking up other clubs' castoffs was a trend all offseason for the Patriots. They signed cornerback Eric Warfield after he was released by the Kansas City Chiefs and brought back safety Tebucky Jones, who formerly had played for them, after he was cut by the Miami Dolphins.

The biggest steps forward were made during the draft. The Patriots used their first-round pick on Minnesota tailback Laurence Maroney. He gives Belichick an alternative to Corey Dillon, who turns 32 in October and is showing signs of wear and tear. The Patriots were fortunate to get Florida wide receiver Chad Jackson in the second round. He could help to compensate for the loss of Givens, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. The Patriots also signed free agent wideout Reche Caldwell.

Much of New England despaired when quarterback Doug Flutie chose to retire rather than spend another season as Tom Brady's backup. But it really makes little difference. If Brady gets hurt, the Patriots aren't going to win much with or without Flutie. The job now goes to youngster Matt Cassel unless Belichick chooses to bring in a veteran.

Belichick now has two of his former defensive coordinators coaching against him in his division, with Mangini with the Jets and Nick Saban with the Dolphins. Saban seems on his way to building a powerhouse, and the Dolphins appear capable of challenging the Patriots seriously for AFC East supremacy this year. Picking against Belichick and Brady hasn't been a wise policy. The Patriots remain a serious contender. But they won't enter the season as the team to beat in the AFC, and it's possible that they won't even end up being the best team in their division if the Dolphins make another big jump in year two under Saban.

Around the League

The Minnesota Vikings hired former Dolphins general manager Rick Spielman as their vice president of player personnel. He replaces Fran Foley, who was hired by the Vikings in January but was fired four weeks ago. . . .

The Houston Texans interviewed Rick Mueller, the New Orleans Saints' director of player personnel, for their general manager job. He is the third candidate interviewed by the club following Broncos assistant GM Rick Smith and Reggie McKenzie, the director of pro personnel for the Green Bay Packers. Charley Casserly resigned as the Texans' general manager after the draft and is scheduled to officially leave Thursday. . . .

Jets quarterback Chad Pennington continued to work his way back from shoulder surgery by participating in throwing drills during Tuesday's practice, according to the team. . . .

The Jets signed veteran cornerback Ray Mickens, who'd been released by the club last summer and spent a season with the Browns, and released quarterback Kliff Kingsbury.

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