Revered in New England for thumbing his nose at the New York Jets, Bill Belichick accepted the Patriots' head-coaching position last season amid considerable fanfare.
The former Jets defensive coordinator, who turned down an opportunity to succeed Bill Parcells in New York, cost the Patriots a 2000 first-round choice as compensation. But it seemed a small price to pay for the services of a coach who is renowned in league circles as a defensive mastermind.
Unfortunately for New England, the buzz generated by Belichick's arrival wasn't enough to sustain a team that posted its poorest record (5-11) since 1993.
Though competitive-9 of their 11 losses were by eight points or less-the Patriots could not overcome a punchless offense and big play-starved defense. To that end, Belichick used the offseason to make alterations on both sides of the ball.
The centerpiece, however, remains the same.
After signing a 10-year, $103 million extension, Drew Bledsoe is entrenched at quarterback. Bledsoe passed for 3,291 yards with 17 touchdowns in 2000, but he was also sacked 45 times. That, and an anemic ground attack, prompted major reshuffling along the offensive line.
Competition at the guard and tackle spots is wide open, with only center Damien Woody likely to reprise his first-team role. Emphasizing youth, the Patriots parted ways with veteran linemen Max Lane and Bruce Armstrong. Look for rookie tackles Matt Light, who protected Drew Brees's blind side at Purdue, and Kenyatta Jones (South Florida) to battle second-year tackles Adrian Klemm and Greg Robinson-Randall for playing time. At guard, the Patriots turned to free agency, signing Joe Panos (Buffalo) and Mike Compton (Detroit).
Whether the new-look line can spark a productive ground game remains to be seen. With Kevin Faulk and J.R. Redmond carrying the load, the Patriots averaged 86.9 rushing yards per game (twenty-sixth in the NFL) and 3.3 yards per attempt (twenty-eighth). Coming off a pair of disappointing years at Buffalo, tailback Antowain Smith would seem an unlikely savior. But Belichick believes the 6-foot 2-inch, 228-pounder can regain the form that produced a 1,124-yard season in 1998 with the Bills.
At receiver, not one but two Eagles landed at New England. In need of playmakers for an attack that produced only 27 combined rushing and passing touchdowns, the Patriots nabbed Philadelphia's starting wideout duo of Charles Johnson and Torrance Small. The pair combined for 96 receptions, 1,211 yards, and 10 touchdowns last season and should keep defenses from bearing down on Terry Glenn and Troy Brown-neither of whom averaged more than 12.2 yards per catch in 2000.
Defensively, Belichick called on a familiar face to assume the coordinator duties. Romeo Crennel, most recently the coordinator at Cleveland, has worked with Belichick in 14 of his previous 20 NFL seasons. Inheriting a unit that managed only 29 sacks (twenty-fifth in the league) and 10 interceptions (tied for twenty-eighth), Crennel faces his share of challenges.
For openers, a defensive line missing tackle Chad Eaton (now in Seattle) and Henry Thomas (released) must be retooled. Building from the inside out, the Patriots drafted Georgia tackle Richard Seymour with the sixth overall pick. The 6-foot 6-inch, 300-pound Seymour is considered a tireless workaholic and should move into a starting role. The Patriots also signed veteran pass-rushing specialist Anthony Pleasant to give Willie McGinest help at defensive end. McGinest, beset by injuries for the past four years, underwent a minor back procedure this spring and may not be ready for the start of training camp.
The addition of Terrance Shaw and rookies Brock Williams (Notre Dame) and Leonard Myers (Miami) will spice up competition at the cornerback spot opposite Ty Law. The Patriots ranked twenty-eighth in third-down defense and desperately need another strong presence at defensive back.
Shaw was one of four Miami Dolphins acquired by New England, along with wideout Bert Emanuel, backup quarterback Damon Huard, and linebacker Larry Izzo, who earned a Pro Bowl nod for his special teams work. With the release of veteran Chris Slade, offseason addition Mike Vrabel could earn starting time at outside linebacker.
2000 Record: 5-11
Coach: Bill Belichick 42-56 (7th NFL season, 2nd with Patriots)
2000 NFL Rankings
Offense: 22 (26 rush, 19 pass)
Defense: 20 (21 rush, 21 pass)