Since taking over as head coach of the Patriots, Bill Belichickhas only had three seasons (including this past one) finish before New Year's.
Which makes this off-season a rare one indeed for Belichick. And while he would undoubtedly prefer to be in the playoffs right now, Belichick is taking advantage of the extra time off.
He certainly could use it. The past few seasons have seemed, in many ways, like one long season.
After losing the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis, Belichick and his staff had to spend the next few weeks working as the coaches in the Pro Bowl. Then with last year's Super Bowl appearance, the season didn't conclude until early February. That left very little time for an off-season, given that free agency and draft preparation must get underway so soon thereafter.
"That's always the way you want to finish the season. You want to be playing into February," Belichick observed in his end-of-season press conference last week, "but, at the same time, the last two off-seasons that we've had were as condensed as they could be relative to most of the other teams in the league.
"Unfortunately, we are not playing this week. But it will give us a little bit more time to maybe do more of a thorough analysis and breakdown of everything than what we have in the past. I think one thing that we all need and deserve around here is a little bit of rest. Our guys around here work hard. They put in a lot of hours. They are very dedicated. I think that they could use a little break and I think you can include me in that group.
"We're going to take a little time to relax, kind of recharge and get refreshed a little bit, deal with some things that come along, take them as they come and we'll go through our off-season process. That's what it is, a process."
For some, that process might get started later rather than sooner. Kicker Stephen Gostkowskiand wide receiver Wes Welker, for instance, will both be playing in next month's Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Whether they choose to train at home or here at Gillette, their training regimen, according to Belichick, will be up to each player individually.
The schedule for the rest of the squad varies on a player-by-player basis as well.
"The players are in a lot of different situations," Belichick continued. "Some guys are rehabbing injuries. Other guys are going to have maybe things they were playing with during the year looked at and decide what to do about those. Some guys live in this area – maybe that didn't play very much – that will start their off-season [or] that have really already started it [and] they're already getting ready for next year.
"For the guys that live further away, they haven't been home for six months, so, I think each guy falls into one of those categories somewhere in some mix. It's a mixture. I don't think there is any set formula for anybody."
Once the Patriots get a little rest, relaxation, and possibly some rehab to any lingering injuries, it'll be back to work on the 2009 season, starting with a look back at '08.
"We will start our off-season process with all the evaluations that we do of our team, our scheme, the way we practice, our game plan – everything," explained Belichick.
"The first thing we'll do is look at 2008, while it's fresh in our mind, and then project that into 2009, going forward. If a play was good in 2008, that's great. How can we make it better in 2009? If a play wasn't so good in 2008, is that a play we want to continue to work on? Is it worth the time that we've invested in it? Or should we get rid of it and do something else? Or, here's what we need to do to improve it.
"With personnel, with players, with scheme, with game plans, with all those things, we try to look at every area of our operation and see how productive it was, how it can be improved, and, if it was deficient, what we can do to upgrade it, or maybe even eliminate it. Sometimes that's a better thing to do; just invest your time and energy in something that's more productive.
"We will look at everything and try to find ways to improve it, analyze it, and do the best we can to identify what exactly our situation is, what we can do to make it better, and then start taking some steps and decisions on how we want to address it."
With reports swirling about the futures of offensive coordinator Josh McDanielsand player personnel VP Scott Pioli, who are interviewing for positions with other NFL teams, Belichick acknowledged that New England's evaluation process will move forward regardless of whether there are personnel changes on his staff.
"That's something that we've had in previous years. Whatever all the things that come up are – if and when they come up – then we will take them as they come. In the meantime, we will integrate that with our process of doing what we need to do to evaluate and improve our football team going into the 2009 season."
Certainly, one of the top items on the agenda will be what to do at the quarterback position, as uncertainty surrounds both incumbent Tom Brady(recovering from knee surgery) and his backup-turned-starter **Matt Cassel *(who won 11 games in that role). Conflicting media reports of late indicated that Brady was either behind or ahead of schedule with his rehab, while other reports claim the Patriots are poised to apply their franchise tag to Cassel.
Belichick would not give specifics on either situation.
"Those things will all come in time," he said.
And for once in a long while, time is something the Pats have in abundance.