NEW YORK -- Spygate be damned! Bill Belichick of the unbeaten New England Patriots is The Associated Press 2007 NFL Coach of the Year.
With the Patriots motivated by a spying scandal - and owning the deepest talent base in football - Belichick guided his team to the first 16-0 regular season in league history.
That was enough to offset the major blemish on Belichick's resume: a $500,000 personal fine, $250,000 fine for the team and the loss of a first-round pick in the upcoming draft after the Patriots were caught videotaping New York Jets coaches during the season opener.
Spygate didn't stop 29 of the 50 voters on a nationwide panel of media members who cover the NFL from voting for Belichick on Thursday. In a season highlighted by many strong coaching performances, Belichick beat out Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, who received 15 votes for leading the Packers to a 13-3 record and the NFC North title.
"This is definitely a team recognition, but one that I appreciate very much on a personal level," Belichick said in a statement issued by the club.
He also won the award in 2003.
"If anyone is deserving of such an award it really is Bill," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "I know the energy and effort and planning and time (he puts in). He's had his foot on the pedal all year, just working so hard and always doing everything he can to put the team in a position to win first."
Does Kraft believe this award will silence the critics?
"What I've tried to say is the only way that'll go away is if we just keep on winning, and winning convincingly, and I think he did it," Kraft said. "He did it and I think the fact that he got this award speaks to that."
The first coach since Don Shula in 1972 to lead his team through a spotless regular season, Belichick won the award for the second time in four years. In 2003, the Patriots went 14-2 and won their final 12 games. This time, Belichick's team rampaged through the first part of the schedule, then won a handful of close games on the way to 16-0.
"You know, I think back to sitting in the stands," Kraft said of his days as a fan before he owned the team, "when we went 1-15 and 2-14. And, you know, I saw the '72 Dolphins, and to see this team perform the way it did this year, and in the end, he is the conductor. And he's got some great players, but he's the conductor and I just think the job he did was superb."
While the perfect journey this season seemed somewhat joyless as the Patriots followed the lead of their detached coach, there was no denying Belichick's ability to motivate. His players used Spygate as a rallying point, cultivating an us-against-them mentality that clearly worked.
Belichick is involved in all personnel decisions, meaning the additions of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth to the receiving corps had his touch.
Plus, Belichick is a master at game-planning. Add that skill to the deepest offense in the league (a record 589 points, including an NFL mark of 75 TDs) and a stingy defense that yielded 274 points, fifth in the league, and there's, well, perfection.
"There are three things that get better with age: good cigars, red wine and to me it looks like coaches who have the ability," Kraft said. "He's really hit his sweet spot and I'm really happy for him personally."
Also getting votes were Dallas coach Wade Phillips and Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio (two each), and Indianapolis' Tony Dungy and Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden (one each).
The only other Patriots coach to win the award was Belichick's mentor, Bill Parcells, in 1994.
Since joining the Patriots in 2000 after an unsuccessful head coaching stint in Cleveland (36-44), Belichick has turned New England into the center of the NFL universe. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls this decade - no other team has more than one - and are 91-37 in the regular season under Belichick. They have won the AFC East five straight years, with no fewer than 10 victories in any of those seasons.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press