A postgame buffetwas under way near the victorious Patriots' locker room on Sunday when FredTaylor, forehead bruised, right elbow scraped raw, slipped through a blackcurtain, down a breezeway and into New England's autumn mist. Seven months agoTaylor was cast adrift by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the one professionalfranchise he'd ever known, only to be rescued by Bill Belichick, tossed intohis stable of running backs and asked to learn the Patriot Way. ¬∂ "I'venever been one of those guys who was hard to coach," said the 33-year-oldTaylor, who spent 11 years with Jacksonville and entered this season 16th onthe alltime rushing list, with 11,271 yards. "I just try to listen, ask alot of questions and fall in line. I think I'm finally getting comfortable inmy role."
This is an article from the Oct. 5, 2009 issue
On Sunday, Taylorwas at the center of a 26--10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons that hadBelichick's fingerprints all over it. Coming off a disheartening loss to theNew York Jets that saw Tom Brady hurried and harassed, Belichick swapped out aquick-hitting passing attack in favor of a punishing downhill ground game. Theresult was a near-perfect balance: 42 throws and 39 runs (compared with 47 and20, respectively, the previous week), 105 rushing yards for Taylor and thesteadying of a team that had shown signs of buckling.
"Last week wewere in shotgun no-huddle, this week we were in a lot of two tight [end] anddifferent formations," said Patriots left guard Logan Mankins. "We'reused to [switching]. All the guys here can do multiple things. We're not justbig, fat guys that are good at one thing."
New England isn'tthe pinballing, turnover-creating, fear-inducing squad that went 16--0 in the2007 regular season and set an NFL record for scoring. Instead, Belichick isretooling a team in transition. One year after losing Brady to a knee injury(and still squeezing an 11--5 record out of backup quarterback Matt Cassel),Belichick's challenges in 2009 are more nuanced but still daunting. Hisoffensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, left in the off-season (for Denver, thefourth Patriots coordinator in recent years to take a head-coaching job), asdid the team's longtime vice president of player personnel, Scott Pioli (nowthe Chiefs' general manager). Leaders have been lost to retirement (linebackerTedy Bruschi, safety Rodney Harrison), trades (defensive end Richard Seymour toOakland, linebacker Mike Vrabel to Kansas City) and injury (middle linebackerJerod Mayo sprained his right knee in the season opener; slot receiver WesWelker has missed two games with an injured right knee). Against the Falcons,New England sent out eight defensive starters who were not in the startinglineup in Week 3 of 2008, including three of the four linebackers and theentire secondary.
"The'backerhood is getting new 'backers," says Pierre Woods, who, in his fourthseason, is the team's second-longest tenured linebacker. "Some guys come inthat you know, some you don't. Some stay, some go. That's just part of thebusiness."
If history is aguide, what might appear to be a hodgepodge of rookies and veterans will jellinto a formidable unit over the course of the season. Harrison, an NBC analystwho has remained close to the Patriots since retiring in June, says hisconversations with his former teammates reveal no panic as new players andschemes are incorporated.
"In the shortrun [New England] could struggle through trial and error, but Bill is willingto go through that for the long-term benefit of the team," Harrison says."Bill always talked about wanting to build a smart team that's physical andplays well under pressure. He's always reworking the roster, bringing in theguys he wants, like Randy Moss, Corey Dillon and myself—guys who have come inlate in their careers, been unselfish, played hard and been mentally tough.You'll be able to see it. The film doesn't lie."
Belichick hasalways been hands-on, but on Sunday he had a death grip on the game plan. Heharped all week about keeping All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez under wraps(Gonzalez had one catch), drew up a play on the sideline that Brady and tightend Chris Baker improvised upon, resulting in a 36-yard touchdown pass, andsuccessfully rolled the dice twice on fourth down in the third quarter,including from New England's own 24 with a 16--10 lead. "That was kindacrazy," Baker said later with a laugh.
Despite all theshake-ups, the Patriots have not lost back-to-back games in almost three years.That's the kind of mark players both old and new respect and want to extend.Cornerback Shawn Springs, who spent seven years with Seattle and five with theRedskins before joining New England six months ago, has fully bought intoBelichick's methods—and mystique. "He can coach everything," Springssays. "He's just like a brain walking around on some legs."
With Brady andthe offense struggling for touchdowns, Belichick has had to be especially adeptwith his defense. While Mayo, a first-round pick in 2008, is expected to returnat some point this season, his athleticism at middle linebacker is missed at atime when Belichick, who typically runs a 3--4 defense, has been drawing upmore 4--3 fronts. But after some hiccups in the first two weeks, the defenseappears to be starting to take. Second-year linebacker Gary Guyton, filling infor Mayo, leads the team in tackles, with 21. Despite an entirely rebuiltsecondary, the Patriots are seventh in the league in pass defense. New Englandshut out the high-powered Falcons offense in the second half.
Belichickcontinues to take a clinical approach to personnel, parting with mainstays tostockpile draft picks and open up spots for new faces. (The Seymour deal, forinstance, gives the Patriots two first-round selections in 2011.) The system ofinterchangeable parts was tested yet again on Sunday when nosetackle VinceWolfork left the game with an ankle injury in the second quarter, forcingveteran Mike Wright and rookie Myron Pryor to fill in. "The backups arepretty much starters," says cornerback Leigh Bodden, another newcomer, whois quickly adapting to the Belichick ethos after stops in Detroit andCleveland.
Taylor, too,realizes he's just one component in Belichick's vast machine, each part ofwhich is critical to its success.
"It'scoming," Taylor says. "We're going to keep pounding away." To therest of the league, it may start looking all too familiar.
Now on SI.com
Check out JeromeBettis's insider's perspective on the league, at SI.com/bonus