Tomase: Bill Belichick's true genius is an ability to turn trash into treasure and he's doing it again

John Tomase
December 07, 2018 - 7:57 am

USA Today Sports

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No matter how nondescript a player is before he arrives in New England or after he leaves, what happens in between might be the greatest testament to Bill Belichick’s genius.

It’s part of the reason an undrafted free agent plays a meaningful role virtually every season, with cornerback J.C. Jackson the latest nobody to step forward. But it’s about so much more.

Consider the players making legitimate contributions to a club that’s suddenly 9-3 and once again sniffing the first overall seed in the playoffs.

Running back James White leads the team with 74 receptions and is Tom Brady’s most trusted target. Only three years ago, White’s name was shorthand for why the Patriots lost the AFC title game in Denver. “How are we supposed to win throwing 16 times to James Freaking White?!?” fans asked, and not without merit. White caught only five passes that day, sending Peyton Manning to his final Super Bowl.

We all know what happened next. White matured, developed, and improved. If Deflategate never happened, White would’ve been the MVP of Super Bowl LI after catching 14 passes – on another 16 targets – for 110 yards while scoring three touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime to beat the Falcons.

White stunk until he didn’t. The fact that Belichick stuck with him through his early-career struggles teaches an important lesson – when the coach refuses to cut bait, it means there’s something there.

Just ask Kyle Van Noy. The much-maligned linebacker was frequently cited as proof that the Patriots lacked athletes on defense, a hopelessly fatal flaw on the NFL’s new autobahn. He looked plodding and helpless in the 2017 season opener when Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt exploded for 239 yards from scrimmage, including a 78-yard touchdown when he skirted Van Noy like a subway turnstile.

In last Sunday’s 24-10 victory over the Vikings, however, Van Noy delivered five tackles and a quarterback hit as part of an effort that saw the Patriots confuse veteran QB Kirk Cousins with all manner of amorphous pre-snap craziness.

Van Noy has been in the middle of game-changing plays all season, and his 76 tackles lead the team to go along with two sacks, two takeaways, and four tackles for losses. When there’s a mess of players at the point of attack, it feels like big No. 53 is the one making the play.

Not bad for someone acquired from the Lions days before the Jamie Collins trade for what amounted to 24 spots of position at the bottom of the 2017 draft. With added pass-rushing duties this season, he has become the most versatile member of the defense, and a worthy successor to stout defenders like Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich. Who saw that coming?

Belichick, that’s who. It’s why he similarly didn’t hesitate to acquire Cordarrelle Patterson, a one-dimensional kick returner in Minnesota and Oakland who has improbably become a jack-of-all-trades in New England. Patterson will never run precise routes, so the Patriots made sure to give him easy throws in space.

When they recognized the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder’s ability to punish opposing tacklers, they made him a running back. Not a change-of-pace gimmick exploiting pitches and reverses, but an honest-to-goodness bruiser between the tackles. He responded with 11 carries for 61 yards and a score against Green Bay and has totaled more than 300 yards from scrimmage while still averaging over 30 yards a return.

On any other team, Patterson would be a curiosity. In New England, he’s a weapon.

But this is what Belichick does. Malcolm Butler started as an undrafted free agent and finished as a Super Bowl hero and big-money free agent. Julian Edelman took a detour through the secondary before becoming a slot machine. Matt Cassel hadn’t started a game since high school when Belichick turned him into an 11-game winner. Vrabel, Ninkovich, and David Patten were other teams’ castoffs before Belichick turned them into champions.

Oh, and did we mention the quarterback? Chosen in the sixth round? Had to unseat the first $100 million player in franchise history? Brady doesn’t get the chance to be Brady without Belichick.

And so as the Patriots march towards another inevitable 13-3 and first-round bye, let us take a moment to salute Belichick’s singular ability to turn marginal players into meaningful contributors. Nobody does it better.

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