The field is deep.
There are no fewer than six worthy candidates to take home the NFL's coach of the year honor. Ron Rivera guided Carolina from a 1-3 start amid rumors about his job security to 11 wins in the Panthers' final 12 games to capture the NFC South and a first-round playoff bye. In his first year in Kansas City, Andy Reid turned the Chiefs from a two-win team a year ago to an 11-win playoff team with a new quarterback.
Like Reid did in Kansas City, Chip Kelly changed the culture in Philadelphia. Kelly instituted a new offense, switched quarterbacks midseason, got players he largely inherited to buy into his training techniques and won the NFC East.
Pete Carroll has Seattle humming. Bruce Arians had Arizona within a whisker of the playoffs.
Yet when I turn in my awards ballot to the Associated Press on Thursday, my vote for coach of the year will go to New England's Bill Belichick. No one has done more with less.
Let's get this out of the way first. Yes, Belichick has Tom Brady. Yes, Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Brady makes everyone around him better. He understands the system. He knows what to do.
But Belichick is the one who found Brady. He's the one who drafted Brady. He's the one who decided to carry four quarterbacks Brady's rookie year instead of putting Brady on the practice squad, where he could have been pilfered by another team. Belichick is the one who developed Brady, who mentored him, who believed in him. Belichick is the one who had the vision to believe that Brady could be great.
So just because the Patriots have a future Hall of Famer running the offense should not detract from the job Belichick has done this season or any season. He has had 11 consecutive seasons of double-digit wins -- including the year Brady blew out his knee in the season opener. Belichick is smart. He is smarter than everyone else. It is simply a fact.
Belichick is gruff and distrusting and rates having to talk to the media right up there with getting a colonoscopy. He's not warm and fuzzy. He declined Tuesday to discuss whether the Patriots had given offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels permission to speak with Cleveland about the Browns' head-coaching vacancy, but he rambled on and on about the value of the Patriots' special teams. The vice on punt returns? Who cares about that?
He cares about every minute detail concerning his football team, from Brady down to the eighth guy on the practice squad. Belichick cares about size and speed and smarts, and he cares a lot about mental toughness.
And this Patriots team is mentally tough. It's had to be.
Every team has injuries. Every team loses key guys. Some, like the Patriots, could handle it. Some, like the Falcons, could not.
New England had more than injuries. It had an all-out scandal in June, when tight end Aaron Hernandez was led away from his home in handcuffs and charged with murder. That was a huge blow that could have derailed the Patriots before the season even started. But it didn't.
During the season, the heart of the Patriots' defense was gutted. They lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork for the year, linebacker Jerod Mayo for the year and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly for the year. Those were huge losses at defensive positions Belichick values most.
New England lost its only true scoring threat when Rob Gronkowski went down with a nasty knee injury. And that was after Gronkowski missed the first six games recovering from offseason surgeries. The Patriots lost right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to injury. Belichick fleeced Tampa Bay for LeGarrette Blount in April, then pivoted to him in early December after Stevan Ridley lost three fumbles in three games. All Blount did Sunday against the Bills was shatter the Patriots' record for all-purpose yards and become the third player in NFL history to gain 180 rushing yards and 100 kickoff return yards in a single game.
The Patriots were never out of a game all season. They never had that one stinker.
They trailed Denver by 24 yet won in overtime after Belichick boldly took the wind, and not the ball, to start the extra session. They trailed Cleveland by 12 with two minutes to play yet scored a touchdown, recovered an onside kick and scored another touchdown to steal the win. They beat New Orleans in part because Belichick had cornerback Aqib Talib shadow Saints tight end Jimmy Graham all over the field. It was the only game all season Graham failed to make a catch.
And the Patriots delivered the worst beatdown the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens had ever suffered at home.
Despite having gaping holes on offense and defense, the Patriots finished with the third-ranked scoring offense and the 10th-ranked scoring defense. Their four losses, all of which came on the road, were by an average of 4.5 points. No loss was by more than a touchdown.
At 12-4, New England won the AFC East. Again. The Patriots earned a first-round playoff bye. Again. And while it is unlikely he will win it, Belichick earned the coach of the year award. Again.