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They've Got Bill Down, Pats

Mangini, Saban Toughen AFC East

January 19, 2006

By ALAN GREENBERG, Courant Staff Writer FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Imitation, it is said, is the sincerest form of flattery. Except in Hollywood, of course, where imitation breeds bad sequels.

Still, there is nothing Hollywood or second-rate about Eric Mangini and Nick Saban, two hardscrabble offshoots of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, whose hiring as head coaches portends a day when their teams, the Jets and Dolphins, step out of the giant shadow the Patriots have cast in the AFC East.

The Patriots have won four of the last five AFC East titles and as long as Tom Brady can raise his right arm, they will be favored to win another next season. The question is, how fast can Mangini's Jets and Saban's Dolphins catch up?

Saban, 54, who was Belichick's defensive coordinator in Cleveland before becoming a successful college coach at Michigan State and LSU, had a very good rookie season in Miami. His intellect and detail-obsessed work ethic energized and impressed a veteran team that had gone 4-12 under Dave Wannstedt and Jim Bates. He was nothing like Wannstedt, and the Dolphins responded by winning their last six games to finish 9-7. Once Saban lands a first-rate quarterback to replace journeyman Gus Frerotte, the Dolphins will be dangerous.

Mangini, who turns 35 today, will need some time because the Jets are a mess. Quarterback Chad Pennington's career is in doubt because of recurring shoulder problems. Marquee running back Curtis Martin turns 33 in May. Their best defensive player, John Abraham, is always unhappy with his contract. The secondary, with the exception of free agent Ty Law, who will probably sign elsewhere, is below average. The Jets are also more than $30 million over the salary cap, and it'll take Mangini and his friend, Jets salary cap guru Mike Tannenbaum, a year or two to fix that.

What could be worse for the Patriots than having two Belichick disciples in the AFC East? It could have been three.

Fortunately for the Patriots, newly fired Bills president Tom Donahoe failed to hire Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis two years ago, opting instead for Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who resigned last week as Bills coach. If Weis, who was instrumental in Brady's development, were in charge of the Bills, quarterback J.P. Losman probably wouldn't be such a train wreck and the Bills wouldn't be a 5-11 mess.

Now, after the great job Weis did in his first season at Notre Dame, he has been given a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract extension and is no immediate threat to return to the NFL.

When defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left the Patriots a year ago to become Browns coach, he took Patriots tight ends/assistant offensive line coach Jeff Davidson with him. How many more lieutenants can Belichick afford to lose before there's a noticeable decline in the Patriots play?

"It's a double-edged sword," an NFL official said, "because who knows Eric Mangini better than Bill Belichick? But Eric knows every single guy on that team. He knows their strengths and weaknesses. New England is not going to be able to slip a guy through waivers that they have every intention of bringing back. He knows the young guys that are on the come."

Even as Mangini was being introduced as the Jets coach Tuesday, the Patriots announced that Belichick had elevated Dean Pees, linebackers coach the last two seasons, to defensive coordinator. By naming Pees coordinator, Belichick preempted any chance Mangini could offer Pees that job. Except under special, league-approved circumstances, assistants under contract are barred from taking a job with another NFL team unless it's a clear-cut promotion.

Still, having Saban and Mangini as AFC East rivals could be a serious problem. Besides that both men are innovative, incredibly hard-working and have a good rapport with players, who is better-suited to beat a Belichick-coached team than Belichick-trained men who know Belichick's football mind inside and out? And for other opponents seeking a blueprint on how to beat the Patriots, what better way than to study how the Dolphins and Jets go after the Patriots?

Like Belichick, Crennel, Saban and Mangini also favor the 3-4 defense. They'll be competing with Belichick for the limited number of players who best fit that scheme.

Even the best coaching schemes aren't worth much without great players. As great a coach as Belichick is, how many Super Bowls would he have won if Brady hadn't shown up in the spring of 2000?

The Patriots, who picked last in the first round (selecting offensive lineman Logan Mankins 32nd overall) a year ago, will pick 21st in the NFL draft in April, and should be able to get a player who can be a starter without having to trade up. Besides their normal second-round pick, they also have two picks in both the third and fourth rounds.

Given their injury-riddled secondary, their priority may be a defensive back. Willie McGinest will be 34, Tedy Bruschi 33, Mike Vrabel 31 and Rosevelt Colvin 29 when the 2006 regular season starts, so yes, they could also use a young linebacker.

And perhaps a running back, given how much less effective a banged-up Corey Dillon, who turns 32 in October, was this season. There will also be a hole at receiver if the team's No. 2 guy at the position, unrestricted free agent David Givens, signs elsewhere.

Still, if you're a Patriots fan, in Belichick you trust. And you trust that with enough good players and Brady, the mentor can stay ahead of his proteges.

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By naming Pees coordinator, Belichick preempted any chance Mangini could offer Pees that job. Except under special, league-approved circumstances, assistants under contract are barred from taking a job with another NFL team unless it's a clear-cut promotion.

you know what would be funny? if mangina hires Pees as Asst head coach/LB coach.

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you know what would be funny? if mangina hires Pees as Asst head coach/LB coach.

Probably won't happen, since I read that Sutton was promoted to DC, but it seems he did not get the title Assistant HC. I doubt that a Linebacker Coach would get that title over Sutton.

Still, an interesting thought. Sure would rub Belichek the wrong way. :mrgreen:

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Probably won't happen, since I read that Sutton was promoted to DC, but it seems he did not get the title Assistant HC. I doubt that a Linebacker Coach would get that title over Sutton.

Still, an interesting thought. Sure would rub Belichek the wrong way. :mrgreen:

why not westoff did....

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