One of the many reasons the Patriots have enjoyed an extended run of success over the past several years has been their ability to prepare for an opponent as well as anyone. Whether he's trying to find a way to stop a passing team like the Colts or manage to score enough points against a defensive club like the Ravens, Bill Belichick has generally found a way to figure out the best plan of attack and New England's game plans are almost always a strength.
With that in mind it's interesting to note that five of the Patriots next eight opponents (starting with last Monday's game at Minnesota) are against teams with first-year coaches.
Having faced Brad Childress and the Vikings, the Patriots will see the Jets and Eric Mangini for the second time (November 12), Green Bay's Mike McCarthy (November 19), Detroit's Rod Marinelli (December 3) and then Houston's Gary Kubiak (December 17). All are in the midst of their first head-coaching stints in the NFL. In between, New England will face familiar foes such as this Sunday night's matchup with Indianapolis, Miami and Lovie Smith's emerging Chicago Bears.
In theory, that should make the job of preparing a little more difficult since with less actual in-game coaching to watch on film the fewer tendencies there are available for Belichick to exploit. It only stands to reason, then, that preparing for some of those new coaches will be more difficult for Belichick than a coach he sees annually such as Tony Dungy. But don't expect the Patriots to lose any sleep over the situation.
"You watch film and as each week goes on and you have that much more time to look at them on film and game plan for them so I don't think it's that big of an issue," safety Rodney Harrison said.
Belichick held a similar reaction when posed with the question.
Kubiak was the Broncos offensive coordinator for 11 years and developed some tendencies while coaching under Mike Shanahan, game plans that often had success against New England, that he likely brought with him to the Texans. And obviously Mangini is no secret to anyone at One Patriot Place in Foxborough.
But even though Marinelli and McCarthy are lesser known, each comes from a specific style. Marinelli served as the defensive line coach in Tampa where the Bucs started a sweeping trend of using a version of the cover-2 defense that has come to be known as the Tampa 2.
McCarthy's background is on the other side of the ball after spending more than a decade as either an offensive coordinator (New Orleans, San Francisco) or quarterbacks coach (Kansas City, Green Bay). In most of those stops, the West Coast offense was employed. So at least to some degree the Patriots can expect certain things even without the benefit of having watched a half a season's worth of film on their somewhat unfamiliar foes.
"There are challenges every game for players, coaches, schemes ... whatever the conditions are that involve the game," the even-keeled Belichick said. "So you just take them all and do the best you can to deal with them. Some guys you know better than others and there are some schemes you're familiar with and some schemes that you're not. Whatever it is, you just have to take a look at the total broad stroke of it and figure it out. Prioritize it in some way."
Because the NFL is such a tight-knit fraternity, especially for coaches, there really aren't many truly unknown individuals. While coaches like Childress or Kubiak could theoretically change from what they were doing in the past with a chance to run things on their own, more often than not they fall back into what they know, which helps the players in terms of their preparation.
"We're familiar with a lot of things (those coaches) do but of course they're going to throw in some wrinkles," Harrison said. "They're going to run the same plays but out of different formations and things like that. We know that, but I think people make too big a deal out of it because at the end of the day it comes down to tackling, catching and executing Xs and Os."
Those are things the Patriots have done consistently well over the past five years regardless of how well their game plans have been put together.