Patriots In Rebuilding Mode

Robert Kraft and Scott Pioli

Robert Kraft has the utmost trust and respect for head coach Bill Belichick. That trust was rewarded in perhaps Belichick's finest coaching job of his career. Belichick took an injury decimated team to the brink of the playoffs. With all of the changes this offseason, Belichick will not only have to pull another fine coaching job, he's going to need more help to do it.

The transformation has begun. We'll now need a flip card to identify Patriots' brass.

New England's coaching staff and front office already have an altered look heading into the heart of the offseason with former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels becoming Denver's new head coach and former personnel guru Scott Pioli leaving to take over as general manager in Kansas City.

Losing a coordinator is nothing new for the Patriots. Their past success has made their assistants hot commodities, starting with Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel and continuing when Eric Mangini left his post as the defensive coordinator three years to coach the Jets.

The loss of Pioli is different. A friend off the field as well, he's been Bill Belichick's right-hand man throughout the Patriots' dynastic run and is often credited with finding the low-budget free agents who've turned into wise investments. Pioli was one of the architects behind the 2001 "waiver-wire" team that upset the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, and he was Belichick's most trusted confidant as the Patriots won three titles in four years.

The hits aren't stopping anytime soon either. Special teams coach Brad Seely is expected to join Mangini's staff in Cleveland (the Browns hired the former Jets coach in early January) and secondary coach Dom Capers may leave to become McDaniels' defensive coordinator in Denver.

Those coaches will be missed, but -- as the Patriots have proven in the past through the success of McDaniels on offense and Dean Pees on defense -- they can be replaced without much of a drop-off. In fact, the Patriots set a new standard offensively by shattering several scoring records in 2007 under McDaniels' guidance.

Replacing Pioli won't be as easy. Player personnel director Nick Cesario is expected to get the nod, but it remains to be seen whether Belichick will instantly have the same trust in him as he did with Pioli.

The job requires more than just someone who can pluck a free agent off the street and turn him into a starter. The diamond-in-the-rough factor is important, but Cesario -- or whoever becomes the new vice president of player personnel -- will also be responsible for organizing a solid draft strategy in addition to managing the salary cap, which is no easy task in the NFL.

One of the great things about Pioli's regime is the Patriots always found a way to work the cap to their advantage, which allowed them to restock the cupboard when players got hurt during the season. They also retained several key players at bargain prices (Tedy Bruschi, for example) and proved to be experts at reworking and tinkering with current salaries to fit everyone under the umbrella.

The new Pioli will have his hands full and will be put to the test right away. The Patriots have holes to fill on both sides of the ball and might be a bit cash-strapped if and when they franchise Matt Cassel, meaning they'll have two quarterbacks account for nearly $30 million against the cap. That would make the challenge of fortifying other positions even more difficult.

News And Notes:

A New Somebody Special?

--The Denver Post is reporting that Broncos special teams coach Scott O'Brien may leave Denver to become the Patriots' special teams coach, reuniting him with Bill Belichick.

O'Brien, 61, has spent 16 seasons in the NFL, including a stint under Belichick with the Browns in which he was named the 1994 Special Teams Coach of the Year.

McDaniels Deserves His Shot

--Belichick had high praise for new Denver head coach Josh McDaniels, unlike the frosty relationship he now has with Eric Mangini since his former protege left three years ago to coach the Jets.

"Josh McDaniels is one of the finest people and brightest, most talented coaches I have ever worked with," Belichick said. "Since joining us eight years ago, Josh performed a variety of roles and excelled in every one of them. Between his work on defense, in scouting, player evaluation and coordinating the offense, Josh is a very well-rounded coach whose outstanding body of work speaks for itself."

Pioli Will Be Missed

--Losing personnel chief Scott Pioli also hurts Belichick because the two grew into close friends through the years.

"On a personal level, the Belichick-Pioli bond runs far deeper than our workplace, as we and our families have shared countless memories away from football," Belichick said. "Working side by side with one of my best friends for almost two decades is special enough in itself. But to help each other achieve success beyond our dreams is a blessing and something I will always remember and appreciate."

Where Are They Now?

--The Patriots have a few former players still alive in the playoffs, starting with CB Asante Samuel, who is having another strong postseason with the Eagles.

Also in Philadelphia, FB Dan Klecko is playing a role up front at the line of scrimmage and FB Kyle Eckel -- also an ex-Marine -- has been a part-time contributor.

CB Fernando Bryant, who was cut during training camp, latched on with Pittsburgh and has played a reserve role during the Steelers' run to the conference title game.

What A Leg

--Stephen Gostkowski's tremendous season continued when he was named a first-team All-Pro selection after finishing as the league's most prolific kicker.

The honor carries even more weight than the Pro Bowl since the All-Pro encompasses the entire league, meaning there are fewer spots available. Gostkowski was the only Patriot named a first-team selection. Wes Welker was fourth among receivers, while Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo and Randy Moss each got votes.

The New Guy

--If player personnel director Nick Cesario is the choice to replace Pioli, the Patriots will be giving another young executive a shot at a big-time job.

Cesario is only 32 years old. He's spent most of his career with the team as a scout, except a brief stint in 2007 as a wide receivers coach, when he got to work with Moss. He was also a standout quarterback at Division III John Carroll College.

They Said It:: "I think Clark Hunt and the Kansas City Chiefs have made a very wise hire." -- Coach Bill Belichick, on Scott Pioli joining the Chiefs.

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