There's often debate about whether or not the key to the Patriots' success between 2001 and 2005 was the Belichick 'System', or a set of smart player acquisitions that may have been undervalued by other teams in the league. The example of Reche Caldwell vs. Randy Moss, so far, has been one of the feathers in the cap of the latter theory.
But Scott Pioli himself liked to keep reminders handy of the crapshoot that is player assessment in the NFL--
Just to remind himself not to believe all the hype and that he could readily have screwed up on that draft, Pioli kept on his desk a photo of Brady, along with a photo of the team's fifth-round draft choice, the man whom he had taken ahead of Brady: Dave Stachelski. He was a tight end from Boise State who never played a down for New England. Stachelski was taken with the 141st pick, Brady with the 199th one. 'If I was so smart,' Pioli liked to say, 'I wouldn't have risked an entire round of the draft in picking Brady.'
In truth, the key to the Patriots' success has probably been a mix of both things--the System and the players that have been plugged into it. It's not actually true that any player can be plugged into the system--Terry Glenn jumps to mind. It takes a certain attitude, a certain instructability.
I'm as admiring of Bill Belichick's skills as a football coach as the next red-blooded New England Patriots fan, but Scott Pioli was better than anyone at finding players who were both a shrewd investment for the franchise and compatible with Belichick's coaching. I would call Pioli one of the four figures absolutely essential to the Patriots organization in the Belichick era, the other three being Belichick himself, of course, Bob Kraft, and Tom Brady. Losing him, to me, feels like losing any of the others.
The loss of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels stings slightly less, but I'm not without pain at that news, either. After Charlie Weis left for Notre Dame, Belichick acted for a season or two as his own offensive coordinator. Number of Super Bowls: zero. Number of Super Bowls reached: zero. McDaniels was at the helm of last season's record-setting offense, and behind the miraculous performance by Matt Cassel this year. Losing him is also not something to take lightly.
One comforting thing about these transitions is the clear peace Belichick has made with them, as evidenced by his glowing statements about Pioli and McDaniels as they leave. But for all his skills as a coach, Belichick is not completely free of hubris. And still, I worry.
You could point to the losses of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel as comparable to these...worse in the case of Weis. And it's true--Gillette Stadium has not sunk into the ground since that time. The Patriots remain among the most competitive teams in the league and came within a tiebreaker of winning the division this year with a skeleton crew. Their future possibilities remain largely bright.
But Belichick hasn't won another Super Bowl without them, either.