- Mike Rodak, ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter
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His team down a field goal, quarterback Joe Flacco was driving the Baltimore Ravens' offense down the field in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game, with a trip to Super Bowl XLVI at stake. Play after play, Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, one of Baltimore's prized offseason acquisitions a season previously, looked across the line of scrimmage and probably couldn't believe his eyes.
Lined up in coverage against the three-time Pro Bowler was New England's Julian Edelman. A college quarterback. An NFL wide receiver. A seventh-round draft pick. Boldin wound up capitalizing on the opportunity, catching four Flacco passes on the drive and setting up what should have been a game-tying Billy Cundiff field goal. The rest, of course, is history.
Even though using Edelman -- who began working at defensive back midseason -- as Boldin's vise on the drive didn't play out as head coach Bill Belichick may have hoped, it was just another in a long line of unconventional moves by the NFL's second-longest tenured head coach.
Some of Belichick's off-the-beaten-path moves have worked. Some haven't.
Here's a look at our top 10 candidates from Belichick's tenure in New England:
10. Resigning as New York Jets head coach. Belichick's arrival in Foxborough was just as unconventional and controversial as the moves he's made since coming to New England. Tapped as Bill Parcells' replacement for Gang Green, Belichick shocked reporters when he resigned at his introductory news conference. Days later, after an attempt by Belichick to institute a temporary restraining order against the Jets and an intervention from then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Belichick was named head coach of the Patriots on Jan. 27, 2000.
9. Fourth-and-2. Belichick's first visit to Lucas Oil Stadium, site of Super Bowl XLVI, was the stage for perhaps his most controversial on-field call as Patriots head coach. Holding a six-point lead over the Colts with just over two minutes left in the game, Belichick made the call to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Patriots' own 28-yard line. The attempt failed, and the Colts scored with 16 seconds left to secure a 35-34 victory.
8. Switching between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. While most NFL head coaches aren't comfortable straying away from "their" scheme, Belichick hasn't been in shy in tearing up his defensive strategy. It took Belichick four seasons to adopt the 3-4 scheme for an entire season, trying (and failing) to plug Jace Sayler (in 2001) and Steve Martin (in 2002) at nose tackle before hitting it big with Ted Washington in 2003. In Super Bowl XXXIX, Belichick turned to a five-linebacker look against the Eagles, while this season he acquired an array of defensive linemen, including Albert Haynesworth, to stock a 4-3 defensive look.
7. Naming Tom Brady his full-time starter. Belichick was at the center of one of the more famous quarterback controversies in NFL history in 2001. With veteran Drew Bledsoe, fresh off signing a 10-year contract, ready to re-take the reins after recovering from a sheared blood vessel in his chest, Belichick stuck with second-year quarterback Tom Brady. Probably the best personnel decision in Patriots history.
6. Troy Brown, defensive back. In mid-2004, the Patriots' secondary was riddled with injuries. Super Bowl XXXVIII starters Ty Law and Tyrone Poole were both shelved for the season. Undrafted rookie Randall Gay and second-year cornerback Asante Samuel, then a relatively unknown player, came into the spotlight. But who was the third man up? Enter Troy Brown. The veteran, who personified the "Patriot Way" under Belichick, stepped in as the slot cornerback. He played a key role in the 20-3 playoff victory over the Colts and their record-breaking 2004 offense, and would intercept his former quarterback Drew Bledsoe in a game that same season.
5. Mike Vrabel, tight end. Before there was Rob Gronkowski, there was Mike Vrabel. Just the opposite of Troy Brown, Vrabel was a defensive player trying his hand at offense. Beginning in 2002, Vrabel was used as a tight end in goal-line packages. Over the next five seasons, including the playoffs, Vrabel would catch eight passes. For eight touchdowns. Even Gronk can't match that sort of scoring efficiency.
4. Snapping out of the end zone against Denver. The 6-2 Patriots, beginning to make strides toward their 2003 Super Bowl run, were in a one-point hole with less than three minutes remaining in Denver. The Broncos and head coach Mike Shanahan were the Patriots' kryptonite, yet Belichick called for long snapper Lonie Paxton to snap the ball out of the back of the end zone instead of attempting a Ken Walter punt from the 1-yard line. The result, of course, was a safety that put the Broncos up three points and gave them possession, but it also gave them worse field position than a punt from the 1-yard line would have. Quarterback Danny Kanell couldn't convert a first down for Denver on its ensuing drive, and the Patriots took over from their own 42-yard line. With 36 seconds remaining, Brady hit receiver David Givens for the go-ahead touchdown. Chalk it up as another win for Belichick.
3. Trading Richard Seymour. Flashback to Labor Day weekend, 2009. The Patriots made their final cuts on Saturday, and most New Englanders expected a quiet holiday weekend before their hometown team prepared for a "Monday Night Football" clash with the Bills to open the season. Yet, around lunchtime Sunday, news came out that Richard Seymour, a cornerstone of three Super Bowl championship teams in New England, had been traded. For a draft pick two seasons into the future. Worse yet, there was no clear replacement for the then-five-time Pro Bowler. The Patriots defense, which shifted to a 4-3 look for the first half of the season after the trade, struggled to find its groove, and the 2009 season largely fell by the wayside. Still, Belichick selected Colorado offensive tackle Nate Solder with the 2011 draft selection he got for Seymour, and Solder started 13 games this season in place of an injured Sebastian Vollmer.
2. Going without coordinators. This is where Belichick truly bucks NFL trends. An old-school coach at heart, Belichick keeps his coaching staff small, and hasn't been afraid to go without offensive or defensive coordinators, something rarely seen elsewhere in the league. In 2000, Belichick went without a defensive coordinator, but his defensive staff included a future NFL head coach (Eric Mangini) and two future NFL coordinators (Rob Ryan, Brian Daboll). After the departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis in 2005, Belichick tapped 29-year-old quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels as his offensive play-caller, but withheld the title of offensive coordinator until the next season. McDaniels would go on to serve as a head coach. Ditto for McDaniels' replacement, Bill O'Brien, who didn't get the offensive coordinator title until this season.
On the flip side, Belichick's decision not to replace Dean Pees, who left his post as defensive coordinator after the 2009 season, has been considered more controversial. Linebackers coach Matt Patricia appeared to be pegged as Pees' successor in 2010, but Belichick also expressed his desire to take a more hands-on role with the defense and didn't name a coordinator. The result has been a defense that finished 25th in 2010 and 31st in 2011 in yards allowed, while also representing some of the worst the NFL has to offer in third-down defense over that period.
1. Releasing Lawyer Milloy. At the time, Belichick called this the hardest cut he's had to make. Safety Lawyer Milloy was the heart and soul of the Patriots' defense before and after Belichick's arrival in New England. At 29 years old, Milloy had plenty of football left in him, but also had a sizable salary-cap number that Belichick wanted to get off his team's books. The move came down Sept. 2, 2003, the Tuesday morning before New England's regular-season opener against the Bills. It sent shock waves through the Patriots' locker room, prompting ESPN NFL analyst Tom Jackson to proclaim that Patriots players "hate their coach." Milloy landed with the Bills in time to take part in Buffalo's 31-0 win over New England, but offseason pickup and Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison picked up where Milloy left off as a defensive leader and was a key piece of the 2003 championship squad.
Mike Rodak covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
Running down Bill Belichick's top 10 most unconventional moves as Pats coach.