FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Patriots owner Robert Kraft needed just one season with Bill Belichick to know how good a coach he was.
Even Kraft couldn't have expected that, more than a decade later, his brilliant employee would accomplish what no NFL coach has ever done - lead a team to a 16-0 record.
``In this age of parity to go 16-0 when people are after our players, our administrative staff, our coaches,'' Kraft said, ``to be able to achieve this feat in an age of parity when everyone's playing with the same budget is just a tremendous tribute to his management style.''
For that management style, plus his ability to pick players, motivate them and put them in position to do the right things, Belichick was named The Associated Press 2007 NFL Coach of the Year, an award he also received in 2003.
Not even the Spygate scandal in which he was personally fined $500,000 by the NFL for having a video assistant tape New York Jets coaches during the season opener kept him from receiving the honor.
Belichick was New England's assistant head coach under Bill Parcells when he first went to work for Kraft in 1996. The next season, Belichick moved on with Parcells when he became head coach of the New York Jets.
But Kraft never forgot.
``I saw it right away in him in '96 and that's why I was willing to give up what I gave up,'' Kraft said.
After three mediocre seasons with Pete Carroll as coach, Kraft hired Belichick away from the Jets, where he had accepted, then rejected, the head coaching job but still was under contract. The Patriots sent three draft choices, including a first-rounder, as compensation to the Jets, in exchange for fifth- and seventh-round picks.
After going 5-11 in his first season as head coach in 2000, Belichick led the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships in the next four seasons.
Now they have another chance. But the season didn't start off well.
After the 38-14 opening win, the Jets complained to the league about the taping, a violation of NFL rules. Besides Belichick's own fine, the league fined the team $250,000 and took away its first-round pick in this year's draft.
That only seemed to motivate him and his loyal players but drew wide criticism..
``What I've tried to say is the only way that'll go away is if we just keep on winning, and winning convincingly, and I think he did it,'' Kraft said. ``He did it and I think the fact that he got this award speaks to that.''
Despite that blemish, Belichick received the votes of 29 of the 50 members of a nationwide panel of media members who cover the NFL. In a season highlighted by many strong coaching performances, he beat out Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, who received 15 votes for leading the Packers to a 13-3 record and the NFC North title.
``This is definitely a team recognition, but one that I appreciate very much on a personal level,'' Belichick said in a statement issued by the club.
Also getting votes were Dallas coach Wade Phillips and Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio (two each), and Indianapolis' Tony Dungy and Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden (one each). Those teams all made the playoffs.
``If anyone is deserving of such an award it really is Bill,'' Kraft said. ``I know the energy and effort and planning and time (he puts in). He's had his foot on the pedal all year, just working so hard and always doing everything he can to put the team in a position to win first.''
It wasn't always that way before Kraft, a longtime Patriots fan, bought the team in January 1994 after five straight losing seasons.
Parcells brought them to the Super Bowl on Jan. 26, 1997. They lost to Green Bay then he left for the Jets. Belichick, with three Super Bowl rings, shows no signs of wanting to leave.
``You know, I think back to sitting in the stands,'' Kraft said of his days as a fan, ``when we went 1-15 and 2-14. And, you know, I saw the '72 Dolphins, and to see this team perform the way it did this year, and in the end, he is the conductor. And he's got some great players, but he's the conductor and I just think the job he did was superb.''
Belichick is the first coach since Miami's Don Shula in 1972 to lead a team to an unbeaten regular season.
From having a major say in acquiring players like Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth and Adalius Thomas before this season, to using Spygate and other tools as motivation to designing masterful game plans, Belichick rules the football operation.
The former defensive coordinator has the most productive offense in NFL history with a single-season record of 589 points.
Since joining the Patriots in 2000 after compiling a 36-44 record in five years as head coach in Cleveland, Belichick has led New England to a 91-37 record in the regular season with five straight AFC East titles and at least 10 wins in each of those seasons.
``There are three things that get better with age: good cigars, red wine and to me it looks like coaches who have the ability,'' Kraft said. ``He's really hit his sweet spot and I'm really happy for him personally.''

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