Bill Belichick is closing in on Don Shula.
Belichick, leader of the New England Patriots, won The Associated Press 2010 NFL Coach of the Year award Wednesday, the third time he has received the honor. Belichick, who also won in 2003 and 2007, now trails only Shula, a Hall of Famer and four-time winner of the award.
For leading the Patriots to a 14-2 record, the best in the league, and the AFC East title, Belichick received 30 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the NFL. That easily beat Raheem Morris, who led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' turnaround and received 11½ votes.
Belichick, whose honor was announced exclusively on NFL Network's "NFL Total Access," has overseen a transition in New England to a younger team, particularly on defense. Of course, he still has NFL Offensive Player of the Year Tom Brady at quarterback.
"I will say the foundation of the Patriots organization, which starts with Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick, has not changed since the day I arrived," Brady told The AP. "They have and will always do what is in the best interest of the team, and they will continue to find selfless players that love to work hard, compete and strive to be the best they can possibly be."
Then Belichick makes them even better.
"He really stays on top of us," wide receiver Wes Welker said. "He makes sure that we're not getting overconfident or believing in the noise outside the locker room and understand that every game's tough in the NFL."
Belichick's record with the Patriots is 126-50, plus a 14-5 mark in the playoffs, with losses in the last three tries with teams that went a collective 40-8. His career winning percentage of .716 ranks eighth, tied with Hall of Famer Paul Brown, and no other coach has four 14-victory regular seasons.
This might have been Belichick's most impressive work as the Patriots retooled much of the roster, yet had a dominant regular season in which they won their final eight games.
"When you have so many things that go into a team, so many things that go into what's happened over the last decade, which ones do you point to?" Belichick said. "You can make an argument for a lot of different things. In the end, it's each individual team and that collection of players that particular year and that particular time during the season or whatever it is, that was able to go out there and be successful."
Belichick, whose team started the season as the 13th youngest in the league and by season's end had 27 players on the active roster -- including 12 rookies -- in their first three professional seasons, basically rebuilt the defense, particularly the secondary, from which rookie Devin McCourty made the Pro Bowl.
Belichick showed confidence in BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the Patriots' main running back, and he rushed for 1,008 yards. Belichick claimed Danny Woodhead when the New York Jets cut him, and he was a dynamic piece of the offense and special teams.
Then there was the Randy Moss case.
Eager to remove the recalcitrant receiver, Belichick stole a third-round draft pick from Minnesota in early October for Moss, who lasted a month with the Vikings, then was cut.
The Patriots scored a league-high 32.4 points per game and were eighth in total offense (363.8 yards per game) under Belichick, who doesn't have an offensive or defensive coordinator.
Making the Patriots a better team is typical of what Belichick has done since receiving his second chance to be a head coach. He had been a flop with the Browns, going 37-45 in four seasons and alienating nearly everyone in Cleveland.
"When I chose him, people at the league office, people in this town, sent me tapes of him in Cleveland and said, 'You don't want to hire this guy,'" Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "And, remember, he went 5-11 (in his first year with Patriots) and we gave up a No. 1 draft choice (to the Jets to get him). People thought we were nuts.
"So I think that probably was one of the best decisions I've made in football."
Belichick -- a disciple of Bill Parcells, the only other New England coach to win the award -- credited his players for the award and said their ability to handle challenges was pivotal to the Patriots' success.
"They're the ones who stepped up and made the plays this year," Belichick said on "NFL Total Access" on Wednesday. "We had a lot of new people on this team, young players that contributed, and it's certainly an honor to receive this award on behalf of our performance in the regular season. Unfortunately, we were not able to carry that over to the playoffs."
Belichick said his team "had to face a lot of different challenges this year. ... It was really a different challenge every week, and I've got to give a lot of credit to the players. They adapted, they adjusted. You know, we had some tough weather conditions -- like the snow-out in Chicago, for example -- but the players did a good job of staying focused and played though those conditions. And we were able to get a lot of turnovers defensively at the end of the year, and offensively, we had a lot of points and special-team scores early in the year, so it all kind of balanced itself out one way or another during the course of the season."
Morris lifted the Bucs from 3-13 in his first season to 10-6 in 2010 and in playoff contention until the final week. He did it with the league's youngest roster.
"We put a lot on his plate," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said, "and he has absolutely handled it all. We all see where this ship is headed."
Also receiving votes were Kansas City's Todd Haley (4½), whose team went 11-5 and won the AFC West; and four coaches with one selection apiece: Atlanta's Mike Smith, Philadelphia's Andy Reid, Chicago's Lovie Smith, and St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.