Pats' 2nd Super Bowl title is built from the top down

Players who fit system find glory with Belichick

February 03, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The New England Patriots' modern-day dynasty flies in the face of conventional wisdom in today's NFL.

Winning two Super Bowls in three years with a sixth-round draft pick at quarterback would be shocking if we didn't already know that Tom Brady was a unique talent.

Running the table in their final 15 games of the season would seem miraculous if not for the fact the Patriots post a lineup of interchangeable parts - linebacker Mike Vrabel catching a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl? - that enabled them to overcome myriad injuries.

Outlasting the Carolina Panthers in a wild West shootout deep in the heart of Texas sounds unfathomable until you consider the Patriots are, after all, coached by flexible Bill Belichick.

So much for franchise quarterbacks, injury excuses and rigid formulas.

The Patriots are Super Bowl champions today because they know themselves better than any other team in the league. They know what works for them and what doesn't. They know to look beyond a player's 40-yard time in the Indianapolis combine and past his Wonderlic test scores. They know that just because a player didn't pan out in Pittsburgh doesn't mean he won't produce in New England.

The Super Bowl that nobody wanted delivered more than anyone could imagine Sunday night. The Patriots' scintillating 32-29 victory over Carolina in Houston was a statement about the NFL today.

It spoke volumes about the difference good coaching can make. As good as Belichick is, he nearly met his match in the Panthers' John Fox, who resurrected a 1-15 team in record time. These may not have been the two most glamorous teams in the NFL, but they were the two best teams.

It confirmed once again that franchise quarterbacks are nice, but not necessary. If Brady showed why he's the best clutch quarterback in the league, Carolina's Jake Delhomme, an undrafted journeyman from Louisiana-Lafayette, wasn't far behind. Delhomme needed a quarter to get untracked, then gave the gritty New England defense all it could handle.

And it said unequivocally that the best franchises at the top have the best chance to win.

The Patriots and Panthers, once forlorn franchises, have shown the way.

Not that they expect anyone to follow.

"First of all, it's flattering to think people might copy us, but I don't agree this is a copycat league," Scott Pioli, New England's vice president of player personnel, said last week. "If it is, people have to decide what's best for their organization. What's right for us and how we do business, what's right for us in terms of players we look for, may not necessarily be right for another team.

"The success we've had over the last couple years just means we know the right way for us. We don't have all the answers. We've made quite a few mistakes along the way."

Very few, however, since Belichick started his second season in Foxboro with a 1-3 record. Since that slow start in October 2001, the Patriots have gone 39-11 with two Super Bowl titles.

Catch them if you can.

The Patriots are winning because they follow a formula that Belichick and Pioli have worked out over the years, going back to their time with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s. It goes beyond Belichick's complex defensive schemes, beyond Pioli's eye for talent.

It's a melding of the minds, an understanding of what it takes to win in this system. Sure, the Patriots want big, fast, strong, smart football players. But it's the other criteria that most separate the players the Patriots want from the pack.

"Bill and I understand how demanding our program is," Pioli said. "I understand Bill's personality because he's a close friend. I know what he wants and doesn't want, what he's willing to tolerate and not willing to tolerate.

"So we make sure we don't bring in the kind of people he's not willing to tolerate. People who are lazy, people who underachieve, people who don't get it aren't going to make it. People who are high maintenance aren't going to make it in our program because we're just not going to have patience with those kind of people."

It's players like Vrabel who make it in Foxboro. The linebacker and occasional tight end spent four undistinguished years in Pittsburgh with the Steelers before joining the Patriots as a free agent in 2001.

In the 2002 Super Bowl, Vrabel rocked St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner on a blitz, and the play turned the game in New England's favor. Sunday night, he had two sacks, a forced fumble, a touchdown catch and six tackles, and it's doubtful the Patriots would've won without him.

Just don't call him a mid-level free agent to Pioli. That term surfaced when the Patriots signed 23 free agents in 2001 and kept 17 of them.

"I really felt that was insulting to our players," Pioli said. "Even today, it's insulting when people say that, because we bring in good football players. Mike Vrabel's a good football player. Just because he didn't start at Pittsburgh doesn't mean he was not a good player."

Vrabel is also one of the Patriots' smartest players. Intelligence is a key factor in the team's equation.

"The best thing I can say about how we evaluate intelligence is, it has nothing to do with their Wonderlic score [the intelligence test administered by the NFL] or researching what their boards were," Pioli said.

"It's `Do they get it? Do they know what they know, do they know what they don't know? And are they willing to set aside their ego and be coachable?' To us, that's a smart person."

To the Patriots, that's the difference.

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