Cast may change, but Patriots' system survives

February 03, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - In any other year and on any other franchise, the imminent departure of two of the architects of a multiple Super Bowl winner would be cause for dread. In fact, it is mildly worrisome to the Patriots' faithful that both coordinators, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, are expected to move on to bigger and better things after Sunday's game against the Eagles.

Much more worrisome to the faithful is that at some point very soon, someone will throw a bucket of icy water on them, awaken them from the dream, and open their eyes on a world where the Patriots are, as one notable New England chronicler calls them, "the black sheep franchise of Boston."

"There's at least 35 percent of me that still can't believe the Patriots are the model franchise in sports right now," ESPN.com columnist and unapologetic Boston rooter Bill Simmons (aka The Sports Guy) said in a recent e-mail. "It's like they went on `The Swan' and got remade."

History is dogging the Patriots - NFL history, as they chase what is possibly the most improbable and fascinating dynasty ever; and their own sordid past, known mostly for both ineptitude and embarrassment at every turn, on and off the field since their AFL inception in 1960.

Even the two Super Bowls that pre-dated the breakthrough against the Rams in 2002 are tainted: the 1986 rout by the Bears and an ensuing drug scandal, and the 1997 loss to the Packers that coincided with the premature and contentious end to the Bill Parcells era. And the less said about the Victor Kiam regime, the better.

Their current incarnation technically began when Robert Kraft bought the team in 1994, but the renaissance truly began when Kraft took a deep breath, ignored the groundswell of opinion against him and hired Bill Belichick in 2000. The organization walks in amazing lockstep on a lot of topics, but none more than that one.

From Kraft on down to the last player on the practice squad, the team members have repeated the mantra that explains their success: Belichick instituted a philosophy of evaluating talent, a system players would buy into, a method of keeping them loyal even when salary cap concerns forced roster turnover, and an attitude that's mandatory and contagious.

Two of the most faithful disciples are safety Rodney Harrison and running back Corey Dillon - and they are two of the least-senior members of this team. This is Harrison's second season as a Patriot and second Super Bowl, Dillon's first on both counts. Only 19 players have played on all three Super Bowl teams over the four-year span.

Kraft - a Brookline native and season-ticket holder since the 1970s, with all the painful memories intact - Belichick and VP of player personnel Scott Pioli are all on the proverbial same page on how things work. All talk about the "system" in place and the "culture" and laud the "selflessness" and "discipline" everybody exercises.

Also parroting the party line are the aforementioned coordinators. While Weis busily game-plans for Tom Brady and Co. while collecting letters of intent for his new Notre Dame gig, Crennel cracks wise about "the phone call I might not get" from the Browns next week, to make his head coaching job with the Browns official.

Crennel envisions introducing Cleveland to the Patriot Way. "I think from an organizational standpoint," he said, "from the top down, with Mr. Kraft and the way he runs things, to Coach Belichick and what he believes in, it eventually trickles down into the locker room. If everybody sacrifices their egos for the good of the team, you will have success, and the fact that we win fosters that belief."

Sounds simple, but it still raises at least one inevitable question: Why don't other teams copy it? Kraft noted that he copied the blueprint the 49ers used in the 1980s - an amazing feat since those cap-free days are long gone. Still, the only franchise that comes close is the Patriots' opponent Sunday, the ultimate testament to its worth.

"Some owners," Kraft said with a sly grin, "just want to make as much money as they can."

The other inevitable question is how this franchise maintains this level with two segments of the brain trust gone. The remaining brain trust believes that the same mind-set that keeps the continuity on the field will work on the coaching staff and, if needed, in the front office. Pioli's name will surface with every general manager opening from now until he retires; it surfaces quickly when the Browns' job opened, before the Ravens' Phil Savage got it.

"When you've got good people who have a long-term commitment and share your vision of how you want to do things," Kraft said, "good things can happen."

SUPER BOWL

Philadelphia (15 - 3) vs. New England (16 - 2)

6:30 p.m. Sunday

Chs. 45, 5

Line: Patriots by 7

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