D Is For Dynasty

Would a 3rd title give the Patriots elite status? Let the debate begin

Super Bowl

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

6:30 p.m. tomorrow / Chs. 45, 5 / Line: Patriots by 7


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Along with determined Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and dogged zone blitzes, the New England Patriots face a showdown with history tonight.

A seven-point favorite over Philadelphia, the Patriots are positioned to capture their third Super Bowl title in four years, which should qualify as a dynasty by any standard - with the possible exception being the NFL.

Football teams that have dominated decades exude a certain identity and trademark. There were Lombardi's Packers of the 1960s, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain of the 1970s, San Francisco's West Coast offense of the 1980s, and Dallas' "How 'Bout Them Cowboys?" of the 1990s.

The debate leading up to the Super Bowl is whether the Patriots, who take a faceless, team-first approach and emote the same bland personality as their coach, deserve to be placed on the same pedestal.

Are they one of the NFL's great teams, or is this self-described "Boring Bunch" simply the best in an age of salary cap parity?

Former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, a member of the only team to accomplish three titles in four seasons, falls somewhere in between.

"If the Patriots win a third Super Bowl in four years like we did, it would be a more significant achievement than what we accomplished," Aikman said. "I think we were the most talented team those years, and that's not necessarily the case with the Patriots."

Steelers owner Dan Rooney hesitated when asked if winning three of four Super Bowls constitutes a dynasty, eventually saying: "It's a good accomplishment."

Former 49ers coach Bill Walsh said he doesn't believe the Patriots have "some of the truly great players that the dynasty teams had."

Troy Brown, who personifies the Patriots' blue-collar roster as a receiver/cornerback/punt returner, maintained the team's weeklong party line of sidestepping the argument.

"Dynasty? We don't know what a dynasty is?" Brown said. "Wasn't that a TV show in the '80s?"

The salary cap and free agency, both of which really took hold in 1995, were supposed to end the days of extended championship runs. Under this new system, all the talent wouldn't be hoarded by a few teams.

That's what makes New England's success so unique.

There were 13 players who started in all four of the Steelers' Super Bowl wins; the Patriots returned only 15 starters from last year's championship team. There were 12 Hall of Fame players off the Packers' first two Super Bowl teams; only four New England players were selected for this year's Pro Bowl, and two of them are special teams players.

When league insiders were asked to explain how the Patriots continue to win, the consensus reason is coach Bill Belichick, whose innovative schemes and meticulous preparation have led to eight straight playoff wins. The philosophy he instills in his players is to outwork and out-execute the other team.

"I think the job Bill Belichick and that organization and his coaches have done might be the best coaching job ever in the history of the NFL," former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said. "So, yeah, I think they are a dynasty in the salary cap era."

An offshoot of Belichick is New England's ability to seamlessly maintain chemistry despite the constant turnover.

When the Patriots cut team leader Lawyer Milloy in 2003, they replaced him with hard-hitting safety Rodney Harrison. When Pro Bowl offensive lineman Damien Woody jumped for the big money in Detroit last year, they filled his spot with college wrestler Stephen Neal.

The biggest test of their locker room was absorbing running back Corey Dillon, a well-known malcontent with the Cincinnati Bengals. New England traded a second-round pick in April for Dillon, then received a franchise-record 1,635 rushing yards and zero trouble.

"They give you a talk about, `This is how we do things here,' " said linebacker Don Davis, who signed with New England last year after being a free agent from St. Louis. "It's definitely said before you sign a contract that `It's our way or the highway. I don't care how you did it anywhere else, it doesn't matter, this is the way.'

"Flamboyancy and all those kind of things sell tickets, and nobody wants to see that. This team is built on the team concept. We might be the boring dynasty."

It's boring mixed with brilliance. In winning 31 of their past 33 games, the Patriots have become such an attractive destination that players are willing to sign for less money to get a bigger payoff: Super Bowl rings.

According to the NFL Players Association, New England's 2004 player payroll of about $77 million ranks 24th among the NFL's 32 teams.

Only two players (quarterback Tom Brady and cornerback Ty Law) count more than $5 million against the cap. Nearly 20 players have cap numbers between $1 million and $3 million.

Dillon wanted to join the Patriots so badly that he agreed to rework his contract and reduce his $3.3 million salary this season for a guaranteed $1.75 million salary and a package of incentives based on his rushing yards.

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