Look out NFL, Patriots will return largely intact

Age, loss of coordinators are obstacles to 3 in a row

February 08, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A day after the coronation of the latest dynasty, the New England Patriots' reign over the NFL doesn't appear as if it will end anytime soon.

Winners of three of the past four Super Bowls, including Sunday's 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Alltel Stadium, the Patriots have only one starter (left guard Joe Andruzzi) scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, meaning their offense and defense has the potential to come back virtually intact.

The one stumbling block to becoming the first team to capture three straight Super Bowls will be turnover on the coaching staff, which has already lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

Weis will leave to become Notre Dame's head coach by the end of the week, and Crennel will be announced as Cleveland Browns head coach today.

Without coach Bill Belichick's two most loyal and creative assistants, his mastermind reputation will be tested.

"The coaching staff issue will be a change," said Belichick, whose 10-1 postseason record ranks as the best all time.

"Romeo and Charlie have done a great job. Their record speaks for itself. With the success that we've had, a large share of the credit certainly should go to them. We wish them well and we'll have to adjust."

One of the more touching scenes during New England's celebration was Belichick huddling closely with Weis and Crennel, draping his arms around them in a group hug.

Their coaching has been influential in the Patriots developing into the NFL's elite team despite never leading the league in Pro Bowl selections. Together, Belichick, Weis and Crennel have won 32 of their past 34 games.

"The three of us kind of looked at each other and knew that's the last time we'd be together collectively," Belichick said. "It was just a wonderful moment to be able to share - sort of a perfect ending."

But there doesn't appear any closure for the rest of the Patriots, especially when clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri is the team's most high-profile free agent. Besides Vinatieri and Andruzzi, other key contributors whose contracts expire are No. 3 receiver David Patten and fullback Patrick Pass.

There is a chance that age could become a factor.

Ten projected starters will be 30 or older including eight on its stout defense (nose tackle Keith Traylor; linebackers Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer; cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole; and safety Rodney Harrison). Their most versatile player, receiver/cornerback/returner Troy Brown, is also considering retirement at age 33.

"I'm going to give myself a good three to four weeks. Not right now," Brown said. "I want to enjoy this with my team. I'm going to take some time off, I'm going to chill out with my family and clear my mind."

Still, after bringing back just 15 of 22 starters from last year, the Patriots went 14-2 in the regular season and won their three postseason games by an average of 11.3 points.

"You always want to keep as many of them as you can," Belichick said of his free agents. "We'll be facing decisions. We understand that. We haven't addressed it yet, but we'll address it in due course."

The most pressing issue involves Law, their star cornerback, whose 2005 salary cap hit is a prohibitive $12.5 million.

The general thought is Law will have to restructure his contract to avoid becoming a cap cut in March. Belichick indicated that might not be the case.

The emergence of younger cornerbacks could push out Law as well as Poole. When those veteran cornerbacks went down with injuries, rookie Randall Gay and second-year player Asante Samuel more than held their own in coverage.

"We'll take a look at all of our options this year," Belichick said.

By edging the Eagles - safety Harrison's interception sealed the championship with nine seconds remaining - New England claimed a spot alongside the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the '70s, the San Francisco 49ers of the '80s and the Dallas Cowboys of the '90s.

The Patriots became a team for the decade, a team for the ages.

"This is the best ever," offensive tackle Matt Light said. "We have more heart than anyone in the world. This is unbelievable."

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