They are what amounts to a dynasty in this era of the NFL, when the salary cap dictates many roster decisions and players run off for free agent money just when their coaches have gotten them ready to excel. When it comes to replacing parts, meet the sport's latest model franchise, the New England Patriots.
They are not a built-to-last dynasty like the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers or the '80s San Francisco 49ers, who could rely on a core of Hall of Fame players to win four Super Bowls in a decade. Those don't exist in this NFL because teams can't be kept together like that. The best that can be hoped for, executives around the league say, is to combine a great coach with a supportive owner and a stable front office, then draft well and fill in around the edges with cost-effective free agents and cross your fingers that locker-room chemistry develops.
That is the Patriots' formula, one that has taken them to their second Super Bowl in three seasons.
"They've used a very sound approach and they've made everybody on their roster feel like they're an important part of their team," said Tom Donahoe, the Buffalo Bills' president and general manager. "Every guy is producing for them. When they had all those injuries, the backups stepped in and they didn't really lose that much."
The rise of this Patriots' mini-dynasty began when owner Robert Kraft surrendered a first-round draft selection to the New York Jets as compensation for Coach Bill Belichick in January 2000. Kraft was derided for the move. Belichick had not won often enough or made many friends in his previous head-coaching job, with the Cleveland Browns. But Kraft believed in him from the season they had spent together in 1996, when Belichick served as Bill Parcells's assistant head coach and helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl.
"Bill is great, and you know how I felt about him when no one else felt that way," Kraft told reporters in the locker room at Gillette Stadium after last Sunday's 24-14 triumph over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game.
Belichick said he feels "privileged" to work for Kraft, adding: "Robert gave up a lot in terms of bringing me into the organization with the draft choices and all that, and I am very appreciative of the opportunity to be here. . . . I think we had a good friendship and a good chemistry [in '96]. It's grown significantly since then."
Belichick may have final say over player decisions but he leans heavily on his top front-office lieutenant, Scott Pioli, who followed him to Cleveland, New York and New England. Pioli, who is married to Parcells's daughter Dallas, is a rising front-office star in the league, and the Patriots have been wary of losing their vice president of player personnel to a general manager job elsewhere.
Kraft has remained on the sideline and allowed Belichick and Pioli to shape the roster and manage the salary cap, even when they've made tough, potentially unpopular decisions like trading quarterback Drew Bledsoe to Buffalo in 2002 and releasing four-time Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy five days before this season because of a contract dispute.
The myth about the Patriots is that they don't have high-priced players. They do. Ty Law, for instance, is the league's highest-paid cornerback. The club signed two high-profile free agents last offseason, adding linebacker Roosevelt Colvin for a six-year, $26 million contract and safety Rodney Harrison for a six-year, $14 million deal. Belichick will spend, especially on defense.
"He wants a veteran defense so he can do what he does," Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly said.
But their big-money moves have been, like other teams' splashy maneuvers, hit and miss. Colvin suffered a hip fracture in September that ended his season after only two games, while Harrison became a cornerstone of the club's superior defense. He stepped into the leadership void created when Milloy, a team captain for three seasons, refused to take a pay cut and was ousted.
It's the low-risk, high-reward end of the free-agency spectrum in which Belichick and Pioli really have thrived, finding gems among other teams' castoffs. They brought in a low-budget haul of 17 free agents before their Super Bowl season of 2001, including tailback Antowain Smith and linebackers Mike Vrabel and Roman Phifer. Smith has been the team's leading rusher in each of the last three seasons. Vrabel has become a highly effective pass rusher in Belichick's defensive scheme and led the club this season with 91/2 sacks.
"He figured out that with the system he ran, he needed smart veteran players," said New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi, who worked with Belichick in Cleveland. "And he didn't need big-money superstars."
The Patriots' roster includes 24 players they drafted, 17 during the Belichick-Pioli regime. Belichick and Pioli scored on their initial two first-round picks, getting Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour in 2001 and productive tight end Daniel Graham in 2002. This year's first-rounder, defensive end Ty Warren, has not become a regular starter but has been a contributor.
Belichick and Pioli have excelled in the draft's later rounds. Quarterback Tom Brady came in sixth round in 2000. Wide receiver David Givens came in the seventh round in 2002. This year's draft class was particularly productive. The second round brought cornerback Eugene Wilson, who switched positions and became a starter at safety after Milloy's exit, and wide receiver Bethel Johnson, the AFC's leading kickoff returner. Nickel cornerback Asante Samuel came in the fourth round and center Dan Koppen, who was forced into the starting lineup by injuries in the season's second game, came in round five. In this spring's draft, the Patriots have two first-round picks and two second-round choices.
Once the players are in the fold, Belichick makes it work. The general manager for one NFL team said: "It's a defensive team and they have good, veteran players on defense. On offense, it's the quarterback and, really, no one else you would want to trade for. The bottom line is, it's the coaching."