Never before has the NFL been so top-heavy so late in a season. The league has three teams with 12-1 records for the first time, and the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles constructed clubs that have achieved their lofty status through a combination of organizational stability, smart spending on players and plain good luck.
It has become a win-or-else league in which owners fire coaches impulsively. There were seven head coaching changes league-wide last winter and there likely will be a similar number this year. And with players scurrying from team to team for big money in free agency and the salary cap forcing even winning clubs to retool their rosters every offseason, it is more difficult than ever for teams to sustain success, and forge even a mini-dynasty.
But it's not impossible. The Patriots are working on what would be their third Super Bowl title in four years. The Eagles hope to advance to a fourth straight NFC championship game. The Steelers have clinched their eighth division title in Coach Bill Cowher's 13 seasons and are trying to reach the fifth AFC title game of his tenure.
"The organization and ownership are critical stability factors," former NFL coach Dan Reeves said. "The Rooney family [which owns the Steelers] has had two coaches in the last 35 years. In this day and age, everyone wants that instant fix. But stability is so important. You can't win without it. One thing [Patriots owner Robert] Kraft did in New England, he realized how important it was to keep things together, from top to bottom, and they have a lot going for them. It's the way you should do it."
Cowher has been with his team longer than any other head coach, and the Steelers extended his contract before the season — albeit after a longer wait than usual — even after he had missed the playoffs four times in six seasons. Andy Reid is in his sixth season with the Eagles, and Bill Belichick is in his fifth with the Patriots.
All three have had continuity among their top assistants. Belichick brought offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, just hired as Notre Dame's head coach, with him to the Patriots in 2000, and added Romeo Crennel as his defensive coordinator in 2001. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress and defensive boss Jim Johnson have been with Reid in Philadelphia since the start, in 1999. Cowher's "new" defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, previously worked for him for six seasons in the '90s, and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey — who got the Buffalo Bills' head coaching job last winter — was replaced by tight ends coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Players know they must do things the coaches' way or they'll be gone. It has made for three clubs with team-first approaches and relatively controversy-free locker rooms. The Patriots could add tailback Corey Dillon, who was perpetually disgruntled in Cincinnati, and the Eagles could trade for wide receiver Terrell Owens, who feuded with coaches and quarterbacks in San Francisco, because they knew the players would have little choice but to fit in.
When the Steelers handed their starting tailback job to free agent addition Duce Staley before the season, Jerome Bettis stepped aside graciously, and stayed ready. When Staley got hurt, Bettis had four straight 100-yard rushing games and, even after returning to a reserve role, won Sunday's game against the New York Jets by throwing for a fourth-quarter touchdown on a trick play and running for another.
"We are a football team . . . [and] these guys understand that," Cowher said. "They believe that, and they trust that no one player is bigger than this football team. . . . We have been in a lot of close games, and no one has flinched. We're not that much better than any other team that we play."
Belichick's Patriots made team unity fashionable again when they eschewed individual introductions and took the field as a group before their Super Bowl upset of the St. Louis Rams in February 2002. The Patriots won the Super Bowl last season while using 42 different starters on offense and defense, the most for an NFL division-winning team, and have shrugged off key injuries again this season. When their secondary became depleted by injuries, including cornerback Ty Law's broken foot, the Patriots began using veteran wide receiver Troy Brown at cornerback, and he is tied for the club lead with three interceptions.
When veteran quarterback Tommy Maddox hurt his elbow in Week 2, the Steelers turned to rookie Ben Roethlisberger, who is unbeaten in 11 NFL starts. The Eagles have overcome season-ending injuries to several key players, including tailback Correll Buckhalter, defensive end N.D. Kalu and rookie guard Shawn Andrews.
"The one thing I notice with all three teams is that no matter how many guys get hurt, how far they get behind, they all seem to find a way to win, even on an off day," Reeves said.
The league-wide trend these days is to divide decision-making responsibilities between a coach and a general manager, but Belichick, Cowher and Reid all have the final say on player moves. All are supported, however, by more-than-capable front offices. Patriots front-office chief Scott Pioli, in particular, is among the league's most widely respected executives.
None of the Big Three is known for extravagant spending in free agency, although the Eagles — after years of prudent salary cap management by Reid, team president Joe Banner and owner Jeffrey Lurie — opened the checkbook in the offseason for a Super Bowl-or-bust push by obtaining Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse. Mostly, though, the three have built their teams via smart drafting and thrifty second-tier free agent moves. They have been shrewd, and they have been fortunate: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a two-time Super Bowl winner, was selected in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. Roethlisberger fell to the Steelers with the 11th overall pick in this year's draft after believing about 48 hours beforehand that he was headed to the New York Giants with the fourth overall choice.
"You need a little luck, too," Reeves said.
Making tough salary cap decisions also is part of the winning formula, as when Belichick released safety Lawyer Milloy just before the 2003 season or when Reid lifted the franchise-player tag from middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and allowed him to depart as a free agent before the 2002 season. (They re-signed him to a minimum-salary contract this past offseason after two unsuccessful seasons with the Washington Redskins.)
"Everybody is always saying you can't build dynasties in football under this system," said former Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf, the architect of two Super Bowl participants with the Packers. "But I always thought you could, and New England has proven that right. [The Eagles] getting to the championship game for three straight years and looking like they'll do it four straight years is still a great accomplishment. You just have to run the organization properly, and that's what all three teams have going for them. You can't become emotional in your decisions.
"It's the way Bill Walsh approached it in San Francisco. When it was over for a player, it was over, and he let guys like [Joe] Montana, [Ronnie] Lott and Roger Craig go somewhere else. It's what you have to do now."
Each has a superb quarterback — Brady, Roethlisberger and the Eagles' Donovan McNabb — and are known for solid line play on offense and defense. The Patriots, with Dillon, and the Steelers, with Staley and Bettis, having punishing running games, while the Eagles use tailback Brian Westbrook most effectively as a receiving complement to Owens. All three teams rank in the league's top five in scoring defense.
They are a combined 34-1 against the rest of the league, with the Steelers having beaten the Patriots and Eagles on consecutive weekends at Heinz Field in late October and early November. The trio's only loss to an "outsider" came when the Steelers were beaten by the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2, before Roethlisberger was the starting quarterback. All have bigger goals than the division titles they already have clinched. The Steelers were 6-10 last season, but the Eagles and Patriots were this year's preseason Super Bowl favorites and, for them, the aspiration hasn't changed since.