NEVER FAILS. ThePatriots' linebackers will shuffle into their meeting room at Gillette Stadiumduring a game week, fold their bodies into chairs for an hour or more ofwhiteboard and videotape education, and soon enough coach Bill Belichick isamong them. He doesn't have to be there. He can be anywhere he wants, includingin the executive suite polishing Lombardi Trophies. Belichick's ID card workson every lock in the building, and he has Matt Patricia to coach hislinebackers. Yet more often than not he is in this room.
It is a place where Belichick feels at home, with his kind of guys. Over thereis Tedy Bruschi. They call him Bru. He had a stroke less than three years ago,and here he is—as vital to the defense as he was during New England's threeSuper Bowl seasons. Look at Mike Vrabel. Call him Vrabes. The guy can tell youwhat every defensive teammate is doing on every snap. Rosevelt Colvin. Rosy. In2003, two games into his Patriots career, he suffered nearly the same horriblehip injury that famously ended Bo Jackson's career. Colvin's just now gettingback to where he was then. Adalius Thomas. AD or Superman. He weighs 270pounds, yet his old team, the Ravens, sometimes played him at cornerback.Junior Seau. Eighteen years in the league and still looking for a ring.Belichick pulled him out of retirement two seasons ago.
Those five have acombined 58 years' experience in the NFL (add in special teams demon LarryIzzo, and the total rises to 70; reserves Eric Alexander and Pierre Woods arealso in the room), and none is younger than 30. They have been there and donethat. Their room is a place where the gap between player and coach shrinks, andthe common ground is broad. "I think Bill is at a point in his life and hiscareer where he feels the highest comfort level around the veterans, the olderguys," says Carl Banks, who played linebacker for the Giants when Belichickwas their defensive coordinator in the late 1980s.
There is an energyin the room. Seau calling everyone Buddy. Colvin raving about his lateststellar play. ("He needs to get a tattoo of his own hand on his back,"Thomas jokes.) Vrabel uttering subtle put-downs under his breath. When you playthis position for the Pats, you are a member of what they call the 'backerhood.Maybe it was Willie McGinest who came up with the name, when he played in NewEngland from 1994 through 2005. Or Roman Phifer, from '01 through '04. Maybeeven Bruschi. Nobody seems to recall, except that it goes back a good while.They all know this: You can't have a thin skin in this room. "And no one isexempt," says Seau, "including Bill."
So the coach isinviting derision when he teaches through nostalgia, showing his linebackersvideotape of his Giants' unit from the mid-'80s, a crew for the ages thatincluded Hall of Famers Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor, plus Banks, GaryReasons and current Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson. "He wants usto be like them," says Vrabel. "He tells us, 'Just so you understandhow it's done.' We joke back at him that, yeah, but they were doing it againstguys who would be working construction these days."
The point is notin the substance of the argument, but in the passion. Belichick is a member ofthe 'backerhood, too. Last spring he took Colvin into the bubble behindGillette and held a tackling dummy while the linebacker worked on pass rushmoves. Colvin got better; Belichick got a nasty set of bruised ribs, which hecould neither hide nor live down. "He's always making fun of us if we havea little nick," says Colvin. "So we've been on him ever since then.'How are those ribs, Coach?'" Then they have a laugh at the man in thefamous gray hoodie.
THE PATRIOTS arein pursuit of history, chasing a fourth Super Bowl in seven years and thesecond perfect season in NFL history, after a 24--20 victory over the Colts onSunday that ran their record to 9--0. They are a synchronous, steamrolleringforce, from the front office through the coaching staff to the players. No unitbetter personifies the soul of the franchise than the linebackers, a collectionof veterans for whom greatness is both a moment to be cherished and justanother day at the office.
"We've alwayshad chemistry in that room," says Bruschi. "But in the otherchampionship years [2001, '03, '04] we were younger guys. Now we have so manymore years under our belt. We appreciate everything that's going on. The wins,the jokes, the people, everything."
They play in asystem that Belichick has coached for a quarter century. In simplest terms it'sa basic 3--4, with Colvin and Vrabel on the outside and Thomas, Bruschi andSeau in a three-man platoon on the inside. They are part of a defensivephilosophy that relies on preparation and versatility to limit an offense'soptions. "On first and second down New England is a pretty basic 3--4 withgood technical football," says Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett."On third down, that's when it gets more interesting, as you're trying tofigure out who's rushing, who's not rushing, what they're trying to take away.And the linebackers are all really good football players."
More important,they all fit a Belichick prototype. "A lot of teams draft linebackers tofill specific needs: one guy to be a vertical dynamo, just get up the field andrush the passer another guy to just stuff the run in the middle of thefield," says one NFL team staffer. "Bill is looking for a littledifferent guy, somebody who is multidimensional, who can drop or rush, stop therun or pursue. And he's got to be football smart, because there is a lot moreresponsibility than in a lot of other systems."
Banks says,"It's a system of interchangeable parts, so the offense can't pick outwho's rushing and who's dropping off. And accountability is big. The defense isset up for everybody to execute, and if one guy doesn't execute, everybodyknows it. There's tremendous peer pressure. You come off the field, and Billsays, 'Who got blocked?' You get confessions."
Belichick hascoached a long line of exceptional 'backers, from his Giants' crew to ClayMatthews in Cleveland, Mo Lewis with the New York Jets and McGinest and TedJohnson earlier with the Patriots. But the current linebacking corps might fithis ideal better than any other.
BRUSCHI WAS firstinto the room, a third-round draft pick in 1996 out of Arizona, where he had 52sacks and, according to his coach, Dick Tomey, a motor that never stopped. Hebecame a starter in his fourth year with New England, when Pete Carroll wascoach, but blossomed as an inside linebacker under Belichick. Offensive linemenwho should have been able to flatten the 6'1", 247-pound Bruschi couldn'tget to him. "He can play the run without being a real thumper," says anNFL assistant who has coached against the Patriots. "He competes becausehe's got great hands to keep blockers off him and great instincts."
Bruschi was neverbetter than in 2004, the Patriots' third Super Bowl season, when he had 122tackles, 3 1/2 sacks and three interceptions and made his first Pro Bowl."He was the guy you heard talking on every play, right up until thesnap," says Phifer, who played next to Bruschi on all three championshipteams. Just days after the Pro Bowl, Bruschi was hospitalized with a strokethat left him with blurred vision and numbness in his left arm and leg. Hisreturn to football, after intense physical therapy, in Week 8 of the 2005season was one of the most inspiring NFL stories in recent years.
Two seasons laterteams try to find holes in Bruschi's game. "If he has limitations now, heknows them so well that he's effective anyway," says another opponent'sassistant. "He maneuvers really well around big people inside. Nobody getsa clean shot on him." Says Bruschi, who suffers no lingering effects fromthe stroke, "I didn't come back until I was ready to play, so I am the sameplayer."
But in the largersense he is predictably changed. "Can I talk to my teammates a little bitdifferently after what I went through? I think so," says Bruschi. "I'ma little wiser, I think. What happened to me makes you rethink everything. Italso makes you stronger."
Vrabel isBruschi's compadre. He arrived in 2001, a former pass rushing hellion at OhioState who had stagnated for four seasons with the Steelers. The two have sharedso many snaps that they can communicate on the field without words or signals."Just a look," says Vrabel. Off the field their families became close,while Vrabel and Bruschi's friendship evolved into a chops-busting contest thatnearly imploded.
"Vrabes wouldtalk to me about giving me strokes on the golf course and how, when I left thehospital, I had my stroke walk really down," says Bruschi. "And at thetime he was negotiating a new contract, so I'm giving him a hard time aboutthat. Health and finances—those are two things that are usuallyoff-limits."
Says Vrabel,"It started going in a direction where it wasn't funny anymore. We werealways trying to see who could have the upper hand, and it was reaching a pointwhere two knuckleheads were just going to end up fighting each other. So westopped."
On the fieldVrabel is Belichick's good soldier. He flourished as a 3--4 outside linebackerfor four full seasons, but he was moved inside to replace Bruschi during the2005 season and again for the last five games of last year, after Seau brokehis right forearm. Vrabel's a weapon on goal line offense too: AgainstWashington in Week 8 he caught his 10th career touchdown pass, to go with 13tackles, three sacks and three forced fumbles—one of the more phenomenal statlines for a defender in recent memory. "Student of the game," saysThomas.
Garrett, whoseCowboys were manhandled by New England in Dallas on Oct. 14, says, "Vrabelknows that scheme so well. First, he's a Sam [strongside] linebacker, then he'sa Will [weakside] linebacker. Hand on the ground, then no hand on the ground.Incredible versatility." He's unpredictable, and, just as important,unselfish and unassuming. As Vrabel says, "I don't need a great story toldabout me to feel like I've had a good career."
IF VRABEL is theSwiss Army knife of this group, Colvin is the closest thing to a hammer. Onnearly every snap he is attacking off the edge with the kind of energy thatspurred the Pats to sign him to a seven-year, $30 million free-agent contractin 2003, after he had totaled 21 sacks in the previous two years for the Bears.On Sept. 14 of his first season in New England, he stumbled while trying torecover a fumble and dislocated his left hip.
His recovery hasbeen laborious. In the weeks after the injury his hip would slip out of jointas he sat on the edge of his bed to get dressed. He started only one game in2004 and 11 in '05, finishing with seven sacks. Last year he started 15 gamesand had 8 1/2 sacks. He hasn't missed a game this season, ringing up 22 tacklesand three sacks. Against Indy on Sunday his late fumble recovery killed theColts' last drive. "I'm still trying to get back to the player that wasadvertised when they signed me," Colvin, 30. "Fortunately my game hasnever been speed and strength. It's been about using my head."
Speed andstrength. That would be Thomas, the free-agent prize of the 2007 off-season, a6'2" specimen whose skill set—a defensive end's power, a linebacker'shands, a safety's speed—defies belief. "For a guy that big to run thatfast," says Phifer, "it's just not fair."
Thomas also holdshis own in the survivor department. At age 14 he was a passenger in aheavy-metal 1966 Ford Galaxie driven by his 18-year-old brother, Evoris, thatwas involved in a head-on collision near their home in Equality, Ala. Adalius'shead smashed into the windshield, and it took more than 400 stitches to closethe wounds. Years later he was still picking glass out of his scalp in theshower. A thick scar marks his forehead. "Good thing the car was a big oldantique," says Thomas, "or I'd probably be dead."
He was selected inthe sixth round of the 2000 draft out of Southern Mississippi and needed threeseasons to become a starter on the stacked Ravens defense, where he lined upall over the field. The Patriots put Thomas at inside linebacker and have kepthim there. "Playing one position is an adjustment," says Thomas."But I came here with an open mind. These guys were good long before I gothere."
Nobody savorsBelichick's system more than Seau does. Here's the proof: After 16 seasons—thelast three of them, with the Dolphins, unsatisfying—he was finished. Seauannounced his retirement (he called it a "graduation") on Aug. 14,2006. Four days later he signed with the Pats. "Bill Belichick calledJunior directly," says Seau's longtime agent, Marvin Demoff. "He askedwhat it would take to get Junior to come to New England. And it was not afinancial discussion."
What it took,predictably, was a chance to leave pro football with a ring. Seau, the onlyfirst-round draft pick of the bunch (Chargers, 1990), made 12 straight ProBowls from '91 through 2002, during which he averaged more than 116 tackles peryear and earned a reputation as one of the most energetic, instinctivelinebackers in the history of the game. "But the thing he kept coming backto," says Demoff, "was the joy he had with [San Diego coach] Bobby Rosswhen they went to the Super Bowl in 1994."
Says Seau,"I'm not about the [personal honors] anymore. I'm not about the ProBowls."
The Patriotssigned him to a one-year, $1 million deal for '06 with another potential$500,000 in incentives based on playing time. In Week 11 he broke both bones inhis right forearm making a tackle; two plates and 14 screws were surgicallyinserted, and Seau and the team patiently waited until late May to agree on onemore dance. Vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli signed Seau to thesame deal, but in late August, Pioli called Demoff and told him that the teamwas removing a clause in the contract that would have limited Seau'scompensation if he was injured early in the season. "He's been such apositive influence around here," Pioli told Demoff, "that we no longerneed that protection."
Seau has taken aminimalist approach to his sunset seasons. He moved into a condo in Boston,while his wife and three children remained in San Diego. "I brought threepair of jeans, four T-shirts and a suit that I keep in my locker forgames," says Seau. "I get up in the morning and I play football. It's asimple life at this point for me." Like Bruschi and Thomas, he has acceptedBelichick's three-man inside linebacker platoon with no public complaint.
After a decade anda half as one of the most prolific freelancing linebackers in the game'shistory, Seau has found a middle ground between his own instincts and thesystem. "He's toned it down," says Garrett, "but on some plays youcan see where his freelancing helps them. It can be confusing to theoffense."
In the locker roomSeau has brought a fresh excitement to the corporate efficiency of thePatriots. "Energizer Bunny," says Thomas. "Full of thatemotion." On Sept. 16, the first Sunday after the Patriots were caughtvideotaping the Jets' defensive signals, it was Seau whose voice was loudest,circling the room and imploring that everyone play for the honor of thefranchise and the coach. Three weeks later, on one of his two interceptionsagainst Cleveland, he held the ball at arm's length in traffic on his runback,a silly, celebratory act of pure joy.
APPRECIATIONdrives Seau, as it drives them all. On a midweek morning he walks down one ofthe long, wide hallways at field level of Gillette Stadium. Patriots playersare loath to express what might lie ahead, but they all see it. "I live dayto day, and I do not look ahead," says Seau. "But you do know it'ssomething special that's been put together with this team and these guys. I'min a good place."
He breaks into ajog, then passes through a wide archway and into the autumn sunshine, livingjust another beautiful day in the 'backerhood.
His return from a stroke was one of football's mostinspiring stories. "It makes you rethink everything," he says. "Italso makes you stronger."
Nobody savors Belichick's system more. "I get up inthe morning, and I play football," the future Hall of Famer says. "It'sa simple life at this point."
The closest thing to a hammer in the group. "Mygame has never been speed and strength," he says. "It's about using myhead."
The Pats' good soldier has 10 career TDs. "I don'tneed a great story told about me," he says, "to feel like I've had agood career."
The free-agent prize of 2007 has fit in seamlessly."I came here with an open mind," he says. "These guys were goodlong before I got here."
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Photograph by Heinz Kluetmeier
FAB FIVE The quintet of (clockwise from top) Thomas, Seau, Colvin, Vrabel and Bruschi boasts 58 years of NFL experience.
WINSLOW TOWNSON/AP (COLVIN)
MATT CAMPBELL/EPA (VRABEL)