THE 2002 SuperBowl—Patriots 20, Rams 17—had been over for a few hours, and Bill Belichick,the New England coach, shook his head and mumbled to the few people near him,"Can you believe we won the Super Bowl with this?"
It was hard tobelieve then that Belichick's collection of castoffs and reclamation projectshad become world champions. Now it's not so hard. In an era in which dynastiesare supposedly impossible because of the salary cap, free agency and so forth,the Patriots under Belichick have marched through the 21st century likemedieval warlords. In the last seven years they've won three Super Bowls infour appearances, and they're overwhelming favorites to be back this year.
Oh sure, there'salways some tweaking to do. Two years ago they wouldn't pay the price to keepDavid Givens and Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, so off went their two topwideouts. "Give me wide receivers," Tom Brady said after the 2006season, in one of his few public shows of annoyance. So in came a supposedlywashed-up Randy Moss, who had an All-Pro year, and Wes Welker, Brady's magicianon the hot reads, who tied for the league lead in receptions.
This year's draftwas for defense, for need. Most Patriots drafts are. Thirty-nine-year-oldJunior Seau was commended for his faithful service but was not invited back.His spot, the coaching staff hopes, will go to top pick Jerod Mayo, asize-and-speed linebacker from Tennessee who brings a lot of wallop butadmitted in camp that Belichick's defenses, at times, were "a blur."There are plenty of veterans to help him. Two corners, including All-Pro AsanteSamuel, were lost to free agency, but two more, Jason Webster and FernandoBryant, came in by the same route, from Buffalo and Detroit, respectively.
People knowbetter, by now, than to question personnel director Scott Pioli's drafts andtrades. How many players have left the club and blossomed elsewhere? Almostnone. Who, aside from the most obsessed draftniks, had ever heard of LoganMankins before New England took him with a first-round pick in 2005? But inthree years he has become one of the NFL's best guards.
The machine grindson. Distractions are not allowed. You think Spygate couldn't have been a majordistraction last year? Three quarters of a million dollars in fines from theleague office because of the illicit videotaping, loss of a No. 1 draft choice,ugly stares on the street. Some distraction. The season ended 18--1, and if theGiants' Eli Manning hadn't pulled a Houdini and squeezed out of a rush, andDavid Tyree hadn't pretended the ball was a long-distance phone call andclasped it to his ear, the Pats would have been 19--0 and Super Bowlchamps.
Distractions arekept to a minimum around the Patriots, thanks to a net of security around theclub that's tighter than a nosetackle's jersey. Mystery surrounds all playerson the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list. The league policy on disclosureis muddled, more like, "well, it would be nice if they did come clean."Not the Patriots. When strong safety Rodney Harrison came off the PUP list lastmonth, he was asked, "Why were you on it?"
His eyes sparkled."Now you know better than to ask me something like that," he said.
Brady addressedreporters when he first came to camp and didn't speak again for another threeweeks. Moss didn't meet with the media at all until mid-August.
Whipped dogs,that's what the Boston press corps covering the Patriots has become.Belichick's daily press conferences are now exercises in how many ways he cansay, "All we're doing is trying to get better." Assistant coaches areoff-limits. The ring of security is tight. And it will be strange indeed ifthis team is not standing front and center in Raymond James Stadium in Tampacome February.
PROJECTED STARTINGLINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH BILL BELICHICK (127--81 in NFL), ninth seasonwith Patriots
SACKS 12 1/2
Fernando BRYANT --New ACQUISITION
Jerod MAYO (R) --New ACQUISITION
SACKS 1 1/2
SACKS 1 1/2
SACKS 6 1/2
New ACQUISITION(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2007 RECORD 16--0NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 13/1/1 DEFENSE 10/6/4
7 KANSAS CITY
14 at N.Y. Jets
5 at San Francisco
12 at San Diego
20 DENVER (M)
26 ST. LOUIS
2 at Indianapolis
13 N.Y. JETS (T)
23 at Miami
7 at Seattle
14 at Oakland
28 at Buffalo
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL Rank: 32
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .387
Games against playoff teams: 4
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Patriots' units.
Best in the business—do-it-all Brady makes his teammates better.
LaMont Jordan could be the short-yardage/third-down weapon.
With Moss and Welker, everyone else draws single coverage.
Keys are Watson's heath, finding a reliable blocker.
Played well until Super Bowl; Light's health is key.
Big, physical; cannot be moved off the line of scrimmage.
Rookie Jerod Mayo's speed, quickness will enhance front seven.
Disciplined and well-coached; have added youth and speed.
Coverage teams are solid; need more from return game.
The Patriots have had a good run at left corner withPro Bowl picks Ty Law and Asante Samuel, and now they're looking for this31-year-old free agent to continue the tradition. If Bryant, who spent fivequality years with the Jags before going to the Lions, still has his oldcoverage skills, they're onto something special.
NOW AT SI.COM
EXCERPTED FROM SI
December 12, 2005
EVEN THEN he knew that preparation and rehearsal, thegrinding work of constructing football excellence, pays off in the publicperformance. Sooner or later, to be complete in what you do and who you are,you have to leave the silence and walk toward the cheers. "I love itso," Brady says. "Just running out there in front of 70,000people....
--Charles P. Pierce
Free access to all PATRIOTS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
RICH KANE/US PRESSWIRE
ALL FOR ONE Mankins, a no-name turned Pro Bowl pick, typifies the Patriot way.
LYNN JOHNSON (COVER)