Patriots Win on Sound Economic Plan

Saturday, January 29th 2005, 11:41 am
By: News On 6

Tom Brady threw 28 touchdown passes this season, barely more than half the 49 Peyton Manning threw for the Colts in setting an NFL single-season record. But the only numbers the New England Patriots care about are these: Brady has two Super Bowl rings going on a third, and Manning has never even gotten to the game.

One reason: The total value of Brady's current contract (around $30 million) is less than the signing bonus Manning received from the Colts last summer, giving the Patriots far more salary-cap room to pay a supporting cast.

``We're about winning. If I have to take a little less to stay here and win, I will,'' said defensive end Willie McGinest, who has been in New England for 11 years. ``I've been to three Super Bowls and won two. Now I'm going to my fourth. I might have gotten a little more money from other teams, but I wouldn't have the rings.''

How long New England stays on top could be dictated by the cap. At some point, Brady will have to get big money and so will defensive lineman Richard Seymour, a Pro Bowler in three of his first four NFL seasons.

But McGinest's philosophy reflects the views of many of his teammates, some of whom have taken less money to stay with a winner. And winners they are: New England will be trying for its third Super Bowl title in four years in next Sunday's game against Philadelphia.

It's a team of finely meshed parts put together by coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli, one that's 33-4 over the past two seasons and has become every NFL executive's idea of a model franchise. And they've done it without any identifiable superstar except Brady.

Brady's stardom comes from his two Super Bowl MVP awards and his cover-boy good looks. In an era of posturing and strutting, he treats his celebrity with a ``Who, me?'' personality.

And the key for the Patriots is that he's not paid like a modern superstar.

After New England's first Super Bowl victory in 2002, the Patriots redid a contract that had paid the sixth-round draft choice a six-figure salary _ giving him a deal worth $28 million over four years.

It was redone again to help the Patriots adjust to the salary cap, but Brady remains a bargain. Manning got $34.5 million as a signing bonus alone last summer as part of a seven-year, $98 million deal.

The Colts quarterback justified it by setting an NFL record with those 49 touchdown passes. But his team lost 20-3 to the Patriots in the second round of the playoffs, and still needs to get much better on defense because it spends more than 70 percent of its salary cap money for offense.

No such problem in New England, where the money is spread more evenly.

``I hate the word 'high-priced,' I hate the whole concept,'' Pioli has said. ``You can find good players everywhere. Just because a player has a marquee name or a big price tag doesn't mean that he's a good player.''

That also was the philosophy held by the men who put together the great teams of the '80s, before the salary cap took effect.

Bill Walsh in San Francisco had Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott. But he also collected an excellent supporting cast, players who often were overlooked.

Bobby Beathard and Joe Gibbs in Washington won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and the stars of those teams were the ``Hogs'' _ offensive linemen.

George Young and Bill Parcells won two Super Bowls for the Giants with far more than Lawrence Taylor, the superstar linebacker who was the public face of the team. One of the other stars, in fact, was a young defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick.

But these days, money rules. If it dictates what a player wants to do, the Patriots' attitude is ``so be it.''

Thus, offensive lineman Damien Woody accepted a $31 million package from Detroit last spring, turning down slightly less from New England. Much was made of the release of safety Lawyer Milloy just before the 2003 season, but he was deemed too expensive and past his prime.

The quintessential Patriot is Troy Brown, in his 12th season with the team.

Brown had 198 catches in 2001 and 2002, but just 17 this year as he doubled as a defensive back to help replace the injured Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. He is making $760,000 this season and is the kind of guy who might take a cut from the $2.5 million he'll get next year to help the team.

Unselfish players are part of the profile developed by Belichick and Pioli, who are given total personnel freedom by owner Robert Kraft _ another key to a winning franchise. (See Jerry Jones in Dallas and Daniel Snyder in Washington for the other side.)

Every year, New England scouts approximately 4,000 college players. But the ``A'' list is down to around 100 on draft day, with players judged on leadership, selflessness and the ability to fit the team's unusual schemes as much as on athletic ability.

``We have our own internal code,'' said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, a defensive lineman in college who has become a playmaking linebacker as a pro. ``We have our own work ethic and the younger guys usually come in and conform to it. If they don't, us older guys let him know quickly.''

The system isn't simple.

It needs astute scouts to identify players who can fit a place where the supporting cast is just as important as the starters, and it needs good drafts, as New England has had three years running. Beyond that, the Patriots are one of the few teams that seem to be able to plug in a guy off the practice squad or even the street and not miss much.

It's no coincidence the team that most closely approximates the Patriots is Philadelphia, whose assistant director of player personnel, Jason Licht, was lured from New England before the 2003 season.

But after losing three consecutive NFC title games, the Eagles finally went the big money/big name route last spring, trading for Terrell Owens and signing Jevon Kearse. Both played key roles in getting them to Jacksonville.

Philadelphia also has let go high-priced players like Jeremiah Trotter and Hugh Douglas, only to get them back for much less. Trotter, a star in Philly the first time around but an injury-plagued disappointment in Washington, made the Pro Bowl his first season back with the Eagles.

That cap has brought down other successful teams.

San Francisco, which won five Super Bowls between the 1981 and 1994 seasons, pioneered cap circumvention. The originators were team president Carmen Policy and Leigh Steinberg, the agent for Steve Young and five other 49ers, who would extend contracts with new signing bonuses to keep the hit on the cap fairly low.

But the hits came after the players retired or left San Francisco, and the 4-12 and 6-10 teams of 1999 and 2000 were the result.

The same was true for Dallas, which won three Super Bowls from 1992-95. (No coincidence: Steinberg was the agent for Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman.)

Jimmy Johnson resigned as Dallas coach after the 1993 season and Jones made himself owner/GM. The Cowboys won one more Super Bowl because of the residual talent, but the drafts were poor, and by 1997 they were far over the cap and had to dump players despite no new stars from the draft.

The result: three straight 5-11 seasons from 2000-2002.

Lesser teams have suffered too because of poor personnel decisions.

The Giants, for example, went to the Super Bowl in 2000, then gave big money to defensive back Jason Sehorn, who declined markedly because of injury. That and some questionable drafts put the team in cap trouble and the Giants were 4-12 in 2003 and 6-10 in 2004.

That's what makes the Patriots' run remarkable.

``We never could have kept our team together under this system,'' said Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, whose team won four Super Bowls between 1974 and 1979 with a team loaded with eventual Hall of Famers. ``Just try to imagine paying all those people and staying under a certain number.''

Very few Patriots seem headed for Hall of Fame careers. They have just four Pro Bowlers this season and two (kicker Adam Vinatieri and special teamer Larry Izzo) aren't on the field as regulars.

Even most of the executives stay, although offensive coordinator Charlie Weis already has been hired to coach Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is expected to take over the Cleveland Browns.

Pioli, Parcells' son-in-law, has been courted by a number of teams for vacant general manager jobs. He's told them that he will honor his contract with New England, which expires in 2006.

Granted, he is paid well by Kraft.

But being with a winner has its own rewards.