Byline: David Elfin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
FOXBORO, Mass. - In a league that makes obsession with detail almost a job requirement for coaches, Bill Belichick stands apart in his single-minded attention to the little things. That is why Belichick makes his New England Patriots practice handling hundreds of different situations, just in case. That is why receivers Troy Brown and David Givens spent time playing at cornerback in the preseason, just in case.
That is why the Patriots have won two Super Bowls in the past three seasons. And that is why Belichick's team is on the cusp of greatness despite a pronounced lack of stars on its roster.
All the little things have added up to something very big - not that Belichick can see every big thing that comes his way.
"Bill can walk right by you without saying hello," a close colleague said. "He's not being rude. He's just always so focused on what he needs to get done."
Belichick has gotten it done quite nicely.
The Patriots won the Super Bowl last season. If they hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy again in February, they will rank as one of only four teams in NFL history - the 1940-43 Chicago Bears, the 1965-67 Green Bay Packers and the 1992-95 Dallas Cowboys are the others - to capture three titles in four years.
But unlike those star-laden powerhouses - the Packers, for example, have more players in the Hall of Fame (nine) than New England had in the Pro Bowl (six) - the Patriots don't blow their opponents away.
They are a reflection of their grind-it-out, no-nonsense coach.
They don't have a fantastic offense like that of the 1999 champion St. Louis Rams. They don't have a suffocating defense like that of the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002.
The Patriots win with brains because Belichick built them to win that way.
"We built the team the way we believed in doing it," Patriots vice president for player personnel Scott Pioli said in an office strewn with videotapes and scouting reports. "We were going to build a smart, tough and disciplined team that would consistently compete for a championship. It's not for us to judge exactly how different it is. We don't have a lot of sizzle, but we have substance."
That's not how champions are supposed to be built these days.
When the NFL implemented the salary cap in 1994, the prevailing wisdom held that teams would win Super Bowls by retaining a core of star players and filling in around them.
Not so with the Patriots, who have no stars other than Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law and quarterback Tom Brady. If Belichick were a teacher, his classroom would be filled with B+ students.
Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly knows a thing or two about how winners are formed. Casserly helped build the Washington Redskins' Super Bowl champions of 1982, 1987 and 1991.
Casserly credits the men with the headsets for making the Patriots special: Belichick, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, special teams coach Brad Seely and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
"Bill is an excellent coach. All three of his coordinators - Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Brad Seely - are among the best in the game, and so is their offensive line coach," Casserly said. "They have a lot of veteran guys on defense, and obviously Brady is a lot better than people thought coming out of college. But the Patriots don't win because their players are better."
The Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s in part because they had better players than everyone else. Nine Steelers from those teams are in the Hall of Fame.
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney was on hand for the creation of a dynasty in Pittsburgh, and he likes what he sees in the Patriots.
"It's funny that the Patriots haven't become more of a model for other organizations," Rooney said. "They don't let one player get too high. They have that togetherness that you need to win Super Bowls."
Bill Walsh, who coached the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl victories in 1981, 1984 and 1988, agrees.
"The Patriots go about things the right way," Walsh said. "They have a plan, and they stick to it. Other teams change directions much too quickly when things don't go well right away. And don't forget that Belichick is probably the best defensive coach ever."
Belichick, in fact, won two Super Bowl rings as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, leaving only Hall of Famers Chuck Noll, Walsh and Joe Gibbs with more.
Belichick also deserves credit for forging and maintaining that chemistry in an era of constant churn that has affected his team as much as the rest of the league. Only nine starters and 18 players overall remain from the Patriots team that won Super Bowl XXXVI after the 2001 season.
"When I watched the Patriots the last couple of years, I looked at the defense and saw how they switched people in and out but still played like a unit," said Corey Dillon, the Pro Bowl halfback Belichick acquired from the Cincinnati Bengals in April. "I looked at that and said, 'Man. This is a team. This is one unit. This is one heartbeat.'''
The lifeblood of that heartbeat is Belichick's obsessive attention to detail. The Patriots practice handling hundreds of situations so they can draw on those experiences if necessary.
"We have been very good in close games for that reason," Brady said.
Indeed. The Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the early 1990s by an average of 21 points.
The Patriots did not win their titles quite as easily: It took last-minute drives and last-second field goals for the Patriots to pull out their championships. Their escapes in the AFC playoffs have been as narrow and dramatic. The Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans in the postseason last year on another late field goal, and it took overtime and the "Tuck Rule" to give them a snowy victory over the Oakland Raiders in 2001.
Brady, at 27, is so poised that Walsh compares him favorably to Joe Montana, who quarterbacked the coach's 49ers to three titles.
Belichick's relentless preparation and Brady's cool unflappability are reflected in the rest of the Patriots.
"We don't think about winning three Super Bowls in four years," said guard Joe Andruzzi. "I didn't even realize we had won 15 straight. I'm so focused on taking it one day and one game at a time that sometimes I don't even know who we're playing the next week. If you look forward or think about the past, you're going to forget about the present."
That focus helped the Patriots survive a staggering series of injuries early last season, a streak of misfortune that peaked on Sept. 28 against the Redskins. The Patriots played without 11 starters that day and lost.
They haven't lost since, in part because they were built to be versatile enough to withstand blows that might cripple other teams.
Linebacker Mike Vrabel caught a touchdown pass as a tight end in the Super Bowl. Receivers Brown and Givens played at cornerback in the preseason. Dan Klecko, a nose tackle as a rookie last year, is practicing at linebacker and fullback.
Top defensive lineman Richard Seymour has played fullback. Willie McGinest has gone to the Pro Bowl as both an end and a linebacker. And Belichick is one of the few coaches who uses both the traditional 4-3 and the 3-4 defensive alignments.
"When you can only carry 45 [active] players, you can't have a backup for every spot," Belichick said. "You have a couple kickers, a snapper and some quarterbacks and as you get into your multiple-receiver and multiple-defensive back groups, there's no way to carry 10 or 12 defensive backs or seven or eight receivers. So either somebody has to learn two or three positions or you take guys and use them on the other side of the ball."
The usually dour Belichick lets in a little sunshine when he discusses the upcoming season. He allows that this team is in better shape to defend its crown than was the 2002 squad that not only failed to defend its title but also went 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
"We have more experience in doing the things we're doing," said Belichick, typically conducting a semi-private interview by the elevator in between meetings instead of ushering his guest into his office. "We've been in the system longer. The coaching staff has a little more experience together than it did two years ago. A lot of those residual things make you feel a little bit better. You hope you're ahead of where you were two years ago. ... You should be."
And ahead of the rest of the league.…