Patriots, Panthers poised for another Super Bowl run
Posted: Monday February 2, 2004 9:17PM; Updated: Monday February 2, 2004 10:41PM
How many Super Bowl rings will Tom Brady end up with? It's a scary thought to ponder.
HOUSTON -- Save all the dynasty talk for now. But what you safely can say regarding the future aspirations of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots is this: They're as well positioned as any team in the NFL's 10-year free-agency era to put together a run of sustained excellence.
The three-(Super Bowl)-ring circus known as the Dallas Cowboys of the early to mid-1990s -- a team that came of age just as free agency was dawning -- was the last NFL champion to have so much reason for optimism after the partying died down.
And there's cause for hope in Carolina, too. The Super Bowl runners-up are in the tough NFC South and probably won't be favored to return to the NFL's biggest game next year. But they've got many of the same solid components in place as New England and should be contenders for the foreseeable future.
But first, consider New England's situation as what will be its brief 2004 offseason finally arrives:
The Patriots definitely have some work to do on the salary cap front and in free agency, but they're in a manageable position and already have most of their hard financial choices behind them.
The Patriots own -- and we mean own -- the top of the NFL Draft in a way that no defending Super Bowl champion perhaps ever has. New England has four of the draft's top 64 picks, and its overall bounty includes two first-rounders, two second-rounders, a third and two fourths. The rich get richer.
The Patriots have outstanding intangibles: unparalleled team chemistry. A two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback who's just 26, praise be, and still not in his prime. And a healthy blend of youth and veteran leadership throughout the roster. When you factor in Bill Belichick, the rest of his NFL-best coaching staff and the recognized talents of vice president player personnel Scott Pioli, New England is sitting on a winning hand that could keep right on dealing defeat to the rest of the league.
"It will be just as competitive next year as it was this year, and we'll have to play better than we did this season,'' said Belichick on Monday, whose team won its final 15 games, the second-longest one-season streak in NFL history. "As far as the future goes, my plan would be the same as it was this year: Take it one day at a time, one week at a time.
"Whether it's drafting a player, signing a player, it's just so hard to win. And to think that one team out of 32 could consistently beat the other 31 forever and ever, conceptually that's hard to really understand why or how that's going to happen."
New England: Salary cap
As things stand today, the Patriots have 49 players on their roster with total cap charges of $82.4 million for 2004 . That's about $3.7 million over the projected $78.7 million league-wide 2004 cap, making them the fifth-highest over-the-cap team in the league. But that's somewhat deceiving because the Patriots feel they have a handle on what moves they have to make in order to free up cap room and that their work won't be too difficult.
Once thought to be headed the way of the cap-banished Lawyer Milloy, it now appears that star cornerback Ty Law will be retained, even though he carries a $9.45 million cap charge in 2004. The Patriots no doubt wouldn't mind redoing that deal to lessen the cap implications, but they've done their 2004 planning with Law at that figure and can live with it.
Other key players who carry sizable cap charges, with some in line for fast-approaching roster bonuses, include linebacker Willie McGinest ($5.2 million cap charge), receiver Troy Brown ($5.1 million), running back Antowain Smith ($4.2 million), linebacker Mike Vrabel ($3.7 million) and linebacker Roman Phifer ($3.3 million). Some, but not all, of those players will be back next season as New England faces decisions in its attempt to get younger at linebacker, receiver and running back.
Where the Patriots do an outstanding job is on the underappreciated task of assigning cap values to players based on their position and how well they conform to their system. The Patriots have rarely deviated from their cap planning, as the shocking release of Milloy exhibited late last preseason. Now that they've won two Super Bowls in three years, the Patriots' Way is more proven than ever.
"One of the things we've set out to accomplish here is to have a team with depth in an age when people say you can't build a team with depth because the salary cap doesn't allow you to," Pioli said last week. "People like to say that because they like to use that an excuse. We have tried to find a way to do that, to build a team with depth, and we've done it."
"For us, it's mandatory. Some teams would rather run their programs by being top heavy [from a cap standpoint], and there's been teams that won championships by doing things that way. For them that's the right way, but not necessarily the right way for us. For our purposes, for how we build a team, we think our methods give us a better chance to win consistently."
New England: Free agency
In free agency, New England has a long list of 20 unrestricted free agents and one restricted. But it doesn't have many must-haves. On their own roster, the players prioritized by the Patriots will be veteran defensive linemen Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton, because New England feels you never have too much quality at that key position.
Washington was obtained from Chicago in the preseason in exchange for a fourth-round next year -- a selection that was the Patriots' third fourth-rounder in 2004. How much of a steal does that rate today?
The return of center Damien Woody is a little less certain. Woody is well-respected in the league and likely will draw considerable interest on the open market. But it's not the Patriots' style to get into a bidding war with anyone and it's safe to assume New England won't break the bank to keep him if his price tag approaches the $5 million per year range.
Running back Kevin Faulk, a part-time starter, also is an unrestricted free agent, and the Patriots would like him back at the right price. His future will be impacted to a degree by the decision New England makes on Smith and how high the Patriots decide to select a running back in the draft.
One more footnote: New England is not expecting to deal with any issue regarding quarterback Tom Brady's contract. Brady received a new deal two years ago after leading the Patriots to their first Super Bowl title, and he's signed through 2006. His cap numbers the next three seasons are manageable for a quarterback of his star value: $8.4 million in 2004 and 2005, with a $9.4 million cap charge in 2006.
New England: The Draft
No other team has four picks in the first two rounds of April's lottery. But the defending Super Bowl champions do. How's that for an embarrassment of riches?
In addition to their own No. 32 pick, the Patriots own Baltimore's first-rounder as payment for last year's Kyle Boller draft-slot trade. In the second round, New England has its No. 64 pick plus Miami's No. 2, stemming from a swap last year that sent the Patriots' third-rounder to the Dolphins.
Needs? Youth at running back, linebacker and receiver, plus the secondary, where safety Rodney Harrison, and cornerbacks Law and Tyrone Poole won't be around forever.
But the Patriots are in the enviable position of being able to draft players who don't have to play immediately and can learn behind veterans.
New England: The schedule
The Patriots were 10-0 against winning teams this year, the best mark in NFL history. And from here, things don't look like they'll get a lot easier. New England faces seven teams next year that won at least 10 games this season, including 2003 playoff teams Baltimore, Seattle, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City. Miami was the other double-digit winner.
Also, several teams that either finished at or near .500, or are expected to improve in 2004 are on the horizon. Among them: Cincinnati, San Francisco, the Jets and Buffalo.
"The NFL is so competitive, there's so many great players and coaches, so many talented people in this league,'' Belichick said. "At 32 teams, we're all really playing on a level field, all trying to get to the same point, banging their heads against each other.''
Carolina: Salary cap
The Panthers can bank on a great young talent like tailback DeShaun Foster.
The Panthers didn't climb that one last mile, but they got far closer to the summit than anyone had a right to imagine at the start of the season. And from a cap standpoint at least, they're not going to lose their hard-fought ground this offseason.
With 43 players on its roster for 2004 at the moment, Carolina has about $12.8 million of cap room. Only eight teams currently have more cap room as February begins. Some of that cushion is already spoken for. The Panthers will pay between $3 million and $4 million in 2003 incentives that were earned, such as the $2.5 million to running back Stephen Davis and $1 million or so for quarterback Jake Delhomme is owed. But that still leaves Carolina with roughly $9.5 million of cap room to operate with, and that should make for a comfortable next three months.
"We're in pretty good shape,'' Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "We feel like we're in a pretty good position. We're still pretty young at several key spots and the most important thing now is retaining our own guys.''
The Panthers have only four players with a cap number higher than $4 million: Receiver Muhsin Muhammad, offensive tackle Todd Steussie, safety Mike Minter and defensive end Mike Rucker. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins is a little shy of $4 million. That kind of cap flexibility is rare for a Super Bowl participant these days.
Carolina: Free agency
The Panthers have 17 unrestricted free agents and six more restricteds. They want very much to retain their starting core, which means the players who will get the most attention include free safety Deon Grant, cornerback Reggie Howard, guard Jeno James, kicker John Kasay and valuable reserve defensive end Al Wallace.
In addition, receiver Steve Smith, one of the team's MVPs, is a restricted free agent and will elicit a first-round tender in the range of $1.4 million. Wrapping up a big deal with Smith and keeping him off the market will be a priority. Also on the radar screen will be role players like longsnapper Jason Kyle and reserve tight end Kris Mangum, both of whom are unrestricted.
"We tried to improve on defense two years ago and on offense last year,'' Hurney said. "Now we're at a point where we should be able to sprinkle in players on both sides of the ball.''
Carolina: The Draft
The Panthers have just their seven picks, one in each round. For the first time in team history, they'll be drafting as low as 31st. Carolina's needs are fairly obvious. They've got to get improve at cornerback, where Ricky Manning had a rough Super Bowl after a standout first three games of the postseason, and linebacker, where veteran Mark Fields missed the 2003 season in his fight against cancer.
Other positions that figure to be addressed are receiver, offensive line and tight end. Muhammad is an original Panther and his replacement needs to be sought. On the offensive line, left tackle Steussie may eventually be replaced by right tackle Jordan Gross, who excelled as a rookie in 2003, and Carolina is waiting to see if free-agent guard Kevin Donnalley will return for a 14th NFL season.
Carolina: The schedule
The NFC South looks like a slugfest every year, with Carolina, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Atlanta trading blows. Staying on top isn't going to be easy for the Panthers, who surged this season behind a knack for winning close games.
The key questions are: How will Carolina deal with success? Will the Panthers stay hungry and continue to buy into the culture and mindset that has been developed by head coach John Fox? Will the Panthers' blueprint of running the ball and playing strong defense translate into another 11-win season and a deep playoff run?
Next year, the Panthers face a challenging schedule that includes 2003 playoff teams Philadelphia, Kansas City, Denver and Seattle on the road, and Green Bay and St. Louis at home. That's in addition to its six games against the Bucs, Saints and Falcons.
"It happened quickly for us this year, but I don't think it was a fluke,'' Hurney said. "I think we proved we've got a pretty good football team. We beat too many good teams to say otherwise. It was a special group.''