How do you win respect in the NFL? Well, winning the Super Bowl's a good start. Unless you happen to be the Patriots.
"Someone told me that Las Vegas has an over-under of 8� [wins] for us," quarterback Tom Brady says. It's true. The Imperial Palace in Vegas has assigned the defending champions a position slightly above mediocre. Ten teams are projected to win more games. Last season the Patriots beat five of them.
"See? No respect again," says Brady, who started for injured Drew Bledsoe in the third game last year and closed out the season with nine straight victories, ending with his game-winning drive for a field goal in the Super Bowl. "In a sense, it's frustrating. In another, who gives a damn? All I know is that I've got a Super Bowl ring on my finger."
"Always fighting, always the underdog, that's us," says strong safety Lawyer Milloy.
Last year coach Bill Belichick and player personnel director Scott Pioli handpicked personnel who fit a mold: hard workers, role players, guys willing to sacrifice, such as Willie McGinest, who gave up his job as a pass rusher in the Super Bowl to perform the mundane task of chipping away at Rams running back Marshall Faulk, blunting his effectiveness as a pass receiver. Faulk's numbers: four catches, 54 yards, no touchdowns.
In the Pro Bowl voting, only two New England players, Brady and Milloy, were picked—the lowest number for any championship team in the 32 years the game has been played in the AFC-NFC format. (Two other Pats, cornerback Ty Law and wideout Troy Brown, were added later as injury replacements.) "The best names on the market, the superstars and big-contract guys, aren't always what you need to win with," says cornerback Otis Smith, a Jets castoff. "You need players. The guys who are superfast, who can jump over a stadium, yeah, they're nice. But you only need the guy who can beat the man he's playing against."
The buzz out of Pittsburgh, one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites, is the return of 19 starters. New England brings back 19 too. Plus the Pats fortified themselves at tight end, picking up Christian Fauria from the Seahawks and Cam Cleeland from the Saints as well as drafting Daniel Graham of Colorado in the first round. They've added two quality wideouts, Donald Hayes ( Panthers) and rookie Deion Branch of Louisville; a pair of nickelbacks, Victor Green (Jets) and Tommy Knight (Cardinals); and a defensive end, former Jet Rick Lyle. And Brady, protected in a system that will not call on him to win games on his own, should be even better.
The Patriots should be improved. So why no respect?
"People talk about this as a motivating tool," Belichick says. "But you know where motivation comes from? From knowing what you're doing, from being in the right defense. The other stuff—the speeches, the emotion, running through a brick wall—is overrated. This is a team with leaders. Do you think you have to give a Lawyer Milloy or a Willie McGinest a pregame speech? They wait all week for Sunday."
Early in August, though, Belichick did take his team to the Imax Theater in Providence for, well, no one quite knew for what. Then the curtain opened, and out stepped one of the greatest team players who ever lived, former Boston Celtic Bill Russell, the center on 11 NBA championship teams. The topic of his 45-minute address: how to repeat as a champion.