Belichick and Pioli studied more than 200 free agents in early 2001. They signed 17 bit players who made the team the next season for a piddling signing-bonus charge of $2.7 million combined. One was Mike Vrabel, miscast as a special-teamer and a backup linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Belichick thought the speedy and athletic Vrabel could fill two roles--dropping into coverage from defensive end or linebacker, and as a nickel pass rusher.
"Until the Patriots called me, I thought seriously of going to law school, because my career with Pittsburgh wasn't working out," says Vrabel. "I didn't think anyone would find a way to use me. But I was amazed how much Bill knew about me. One day he came up to me and said, 'Remember in that Miami preseason game last year, how you played the power block? That's how we want to do it here.' In situational football, which is basically what the NFL is today, he's got to be the best mind out there." Against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, Vrabel pressured Kurt Warner into an interception that cornerback Ty Law returned for a touchdown. In Super Bowl XXXVIII, Vrabel had two sacks against Carolina and, in a classic display of Belichick ingenuity, caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Tom Brady.
Having studied the game for so long, and having understood it since age 12, Belichick has the confidence to try anything that makes sense to him. He is always open to suggestions from his assistants. Before the 2004 Super Bowl he was concerned about the power running of Carolina's Stephen Davis, so defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel suggested disguising a scheme that got backup linemen Jarvis Green and Ty Warren more involved. Davis carried 13 times for 49 yards.
The first time New England faced quarterback Drew Bledsoe after trading him to Buffalo in 2002, the Patriots surprised the Bills by not blitzing. Seven or eight times in the game, New England used a defense that had no linemen, four linebackers standing at or near the line and seven defensive backs. The Pats won 38--7. Against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game in January 2004, New England told its players to be extremely physical with the Colts' wide receivers. On eight to 10 plays the Pats flopped Law and safety Rodney Harrison in their coverage of Marvin Harrison. The idea was to encourage Peyton Manning to throw short to Marvin Harrison, which would allow the defense to clobber the All-Pro wideout. If Manning elected to throw deep, Law would be there with blanket coverage. The four interceptions thrown by Manning, three of them by Law, told the story of the game. "There was a lot we hadn't seen," says Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy. "But that's the thing about Bill. He's not afraid to take risks."
That's why Belichick was in Baton Rouge last February. Even though his defense allowed the fewest points per game in the league during the '03 season (14.9) and held opponents to the fewest yards per pass attempt (5.23), Belichick wasn't about to stand pat. "He had just won the Super Bowl, for crying out loud, but here he was," says Saban. "We went at it for two days."
One new scheme Belichick came away with was a way to make his Cover 4 look like Cover 2. In Cover 4 a quartet of defensive backs spreads out across the deep secondary, each taking a quarter of the field. In Cover 2 two deep safeties are responsible for half the field. A quarterback has maybe three seconds from the time he takes the snap to the time he releases the ball. If he's expecting two deep safeties, he'd be pretty comfortable throwing an 18-yard out, assuming the receiver can beat his corner to the sideline. If while the quarterback drops, Cover 2 morphs into Cover 4, the intermediate and deep areas suddenly get crowded. A panicked quarterback might not recognize the change until too late.
At a minicamp last June, Brady went against Belichick's new scheme for the first time. "I was sure it was Cover 2, then all of a sudden I'm seeing Cover 4," Brady says. "The more I don't understand what I'm seeing, the longer it takes me to get into my read progression. The later I throw, the better the chances are for an incompletion or interception."
Belichick knows, however, that sustaining success in today's NFL requires more than just devising defensive wrinkles. When he met with Johnson this past off-season, the topic was how to keep a championship team together. "You've won two of the last three Super Bowls," Johnson said, "and the problem with that is that everyone in the organization thinks they're a bigger reason than they are for your winning." Johnson's advice: Quietly put incentives into the contracts of players you want to keep, don't redo any contract until the last season of the deal and figure out who you can win without.
"Jimmy's really the only guy in this era who's lived it, who's dealt with what we're dealing with, and more," Belichick says. "Who else am I gonna talk to?"
"You must adapt to your opportunities and weaknesses. You can use a variety of approaches and still have a consistent result."