A FEW DAYS AFTER BILL BELICHICK'S awkward divorce from the New York Jets and hiring as coach of the New England Patriots in January 2000 (who can forget his bizarre resignation as HC of the NYJ?), he was holed up in his coaching office with his right-hand personnel man, Scott Pioli. The subjects: free agency, and what the Patriots could do to improve an 8--8 team immediately despite major salary-cap problems.
At the time the apple of the Patriots' eye was free-agent lineman Jon Runyan, a 325-pound right tackle who was coming into his own with the Tennessee Titans. Belichick didn't like the lack of physicality or feistiness of the New England line and was planning major changes (not a single lineman from the 1999 team was on this past season's roster), and Runyan, at 26, was the poster child for a smart, mauling, young offensive tackle. There was just one small problem. Money. The Patriots were $10.5 million over the 2000 salary cap the day Belichick took the job, and he was determined to get the cap straightened out immediately. Was there any way to add Runyan and whack the cap down to size?
The answer was no. And so it happened that refusing to spend $30 million on Jon Runyan was the first building block of the greatest football team of this century (so far). The ability to just say no, even when that would temporarily delay the rebuilding of the team, was essential. "My father and mother never had a credit card," Pioli said during Super Bowl week. "What they really needed, they bought. And that gave me the attitude I have today: Don't borrow against the future for what you need today."
The Patriots' financial savvy is at the top of the 10 reasons why the team has ruled the league this decade. Here's a look at what has gone into making this franchise great.
1 INTELLIGENT SPENDING
WHEN THE Patriots were faced with trying to keep a defensive tackle ( Chad Eaton) they really wanted early in 2001, they told him to go get the best offer he could--and then New England would determine whether to match it. Eaton came back with a four-year, $10.7 million offer from Seattle, with a $3.5 million signing bonus. Too much for a good-but-not-great player, and the Patriots passed. Instead they signed 20 middle-class free agents, role players like pass rusher--special-teamer Mike Vrabel (50), a reserve at the time for the Steelers, for the same signing bonus total that would have gone to matching the offer for Eaton.
2 COACHING EXPERTISE ON BOTH SIDES OF THE FOOTBALL
THE REASON Belichick has such an edge in big games is he's been schooled on offense and defense more thoroughly than any coach in recent times. The son of a 33-year Navy assistant coach, Belichick began sitting in on Midshipmen scouting meetings while in grade school. He began diagramming detailed offensive plays by age 11. Though his forte is defense, he's fluent in offense, and he's been active in coaching Patriots quarterbacks since the death of quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein before training camp in 2001. Though coordinators Romeo Crennel (above) and Charlie Weis will coach the Browns and Notre Dame, respectively, next fall, Belichick and his coordinators have trained a solid staff of teachers, two of whom will take the places of the offensive and the defensive bosses. Belichick is counting on the knowledge that the younger coaches have soaked up from four years of offensive and defensive staff meetings to fill the gaps.
3 A TEAM ATMOSPHERE THAT ISN'T CORNY
LINEBACKER Tedy Bruschi faced free agency last spring by walking into Pioli's (above, with Belichick) office to try to get a deal done. "I want to be treated fairly, and I want to stay," he said. Acting as his own agent, Bruschi negotiated a four-year, $8.1 million extension in line with the other good-but-not-top-three inside linebackers in the NFL. He then went out and had a Pro Bowl year. Certainly he could have done better had he hit the open market this year. "I'd be lying to you if I said I never thought about that," Bruschi said, "but I know what's important to me. Winning is important, and feeling a part of something great. So I'm O.K. with where I am." As are the vast majority of the 53 players on the Pats' roster.