- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — The Patriots and Eagles aren’t just the best teams in their conferences, they’re also, far and away, the best-run organizations in the NFL. So Sunday’s Super Bowl is more than just a game; for the other 30 clubs in the league, it’s a seminar on how to be successful in pro football. If executives with other franchises are smart, they’re taking notes, copious ones, on how the Pats and Eagles go about doing things.

Any team can have one good year, but to be able to sustain excellence is a much trickier proposition. That’s what the Patriots and Eagles have done. The Pats are going for their third championship in four seasons, a feat matched in modern times only by the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys and the Vince Lombardi Packers. The Eagles, meanwhile, have won a dozen or more games five straight seasons — and have made it to the NFC title game the last four. That’s one heck of a run.

The two teams have managed to do this, moreover, in an era that isn’t very dynasty-friendly. You’re not supposed to be able to be good for very long any more, not with free agency and the salary cap. The ‘90s Cowboys were a tremendous team, one of the best ever, but even they couldn’t beat The System. Neither could the 49ers. Eventually, it brought them back to the pack — and then to the bottom of the pack.

Thus, teams began taking a “window of opportunity” approach. “You can’t build anything to last these days,” they told themselves. “So when you feel you’re close to winning a Super Bowl, you should go all out — and worry about the cap consequences later.” Such short-term thinking can work, of course — witness the Ravens — but it doesn’t reach for greatness (except temporarily).

The Eagles and Patriots have decided to shoot higher. “We think you can be good and stay good,” says Tom Heckert, Philadelphia’s vice president of player personnel. “But you have to be responsible cap-wise. Once you get over the cap, you just can’t do it.”

Owner Jeff Lurie’s tightness with a buck drew snickers when he first came into the league in 1994. So many other clubs, after all, were spending like there was no tomorrow. The Redskins, for instance.

“Everybody laughed at him,” Johnson says. “But look at him now. I told him, ‘You’ve been frugal, but you’ve done it the right way.’ ”

Because they were “responsible,” the Eagles had enough cap room this season to add Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse, two of the highest-paid players in the league. They’ve turned out to be shrewd investments. Owens and Kearse helped Philly clear that last troublesome hurdle, the NFC Championship game, and reach the Super Bowl.

But that’s unusual for this team. Most of the roster has been built through the draft. The Eagles always seem to have somebody in the pipeline, ready to replace a departed free agent or used-up veteran. This season, they said goodbye to longtime cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor — both former Pro Bowlers — and plugged in Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, their first- and second-round picks in ‘02. Sheppard wound up making the Pro Bowl himself, and Brown played every bit as well in the opinion of many.

How many clubs could lose their two starting corners — both still quite capable — and keep right on going? But the Eagles saw it coming and were able to plan for it.

It’s the same with the Patriots. Do you realize only six starters remain from Bill Belichick’s first Super Bowl team three years ago (not counting kicker Adam Vinatieri)? The Pats have had turnover at 16 spots … and actually have gotten better. You can’t do that if you’re not drafting up a storm. (When the Cowboys won their third Super Bowl in four seasons in ‘95, they had 12 starters — twice as many — from their first championship team, including eight on offense.)

The Patriots could afford to let high-priced safety Lawyer Milloy go because they’d drafted Eugene Wilson in the second round. They were able to absorb the loss of center Damien Woody to the Lions because young Dan Koppen proved a quick learner. They could have been hurt by nose tackle Ted Washington’s defection to the Raiders, but they found a reasonable facsimile in first-round choice Vince Wilfork. Nothing seems to affect them.

“We like smart players,” says Scott Pioli, New England’s VP of player personnel. “I think we have the highest graduation rate of any team in the NFL.” And how does he define “smart?” “It’s knowing what you know, knowing what you don’t know and knowing the difference. It’s knowing when to shut up and listen. Smart is being coachable, being willing to learn what you don’t know. High-maintenance players are not what we’re looking for.”

Which might explain the Patriots’ ability to minimize mistakes — as well as their enviable chemistry. They also have more than their share of guys who are versatile, capable of playing more than one position (Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Wilson, Troy Brown, etc.). This speaks to their athleticism, of course, but also to their intelligence. When you play in multiple places, there’s so much more to know.

The scariest thing about the Patriots and Eagles is that they look like they’re going to be good for a while longer. They’re still fairly young teams, and no major problems appear imminent (though the Pats must replace two coordinators who got head jobs). Heck, Philly has 11 draft picks this year, five in the first three rounds, and Heckert says the club is “$16 [million] or $17 million under the cap” heading into the offseason.

Another factor that might keep the Eagles strong, according to Heckert: “We’ve had players like Jeremiah Trotter and Hugh Douglas sign with other teams and then come back. That tells players that money isn’t everything, that it might not always make sense to leave. In my own case, I’m sure I could have made more money somewhere else, but I’m happy where I am — and I’ve talked to some of our players about that. I think we’ve got something good going here.”

They certainly do. The Eagles and Pats both do. And their NFL brethren would be wise to study their methods.

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