- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

FOXBORO, Mass. — The cannibalizing of the New England Patriots has already begun. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is headed to Notre Dame after the season — to try to put the “Touchdown” back in “Touchdown Jesus” — and defensive boss Romeo Crennel is said to have the Cleveland Browns job all locked up.

Such is the price of success in the NFL; everybody wants a piece of you — one of your coaches, one of your front-office people, one of your players. If you can’t beat ‘em, deplete ‘em.

The same thing happened in the ‘90s to the Dallas Cowboys, the last team to put together a run like the Pats’. The Cowboys lost defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt after their first title, offensive mastermind Norv Turner — and, startlingly, head coach Jimmy Johnson himself — after their second, and had their roster assailed by free agency until, by ‘96, the club was barely recognizable. The duration of dynasties is getting shorter and shorter these days; three or four years pillaging and plundering is about the best you can hope for before you have to start all over again.

The Patriots might be more resistant to these forces, though, than other great teams of recent vintage. What they lose — a Damien Woody, a Ted Washington, a Lawyer Milloy — they seem able to replace, and quickly. They draft a guy (Vince Wilfork), they sign a guy (Keith Traylor), they trade for a guy (Corey Dillon) … and keep right on going.

Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt thought the Pats were “ripe for the picking” in Sunday’s AFC playoff game, thought injuries and free agent defections made them “not as good as they were last year.” But as New England showed in its 20-3 cuffing of the Colts, it might actually be better than it was last year. Dillon, with his rugged between-the-tackles running, has given the offense a dimension it never had, and Crennel and Bill Belichick have been able to disguise deficiencies on defense, particularly at cornerback, with a mind-boggling assortment of looks. The latter two have turned the Pats’ season into a game of “Where’s Waldo?” — the part of Waldo being played by rookie corner Randall Gay; they’ll play it next with the Steelers’ young Ben Roethlisberger. Bet they can hardly wait.

The Patriots are the cold-weather colossus Brett Favre’s Packers never quite became. They’ve won two Super Bowls, could well win a third this season, and may not stop there. Tom Brady, at 27, is just entering the Golden Years for a quarterback. The receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and both lines are also young; and, this being a largely star-less team, few players would leave a gaping hole if, like Woody and Washington, they opted for the green fields of free agency.

Owner Bob Kraft’s careful handling of the salary cap is another key. The Patriots have managed to avoid the megacontracts that have hamstrung so many successful teams — the ‘90s Cowboys, for instance. Jerry Jones was paying Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and later Deion Sanders so much money in the mid-‘90s that it affected his ability to keep the club together.

Kraft, however, has been able to sign Brady to a reasonable long-term deal and, just as important, hasn’t let sentiment cloud the organization’s thinking on players. When Milloy was no longer playing up to his contract, he was given two options: take a pay cut or leave. (He left.) The Pats are now at the same crossroads with injured Ty Law (and are likely looking at the same resolution). But they’ll survive. Heck, they already are. They held the Jets to seven points in their next-to-last regular-season game — on the road — and limited the Colts to just a field goal Sunday.

“We won a lot of games without Ty Law,” Rodney Harrison said afterward. “Ty Law wasn’t even in the equation the last 10, 11, 12 weeks. Asante Samuel and Randall Gay really took it personally. I’ve been back there all season with these guys. We’ve had to struggle at times and really maneuver and try to manipulate the system a little bit because, you know, it’s been tough with so many different guys back there. But time and again, these guys gained confidence. And when they start gaining confidence, you never know what may happen.”

Actually, we’ve already seen what may happen. We saw it three years ago, when the no-name Patriots got hot in November and, to everyone’s disbelief, went all the way. They’re the team everybody wants to be, the Pats are. You can’t stop them, you can only hope to cannibalize them.

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