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Insiders Report: Patriots Offseason Begins

<p>The New England Patriots face an offseason of uncertainty. With the majority of their players under contract for 2005, they can be assured of maintaining the nucleus that has helped them to win the last two Superbowls. They will not however, have two of the coaches who helped them get there. For more on the team and possible changes, get inside. <a href="https://secure.scout.com/store/view.aspx?s=121&p=6">Free Trial </a></p>

PHOTO: New England Patriots' offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is surrounded by reporters at Alltel Stadium during Media Day in Jacksonville, Fla., on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005. The Patriots met with the over 1,000 reporters who gathered at the stadium for Media Day prior to Super Bowl XXXIX which will feature the Patriots against the Philadelphia Eagles. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Scout Report: Patriots Offseason Begins
Scout.com Staff

INSIDERS REPORT

The offseason has begun and the Super Bowl champions are already taking hits and undergoing change, and free agency doesn't start for another few weeks.

That's what happens when a team wins consecutive Super Bowls flanked by a 34-4 record over that two-season span. But dealing with change hasn't been a problem for New England. After winning Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Patriots lost their best offensive lineman in Damien Woody and one of the best nose tackles of all-time in Ted Washington and went on to repeat as champions.

This season, they lost starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole and starting right tackle Tom Ashworth for the season to October injuries. They adapted and continued winning. They lost their best defensive lineman, Richard Seymour, for their playoff run to the Super Bowl. No matter. All they did was control the line of scrimmage against both the Colts and Steelers until Seymour's return gave them a Super Bowl boost.

Coach Bill Belichick and personnel chief Scott Pioli have built an adaptable team, one that takes care of its responsibilities, works hard in a demanding program and has been built to overcome problems that arise. It is a mature, versatile, veteran group that deals well with reacting to issues beyond its control. It's one of the reasons the team has experienced sustained success in a volatile NFL climate. But that ability will certainly be put to the test in 2005 when the Patriots will have two new men coordinating their offense and defense along with other forthcoming changes that are bound to occur.

Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is officially gone after agreeing to a reported five-year, $10 million contract to coach the Cleveland Browns and being announced by the club on Feb. 8, just two days after the Patriots won the Super Bowl. He may be interested in taking defensive backs coach Eric Mangini with him to coordinate the Browns defense, but Mangini figures to be the leading candidate to replace him in New England.

The 34-year-old Mangini began his career in Cleveland working under Belichick and still has ties to the region. His brother-in-law, Mark Shapiro, is the Cleveland Indians general manager. He will likely face a difficult decision since his contract with New England expired after the Super Bowl, leaving him free to pursue a position with another team.

There have been reports that defensive line coach Pepper Johnson could also leave New England to join Crennel's Browns staff while Miami Dolphins head coach Nick Saban, a close friend of Belichick, is reportedly interested in speaking with Patriots linebackers coach Dean Pees about the Dolphins' defensive coordinator job. Saban may also have interest in Mangini for that position.

It will be important for Belichick to try to maintain a certain level of continuity because the system in place is obviously working. How it is affected by the defections of Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis remains to be seen, but the system's effectiveness was never more obvious this season than when the coaching staff utilized their versatile personnel to overcome injuries and thrive without its best players on the field, something it did all the way through Super Bowl XXXIX when it played and won with a patchwork secondary.

But no position demonstrates the Patriots' flexibility more than the veteran linebacking corps that has been the backbone of the Belichick/Crennel defense. On Super Bowl Sunday, the Patriots went with a five-linebacker package and lined up in a light 4-3 front rather than the 3-4 two-gap system they used all season.

New England's defense improved steadily all year in that 3-4 base front despite seemingly devastating injuries in the secondary. The strong improved play of the front seven, and young players like Ty Warren and rookie Vince Wilfork in particular, were big reasons for that. They teamed with veterans Seymour, Jarvis Green and Keith Traylor along with the veteran linebackers to form a solid group that was excellent against the run. They allowed fewer than 98.3 yards rushing per game while being able to turn up the heat on quarterbacks (45 sacks) and alleviate some of the pressure thrust upon the likes of undrafted rookie free agent cornerback Randall Gay and second-year cornerback Asante Samuel.

The defensive players, though, were very close to Crennel, a man they respect as a teacher, a coach and a friend, and they will have to develop confidence in his replacement.

"Words can't describe what (Crennel) means to us," Seymour said before Super Bowl XXXIX. "You can just look at him and have a sense of calmness when everything seems to be a wreck. For him and Charlie leaving, it's a major loss to this football team."

It represents another challenge to overcome and one that will leave the Patriots' critics doubting their ability to sustain their high level of play while they look for a three-peat in 2005.

Weis, like Crennel, has a strong relationship with his now former players, and that bond will also be difficult to duplicate since it took time to form. He is very close to quarterback Tom Brady, a fact he acknowledged after the Super Bowl.

"There are a lot of people that I'm really close with and I'll start with the quarterback," said Weis, who left to take over at Notre Dame full-time four days after winning the Super Bowl. "Tommy and I have a fondness personally as well as professionally. I'm going to be the first person to second-guess all of his decisions next year. I'm going to be calling him a dummy every time he makes a bad read."

He didn't make many this season, and under Weis' direction and play-calling, the offense scored the second most points (437) in franchise history. That made the 2004 club the most well balanced and best of the Patriots' championship teams with a scoring margin of plus-177.

Beyond Brady and his group of under-appreciated receivers that includes Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, David Givens, Troy Brown and David Patten along with tight ends Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria, there was Corey Dillon, who added a new dimension to the Patriots offense and improved its balance dramatically with his franchise-record 1,635 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.

If the Patriots can remain consistent and productive with two new coordinators, they should remain a favorite for 2005. They have proven they can win despite injury-related adversity, and they could be even deeper and better next year when players like Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, Rodney Bailey and Benjamin Watson all potentially return to the playing field.

But the Patriots win with what Pioli calls the "right 53 players" rather than the "best 53 players." That's what makes their success difficult to copy. The right 53 for New England may not be that for other clubs. So while schemes are important and execution is obviously critical, the Patriots' team concept that nauseates some with its cliche-like status is as big a factor in their success as anything. As long as Belichick remains, that figures to be in place.

NOTES, QUOTES

  • This era of Patriots football ranks with some of the greatest team success in NFL Super Bowl-era history. Forget the dynasty. That's merely a matter of how one chooses to define the word. But the Patriots are only one of two teams to win three Super Bowls in four years. Their 34 wins over the last two seasons are the most by any team in a two-year span.

    With nine consecutive postseason victories, they tied the Green Bay Packers (1961-1967) for the longest playoff-winning streak in NFL history. Quarterback Tom Brady's 9-0 playoff record ties him with Bart Starr for the longest postseason winning streak by a starting quarterback, while Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's 10-1 playoff record surpasses the 9-1 mark of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi. That's not bad company for a Patriots team that was labeled an overachieving fluke and one-year wonder after it upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

  • The Patriots' remarkable run of late has elevated the franchise to elite status over the last decade-plus. Since Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994, the Patriots have a 119-73 record (.620), including the postseason, that ranks third in the NFL. Their four conference championships during that time is the most of any team and they have the league's best record since 2001 with a 57-16 mark (.781).

  • The Patriots allowed 260 points in 2004, the third fewest in franchise history. Three of Belichick's Patriots defenses now rank among the top five scoring defenses in Patriots history. His 2003 club allowed the fewest with 238 while his 2001 club allowed 272, fifth-best in team history.

  • RB Corey Dillon failed his postseason physical and was taken off the Pro Bowl roster and replaced by Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. Dillon suffered an undisclosed injury late in the Super Bowl and was replaced on the Patriots' final possession by Kevin Faulk.

  • During their 34-4 run over the last two seasons, the Patriots are 22-1 against teams with records of .500 or better and went 12-1 against such clubs in 2004. The cumulative record of the teams New England beat in the playoffs to win Super Bowl XXXIX was an amazing 40-8.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Freddie (Mitchell) probably bit off more than what he could chew, but I bet he knows our numbers now, huh?" -- Safety Rodney Harrison after Super Bowl XXXIX in reference to Mitchell's pregame comments about not knowing the Patriots defensive backs.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Patriots have some offseason decisions to make regarding some key players. Cornerback Ty Law, who missed the last half of the season with a foot injury, will carry a $12.5 million cap number that includes $9.5 million of new money in what is the final year of a seven-year contract. The Patriots would love to lower his cap number, but since Law won't take a pay cut and has demanded a hefty signing bonus in any new contract, the Patriots will either have to pay Law and ride out the final year or release the four-time Pro Bowl corner. He's likely to stay with the huge cap number for one more season and leave after that, freeing up a huge chunk of money for 2006 when Tom Brady and Richard Seymour enter the final years of their contracts. However, both deals will be looked at this offseason as the team tries to open talks with the two star players who will command huge signing bonuses.

New England also must be wary of losing starting wide receiver David Givens in restricted free agency the way the Jets lost Laveranues Coles to the Redskins a couple of years back. Givens was a 2002 seventh round draft pick, which would mean that a low tender (around $700,000) would not deter a team from making a serious run since it would only have to surrender a seventh-round pick as compensation if the Patriots chose not to match an offer.

It's more likely Givens will receive a medium tender (about $1.5 million), which would force a team to give up a valuable first-round pick as compensation in a contract offer not matched by the Patriots.

New England will try to negotiate a longer-term extension with Givens, but since he has played under a seventh-round rookie deal while developing into a starter, Givens will be looking to maximize his chance to strike it rich financially. Rather than accept a below-market deal, he would simply sign the tender and head to unrestricted free agency next year.

QUARTERBACK:
Starter -- Tom Brady. Backups -- Rohan Davey, Jim Miller.

RUNNING BACKS:
Starters -- RB Corey Dillon, FB Patrick Pass. Backups -- RB Cedric Cobbs, RB Kevin Faulk, RB Rabih Abdullah.

TIGHT END:
Starter -- Daniel Graham. Backups -- Christian Fauria, Jed Weaver, Benjamin Watson, Zeron Flemister.

WIDE RECEIVERS:
Starters -- Deion Branch, David Givens. Backups -- Troy Brown, David Patten, Bethel Johnson, Kevin Kasper, P.K. Sam.

OFFENSIVE LINE:
Starters -- LT Matt Light, LG Joe Andruzzi, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, RT Brandon Gorin. Backups -- G Russ Hochstein, G/C Gene Mruczkowski, G Billy Yates, T Tom Ashworth, T Adrian Klemm.

DEFENSIVE LINE:
Starters -- LE Ty Warren, NT Keith Traylor, RE Richard Seymour. Backups -- NT/DE Vince Wilfork, DE Jarvis Green, DE Marquise Hill and NT Ethan Kelley, DE Rodney Bailey.

LINEBACKERS:
Starters -- OLB Mike Vrabel, ILB Tedy Bruschi, ILB Ted Johnson, OLB Willie McGinest. Backups -- OLB Rosevelt Colvin, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, OLB Matt Chatham, ILB Roman Phifer, ILB Larry Izzo, ILB Don Davis, ILB Dan Klecko.

DEFENSIVE BACKS:
Starters -- CB Asante Samuel, CB Randall Gay, SS Rodney Harrison, FS Eugene Wilson. Backups -- CB Earthwind Moreland, CB Hank Poteat, S Dexter Reid, S Je'Rod Cherry, CB Troy Brown, CB Ty Law, CB Tyrone Poole, S Guss Scott.

SPECIAL TEAMS:
Starters -- PK Adam Vinatieri, P Josh Miller, KOR Bethel Johnson, PR Troy Brown. Backups -- KOR Patrick Pass, PR Kevin Faulk.

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