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EXPERT VIEWS OF PATRIOTS | MICHAEL HOLLEY

Shula impressed by streak

When you've had just two losing seasons in 33 Hall of Fame years, you don't tickle as easily as the next guy.

You become a stoic face guarding Buckingham Palace. You become a classic-soul whistler when everyone else is humming Top 40. You become a marketer's target audience; if something is good enough for you, that means it must be good enough for middle America, too.

Don Shula is the only coach in NFL history to preside over a winning streak longer than the Patriots' 14-gamer. Shula is impressed with the Texas-bound team from New England, and his admiration didn't begin this year.

Shula still remembers the morning of Feb. 4, 2002. As Patriots fans were still dancing in the French Quarter, Shula was a couple of miles away in the Hyatt Regency. He couldn't concentrate on his breakfast because he was so awed by the 20-17 New England win that he had seen the previous night.

"Can you believe this?" he said the morning after Super Bowl XXXVI. "Can you believe this coaching job from Bill Belichick? It's one of the best coaching jobs I've ever seen."

This is from a coach who has actually achieved what everyone else wearing a headset is seeking. Perfection. His Miami Dolphins were 17-0 in 1972.

"And don't forget," the 74-year-old legend recently said, "we were pretty darned good in '73. We were 15-2 that year, so that's 32-2 and two Super Bowl wins in a two-year period."

Earlier this year, Shula thought the Kansas City Chiefs would be the team most likely to be mentioned with his Dolphins of 31 seasons ago. On Oct. 5, the Chiefs were undefeated and the Patriots had two losses. Since then, four losses, a playoff exit, and a fired defensive coordinator have been added to Kansas City's tab. The Patriots are trying to make it 15 in a row in Houston on Feb. 1.

"I think their streak is unbelievable," Shula said. "I know how hard it is to do. There's one thing about the Patriots that reminds me of us: They don't give up cheap touchdowns. We were the same way. We had a few real close games -- I remember at least three 1- and 2-point wins. But we didn't give up a lot of cheap scores.

"I watch the games every week, and when I see the Patriots, it's obvious how well-coached they are."

Shula is right about the close games, although there weren't as many as he thinks. There was a 1-point win against Buffalo, a 2-pointer at Minnesota, and a 4-pointer against the Jets. The Dolphins won their three playoff games -- including the AFC title over the Immaculate Reception Steelers -- by a total of 15 points.

If the Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl, they will be worthy salutatorians to the royal Dolphins of '72. Miami had the No. 1 offense and defense in the league. It had two 1,000-yard rushers (who both averaged more than 5 yards a carry) and one 500-yard rusher. It had Nick Buoniconti, Paul Warfield, Larry Csonka, and Bob Griese.

It's too early to say whether Tom Brady, Ty Law, and Richard Seymour are going to Canton, Ohio. What we do know is that the current Patriots and old Dolphins could close down a pub exchanging one-week-at-a-time cliches.

The men at the head table for those discussions would be Shula and Belichick. They sound the same when talking about the mentality of protecting a streak.

"You can't get caught up in thinking that it's a streak," Shula said. "Just one more game to win. I used to get all over the team's butt when I thought that kind of thinking was seeping in.

"After games, I would find one or two things I didn't like and hammer them on it. I remember one time I was ranting and raving and Csonka said to [Jim] Kiick, `Shula is crazy. You'd think we'd lost the game.' "

There probably have been a few moments when the Patriots have sat in their team auditorium and muttered the same thing about Belichick. Like Shula, he is a tough grader who doesn't toss around compliments lightly.

It may take a while for Belichick to sit back and put his current team in perspective. He may not do it in depth, even if the Patriots are fortunate enough to win Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Just a couple weeks after the game, Belichick and Scott Pioli will be heading to the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Then there will be free agency, contracts to restructure, offseason workouts to oversee, draft picks to make.

The point is that there is always plenty of work to be done. For now, the bouquets will have to come from outside the organization. That's where Shula comes in with his spectacular arrangement.

"I hear people saying we're not going to see this or that in the league because of the salary cap and free agency," he said. "But look at what Belichick is doing in this era. If his team wins, that will be two Super Bowls in three years.

"I love what they're doing. I'm a big Tom Brady fan. I watched Ty Law [against the Colts], and I couldn't believe some of the plays he made. Those were just great plays.

"I played for Paul Brown, and I've always told people that Paul brought the classroom to football. Before Paul, they would hold team meetings in the locker rooms. He was a teacher. So was Chuck Noll, who was my defensive coordinator in Baltimore. It looks like the Patriots have some pretty good teachers on their staff."

Even as the '72 Dolphins congregate every year and root for all teams to pick up a loss, Shula believes that there will be some team to go undefeated again. In that unlikely year, those 19-0 superheroes will shove the Dolphins of yesteryear to the second tier.

Not now. They remain the streaking standard, with just one team in shouting distance of their historic neighborhood. If the Patriots are able to close on their deal and move into the brownstone marked No. 15, Shula will be the first person to organize the housewarming.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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