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Built to last

Enduring success is Pioli's priority

FOXBOROUGH -- Classical music plays in the background as Scott Pioli leans back in his chair behind the large wooden desk, three computer screens flanking him in the meticulous office.

On the wall to his left is the depth chart of every team in the NFC, in alphabetical order, from the Arizona Cardinals to the Washington Redskins. On the wall to his right is the depth chart of every AFC team -- Baltimore Ravens to Tennessee Titans.

The NFL's 32 teams are aligned in neat rows, top to bottom. Every player has his place on a rectangular white card.

So it's only fitting that the topic of discussion is one of Pioli's favorites: team building.

As vice president of player personnel for the Patriots, the 41-year-old Pioli is in the team-building business. The squad has been constructed based on a philosophy he helped create, along with head coach Bill Belichick.

``When we first came here [in 2000], we wrote it down in our manual -- we're building a big, strong, fast, tough, smart, disciplined football team that consistently competes for championships," Pioli said. ``We don't want to subscribe to the theory that the window is only open for a short period of time, take a run at it, then worry about the next year, or worry about two years in two years.

``This is a `now' society. Now is important. But so is the future. From a team-building standpoint, you have to think that way."

It's been seven years since Pioli and Belichick -- the duo targeted by owner Robert Kraft and vice chairman Jonathan Kraft to run the team's football operation -- took the first steps in their team-building process in New England. Seven years is an eternity in today's NFL.

Only two organizations have had the same head coach and personnel chief working together in those roles for a longer period of time -- coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Floyd Reese with the Titans (12 years) and coach Brian Billick and GM Ozzie Newsome with the Ravens (eight years). The Steelers, with coach Bill Cowher and personnel chief Kevin Colbert, match the Patriots with seven seasons together.

For Pioli and the Patriots, new challenges are always arising in the team-building process.

``There's a natural attrition on every NFL roster," Pioli said. ``Seven years later, depending on when a player is picked up, they're at different points in their careers -- some guys toward the end, others entering their prime, others entering free agency. Those are the things you have to keep in mind; there is always going to be that cycle and motion of players at different points in their careers.

``That's where the personnel job differs from the coaching job. The coaches are focused on this week, right now, this moment. From a personnel standpoint, you have to think about that, but you also have to keep an eye on the future."

Balancing act
Signs that point to the future are found throughout Pioli's office. Written on part of a large white board is a list of the team's 2007 draft picks -- one in each round, and a note that there could be additional compensatory selections.

Then there are the more obvious signs, such as last week's contract extension with offensive lineman Russ Hochstein, whose deal was set to expire after the 2006 season. While it was a minor move that stretched Hochstein's pact through 2008, it reflected the team's forward-thinking approach.

``We can't just worry about the 2006 salary cap," Pioli said. ``Our eyes are also on 2007, 2008 . . ."

With Hochstein in the fold, the Patriots now have six of their top seven offensive linemen under multiyear deals: Matt Light (2010), Logan Mankins (2009), Steve Neal (2009), Nick Kaczur (2009), Brandon Gorin (2007), and Hochstein (2008).

The defensive line, where players often command big bucks on the free agent market, also looks promising. Richard Seymour (2009), Ty Warren (2008), Vince Wilfork (2009), Jarvis Green (2009), Marquise Hill (2008), and Johnathan Sullivan (2007) are all inked for at least two years.

Other areas, such as wide receiver, aren't so well stocked past 2006.

``There are always going to be holes to fill, or you're thinking about where they could potentially be," Pioli said.

The Patriots' team-building approach was in the spotlight this offseason with the high-profile departures of outside linebacker Willie McGinest (Browns), kicker Adam Vinatieri (Colts), and receiver David Givens (Titans). In a world without a salary cap, all three players would still be with the club. But had the Patriots matched the salaries each received on the market, one key aspect of their team-building approach would have been significantly affected. As part of the Patriots' core philosophy, a strong middle class of the roster is a priority.

Said Pioli, ``Bill and I have said it before; you can't pay everyone the highest salary at their position. Part of what we've been entrusted is that we're going to make decisions and do things that are in the best interests of the team, giving it the best chance to win short-term and long-term. That's a difficult part of the job."

Another difficult aspect of the team-building approach is balancing the proactive and reactive.

Proactive negotiations ultimately resulted in contract extensions for Green, linebacker Mike Vrabel, and running back Corey Dillon one year before their deals were set to expire in 2006. Seymour and quarterback Tom Brady had contracts that would have ended after the 2007 season, and they've already been extended. Ditto for Light and linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who reupped long before their deals were to expire in the 2005 season.

In the cases of McGinest, Vinatieri, and Givens, the Patriots tried a proactive approach at various points but couldn't agree on deals before free agency. Had the players been willing to accept a bit less, they could have stayed. Had the team been willing to offer a bit more, it could have avoided the sting of the losses. As is the case with many negotiations, it's a two-way street.

The proactive approach didn't result in deals before free agency, the players signed elsewhere, and the team went into reactive mode.

Looking to the future in the team-building process, receiver Deion Branch, tight end Daniel Graham, cornerback Asante Samuel, and center Dan Koppen are among the notable players who have deals that end after 2006.

Proactive. Reactive. It's a delicate mix.

A philosophy is born
Rewind to the 2000 season.

That's where the first steps were taken.

One of the first orders of business with Pioli's team-building was straightening up the salary cap. Then it was about talent acquisition, about ``getting the head coach players that fit what his belief system was, and finding a way to build the culture of our locker room to be in line with the philosophy of the organization."

Pioli believes the culture of the locker room is a key in the team-building process, because of its unique dynamics.

The Patriots' approach was born in part out of what Pioli and Belichick experienced with the Browns, Ravens (Pioli only), and Jets. Over time, both picked up on the nuances of the locker room, and how important it was to have the leaders aligned with the team's overriding philosophy. In short, signing a player to a lucrative deal when that player might have different beliefs than the leader would send a mixed message.

So upon arriving in New England, Pioli and Belichick set a standard for the kind of player they would attempt to target the majority of the time -- both in the draft and free agency.

Said Pioli, ``Bill always says that the best players are going to play, that we're going to do everything possible to put the best players on the field, so everyone knows it's a competitive situation. That's the way it is here. They understand each player is competing for their job and their role, whether it's the first quarterback or the 53d player on the roster.

``Some people will run from that. Others will embrace it and respect it, and use it as motivation to make them better. We try to find competitive people, mentally tough people. We want players who will embrace the philosophy that this football team is always going to try to find good football players, so they understand they're going to have to compete their butt off."

Prior to the 2001 season, the Patriots acquired 22 players through a variety of vehicles -- free agency, waivers, the draft, and trades. By the end of the year, 17 players were still with the team, names like Richard Seymour, Anthony Pleasant, Bryan Cox, Mike Vrabel, Larry Izzo, and Steve Neal.

Looking back, that was a major step in the Patriots' team-building process.

``Once you make that big overhaul, there are fewer players to add each year," Pioli said.

Compare it to the building of a house. The big haul in 2001 represented the start of the foundation, and each ensuing year a few more bricks were laid down.

Because the Patriots have become one of the sturdier houses in the NFL, their bricks are now coveted in other locales.

The upcoming cases of Branch, Graham, Samuel, and Koppen are good ones to spotlight in this regard -- all are drafted players groomed in the team's system, and surely they will draw significant interest should they hit free agency after the 2006 season.

Said one agent who represents a Patriots player nearing free agency, ``They're almost a victim of their own success, because they have players who are coached up, moved into positions as starters, then leave for big starter-level money."

Offensive tackle Tom Ashworth, a former practice squad player who inked a lucrative free agent deal with the Seahawks, is one example. Givens, a seventh-round pick in 2002, is another.

Such departures illustrate the stage of team building in which the Patriots are currently operating.

``The house is never done," Pioli said. ``You can never stop building."

The unpredictable
The April draft provided several examples of the continuous nature of the team-building process.

In describing one of the reasons that running back Laurence Maroney was a good fit, Belichick said it was nice to have a younger player with which to work alongside veterans like Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk.

Trading up for Chad Jackson in the second round filled a direct need after the departure of Givens, while selecting tight ends David Thomas (third round) and Garrett Mills (fourth round) provides future security if the team can't re-sign Graham.

It's not a concept specific to the Patriots. The idea in many NFL front offices is to create as much depth as possible.

``You just never know what's going to happen; there are so many things you can't predict," Pioli said. ``Take last year's situation with Ted Johnson as an example. We didn't know Ted was going to retire the day training camp started.

``There are injuries, too. You just don't know when situations will change, but you have to be as prepared as you possibly can for change. From a team-building standpoint, you have to think about that, looking to the future."

As for where the team is headed, Pioli is reluctant to assess the long-term outlook because of the ever-changing dynamics. He's also reluctant to look back, though there are reminders throughout his office of the success the Patriots have achieved over the last six seasons.

Three framed pictures hang behind his desk. They are the covers from the team's official newspaper, Patriots Football Weekly, after the three Super Bowl victories. There are also framed championship pages from the Globe and Herald.

Pioli is often fond of saying the Patriots don't want to just collect talent -- their goal is to build a team, because teams win championships. And he also reminds himself that if he's not working, someone else is -- and that means they'll probably win.

So the work goes on.

The team-building process, in today's NFL, never ends.

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