HOUSTON -- Bill Belichick walked into the conference room at the team hotel here wearing a suit and tie, leather lace-ups, and carrying a briefcase. If his players needed any further reminder of why they're in town this week, they only had to glance at him.
"It's a business trip," the Patriots' buttoned-down coach declared, when his team arrived Sunday afternoon to prepare for Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers. "We have a lot of work to do."
Left undeclared was the obvious: seek pleasure on your own time and at your own risk. Unlike New Orleans, where Belichick's charges won their first NFL title two years ago, Houston is a sprawling megalopolis embracing eight counties and five million people. It has an endless number of bars, dance halls, and "gentlemen's clubs" where 53 football players with fat money clips can find diversion.
So Belichick's do's-and-don'ts list is one item long: "Try not to get arrested," he says. If you do, you'd better call Jailbusters, the local bail bonds people. Because the Patriots won't be springing you. And when you're free, you'll be on the street for good. The players know that without having to ask.
"They know what's expected of them," says offensive lineman Matt Light. "They know what they shouldn't do. They're all grown adults."
Almost all of them were around during Belichick's first season in Foxborough when cornerback J'Juan Cherry was waived on the first day of minicamp after being involved in a bar brawl in Boston's financial district. None of them needed to ask why. "If you're not doing it [Belichick's] way," then-safety Larry Whigham observed, "you're on the plane leaving for somewhere else."
The Patriots didn't make it to two Super Bowls in three years by tripping over their own feet. They kept their names off the police blotter in New Orleans and they're determined to do the same here.
"This is a hell of an experience," says Light, who's making the return trip. "It's something you'll have with you the rest of your life. Everyone knows that."
The players also know that the mistakes they make off the field at the Super Bowl likely will be remembered longer than those they make on it.
In 1999 in Miami, Atlanta's Eugene Robinson, now a Panthers radio analyst, was arrested the night before the game and charged with soliciting an undercover policewoman for oral sex just hours after accepting the league's Bart Starr Award for high moral character.
A decade earlier, also in Miami, Cincinnati's Stanley Wilson was banned from playing by commissioner Pete Rozelle after being found under the influence of cocaine in his room the night before the game. And Baltimore's Ray Lewis, whose team wasn't even playing in Atlanta four years ago, found himself charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men after a quarrel involving his friends outside a bar after the game.
"This is the biggest stage in the world right now," says Patriots cornerback Ty Law, who found his name splashed across the headlines three seasons ago after being caught with the illegal party drug ecstasy coming through Customs in Niagara Falls. "If the littlest thing goes wrong, it'll be blown out of proportion. If you sneeze in the wrong way, somebody's going to catch it and write about it."
There are hundreds of writers here filing daily stories, dozens of broadcasters along Radio Row inside the convention center doing instant updates, TV minicams roaming everywhere, Internet bloggers tapping away feverishly. Nothing controversial will go unnoticed.
If a story breaks on Saturday -- as did that of Oakland's Barret Robbins being sent home before last year's game in San Diego -- the full context may not be known until after everyone has headed home.
Robbins, who was punished for skipping the team's morning walkthrough and going missing until 8 p.m., was afflicted with a bipolar disorder and ended up hospitalized. But for a day, it was reported only that he'd been banished "for unspecified violations." Which is why the players here are wary of doing anything negative that will divert the spotlight from their team to themselves.
"Can it happen? Yes, it can happen, but it's a distraction we don't need," says Carolina safety Mike Minter. "If guys pay attention to history, we'll be OK."
The teams do what they can to keep the players out of distraction's way. The Panthers are staying in a hotel out by the airport, where the downtown skyline is a mirage. The Patriots are out by the Galleria, with a superb view of the freeway loop.
Houston is nothing like New Orleans, where the French Quarter's fleshly temptations are within four-down territory. But if you want to find a wild party here, a fleet of taxicabs is idling outside the hotel door.
Nobody expects the players to spend their time checking out the Elvis exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History or taking the 90-minute ship channel tour aboard the MV Sam Houston. Nightly expeditions in search of cocktails and company are allowed and expected. One caveat, though, is universal: use good judgment.
"It's not necessarily your doing something," says Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker, "but being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
If Belichick and his staff haven't recited a litany of wrong places and wrong times to their players, it's because it's assumed by now. "A lot of us have been here before," says linebacker Willie McGinest, who'll be playing in his third Super Bowl. "We already kind of know the protocol."
If they are known for anything, these Patriots are known for their focus and discipline, which has been drilled into them since Belichick walked into his first team meeting in 2000. He was furious at the general conditioning level going into that season and responded by cutting two players, fining several for being overweight, and making others pedal stationary bikes or run laps in the July heat. "There were too many players who didn't get the message," the coach said then.
Everybody here long since has gotten it. Break team rules and you are both sadder and poorer or gone. Terry Glenn's departure was all about discipline. Law was suspended for the 2000 season finale and companions Glenn and Troy Brown were fined for missing the Monday meeting after returning from Buffalo.
This season, offensive lineman Kenyatta Jones was abruptly let go after allegedly pouring scalding water on his houseguest/assistant. And defensive lineman Richard Seymour was kept out of the starting lineup after returning late from his grandfather's funeral in South Carolina.
There are certain things that are done and certain things that are not done and the players don't have to ask what they are. "It starts from the top," says Law. "Certain things rub off. It's like learning from a parent."
The top means owner Robert Kraft, who cut loose draft choice Christian Peter in 1996 after learning of Peter's criminal record. "When Bill [Belichick] came in I told him, the only thing I'm going to say is, I don't want anybody on this team who will embarrass me or my family," Kraft says. "We just don't bring those kinds of guys here."
If the Patriots have relatively few disciplinary cases, it may be that they're screened out before draft day. "Bill and [player personnel chief] Scott Pioli will say `This is our kind of guy.' or `This isn't our kind of guy,' " says Kraft. "Three things we look for in the people we hire for all of our businesses. Character and integrity, work ethic, and brains. You can buy the third, but not the first two."
Once given a jersey, it is assumed that the players will act as professionals. "The coaching staff here treats men like men," says fullback Larry Centers. "The least we can do as players is meet expectations."
Belichick was smiling when he said "Try not to get arrested," but he won't be smiling if anyone does. "Stay out of jail," Law says. "So much is at stake right now. We understand we're here to play."
The Patriots won't take the field Sunday wearing business suits, but they might as well be. "We're not here to go sightseeing or anything like that," Belichick says. "We're here to play Carolina. It's the biggest game of the year. I don't know how anybody can take it any other way."