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The road ahead may have exits

Any media type daring to ask Bill Belichick about the future of the Patriots might be met with daggers right between the eyes. At the moment, there is tunnel vision, focused on the Indianapolis Colts. Don't dare think or talk about anything else.

Can't blame Belichick for wanting it that way. Keeping his eye on the ball has produced two Super Bowl championships in three years. You don't need guys like me bringing up the future, but since we are not obligated to do what the coach asks, we can look ahead, with the Patriots' season ending as early as Sunday or as late as Feb. 6.

One way or the other, the organization will look different than it has during the excellent run of the past four seasons.

The great teams, like the San Francisco 49ers, endured even as their staffs were picked apart. The 49ers survived the retirement of Bill Walsh, as George Seifert won two more rings.

Will the Patriots be able to withstand the defections?

Charlie Weis, architect of the championship offense, already is headed out the door to Notre Dame. He will be gone with the final tick of their final game. If that's the only change, the Patriots will be very lucky, even though changing offensive coordinators is risky business.

Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has his best shot yet of becoming an NFL head coach, having interviewed with Cleveland and San Francisco. Assistants such as linebackers coach Dean Pees could be wooed away to bigger jobs. We hear from Miami that Belichick disciple Nick Saban is trying to find his Scott Pioli, so wouldn't it make sense that it would be someone from Pioli's staff? Very capable people such as Nick Caserio, Keith Kidd, Tom Dimitroff, and Lionel Vital, the unsung members of the Patriots staff who go out and find players, would be excellent choices.

If a team needs a cap guy or a president/CEO type, there would be no more qualified candidate than Patriots director of legal affairs Jack Mula, who has negotiated some of the best deals in the league the past few years and saved the organization thousands in player salaries. He has invaluable experience with players, having been an agent to stars such as Priest Holmes, Doug Flutie, Sean Jones, Fred Smerlas, and Steve DeOssie.

Don't forget Andre Tippett, who some believe could be a top GM or personnel man. He has worked in many facets of the Patriots organization. And Andy Wasynczuk, the team's chief operating officer and once the team's primary negotiator, has taken on more stadium and Kraft family business duties since the Belichick-Pioli machine began rolling after the first Super Bowl.

For sure there will be changes in the AFC East that could have interesting implications, especially Saban's presence with the Dolphins, which means two games per year against his friend Belichick.

While Saban very well could be another college coach who fails in the NFL, he also might be a thorn in the Patriots' side for years. Saban might institute a 3-4 defense, and if so he'll be looking for the same kind of players he used to recommend to Belichick -- the Jarvis Greens and Marquise Hills of the NFL draft. Free agency will be more competitive with Saban in the mix.

If Crennel goes to Cleveland, he'll be another AFC opponent who understands Patriots football, and he too would seek out similar players.

If current New England assistants get promoted to coordinators, there's no guarantee that either unit will be as effective as it is.

Former Patriots linebackers coach Rob Ryan struggled in his first season as the Raiders' defensive boss. He got the Raiders to sign ex-Patriots Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton, but he found that running a defense on his own was far different from operating under Crennel. Then again, defensive backs coach Eric Mangini might be the next Belichick, and tight ends coach/assistant offensive line coach Jeff Davidson might be the next Weis.

Maybe the Patriots are so far ahead it will take years for everyone to catch up. Walsh, for instance, lost Mike Holmgren among others, but found new coaching stars along the way.

Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick won a Super Bowl and then lost defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. Billick will tell you that, whatever your speciality is as a head coach (in this case, Billick was an offensive coordinator in Minnesota), losing the coordinator on the opposite side of the ball hurts most.

Billick is currently looking for a new offensive coordinator (he'll interview two more candidates today) after parting with former Patriots quarterback Matt Cavanaugh. Billick was going to take away the play-calling from Cavanaugh in the final two games of the season if Cavanaugh was named head coach at Pitt, feeling it would be too much of a distraction to wear both hats. As it turned out, Cavanaugh was scooped out of the Pitt job by former Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt, but Billick let Cavanaugh go anyway, believing the Ravens' offense needed a change.

The importance of strong coordinators cannot be overstated; the great teams have great coordinators. Belichick is living proof of that from his New York Giants days.

Consider today's strongest teams, and their coordinators. Brad Childress and Jim Johnson in Philadelphia. Tom Moore in Indianapolis. Mike Nolan in Baltimore. Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh. Wade Phillips and Cam Cameron in San Diego.

There were 15 new defensive coordinators in the league this year. There already have been four offensive coordinators fired. The Patriots have had two of the best, and both may be gone in the same year.

But don't worry about that. Think Sunday. And only Sunday. 

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