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Getting it out of a system

Socrates, who lived back around the time of Papa Bear Halas, had the championship formula figured out a couple of millennia before Super Bowl I. "Know thyself," the Greek philosopher preached. Professional football teams and their followers may talk about philosophies and systems and programs, but success and failure essentially are questions of self-knowledge. In the NFL, identity usually determines destiny.

"Knowing who you are and what you want to be," muses ABC Sports analyst John Madden. "What is an Oakland Raider? What is a Seattle Seahawk? What is a Dallas Cowboy? If you can't answer that, therein lies the problem. What is an Arizona Cardinal? I have no idea."

By now, after winning two Super Bowls in three seasons, the Patriots have an identity that is recognized far beyond Foxborough. "Intelligent, efficient, businesslike, physical, adaptable, flexible," says Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "Play well in the clutch, win tough road games . . ."

The storied professional football franchises, such as Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, never had a problem with mistaken identity. The Packers were about discipline and professionalism, the 49ers about flair and imagination, the Cowboys about innovation and precision, the Dolphins about poise and resourcefulness, the Steelers about smashmouth straightforwardness.

Even the new franchises, whose trophy cases still are bare, have identities-in-progress. "Our identity is, we play hard," says Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly. "If you come to play us, it's a 60-minute football game."

The Patriots are about focus, pragmatism, diligence, versatility, resilience, selflessness. "They aren't a team of superstars," says Pittsburgh president Art Rooney II, whose team handed the Patriots the first of their two defeats this season and may well host them again next weekend for the right to go to next month's Super Bowl in Jacksonville. "They're not looking for the other guy to make the play."

For most of their 45 years, the Patriots had a negative identity. They were the Patsies, fortune's fools, playing beneath a persistent rain cloud. Silly things happened to them, most of their own making. "They were No. 4 in that town forever," says Casserly, who spent a decade in Springfield as a student, coach, and administrator. "And it wasn't close between 4 and 3."

The slapstick image began changing in 1993 when Bill Parcells was hired, and the Patriots went from 2-14 to the Super Bowl in four seasons. "They hired a proven winner who had won two Super Bowls," says Casserly, who was with the Redskins when they won three titles. "That gave them a new identity immediately."

The Patsy persona vanished three years ago when New England upset the St. Louis Rams for its first championship. The new persona, built around preparation and passion, was reinforced last February when the Patriots defeated the Carolina Panthers for their second crown.

"The way Bill Belichick is doing it right now is the best way," says Kansas City Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, who made it to the Super Bowl with both the Eagles and Rams. "They're winning the most football games, so that makes it the best way."

No looking back
Going into today's AFC semifinal date with Indianapolis at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots have won 29 of their last 31 games. That stretch included a league-record 21 straight wins, which Belichick saw as 21 one-game winning streaks. His team's record, he says, is now 0-0, just as it was last year at this time.

That approach -- an obsession with what's dead ahead -- is what made the Patriots who they've become. What-ifs don't concern them.

"It's a core part of our philosophy," says Patriots vice president Scott Pioli, who's in charge of player personnel. "Hypotheticals don't matter. It's wasted time, wasted energy, rather than what's real and what's right in front of you."

The Belichick credo is practical, absolute: "Whatever it is, it is." If Drew Bledsoe goes down, if the linebackers and cornerbacks start dropping, you plug in different people and you deal with it.

"You just try to take the situation at hand and do the best you can with it," says Belichick. "When it is over, recalibrate, reload, and go again. That is where we have been all season. We never sat there and thought, `Well, if this happens, where are we going to be two months from now?' We just never look at it like that."

The schedule says you play on Sunday and the rules say you must have 11 men on the field. Sometimes, that means using a receiver as a cornerback. But you show up and you perform, however you must.

"You just think about, `Here's who we're playing this week. What are we going to do? What is our best chance to do it?' " says Belichick. "You jump off the ship and you start swimming. You don't really worry about where you are going. You are just trying to make good time."

It's not as if the Patriots plunge overboard without a life preserver, a compass, and shark repellent. What sets them apart from most of their rivals is that they're meticulously prepared and that everyone -- from owner Bob Kraft to Belichick to the assistant coaches to the scouts to the players to the trainers to the equipment people -- is on the same page.

"They have the strongest philosophy in those terms," says Madden, who coached the eye-patched Raiders (has any team had a clearer identity?) to their first Super Bowl victory. "This is the way you play football as a New England Patriot. This is how you play on offense. This is how you play on defense. This is how you play on special teams. They have a system for everything and they teach it better than anybody."

There is a Patriot Way now, just as there has been a Packer Way, a Dolphin Way, a Cowboy Way, a 49er Way, a Steeler Way. All of them revolve around what former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh calls "a central belief system." Some, like Pittsburgh's, which is based on robust running and uncivil defense, go back decades.

"Even when we didn't have very good teams, people would say that even if the Steelers didn't beat you, you felt like you'd gotten beat up after you played them," says Rooney.

Much of the Steeler identity comes from having had one owner (the Rooney family) for their 71 years and only two coaches (Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher) since 1969. When Kraft bought the Patriots in 1994, they had had three owners, four coaches, and four quarterbacks in seven years. "Stability and continuity are critical," says Pioli.

Now they have had the same owner for 11 years, the same head coach for five, the same quarterback for four. But equally significant is the stability and continuity of expectations. There is no confusion, no dissension, about how to reach their goals. "We do what we say we're going to do," says Pioli.

The clarity and simplicity of purpose comes from Belichick, who has been around long enough now to shape his team in his image.

"For better or worse, it's impossible for a football team not to take on the personality of its head coach," says Accorsi. "You can see that the Steelers are Cowher and that the Patriots are Bill."

Looking for Mr. Right
Pro football isn't primarily about philosophies and systems, about schemes and tendencies, about playbooks and scouting reports.

"It all starts with people," says Vermeil. "You have to have a foundation of things you believe in. You have concepts and philosophies that you operate by. But I always start with people. Then, I worry about how we're going to do things."

The challenge, for the Patriots and everybody else in the league, is finding what teams call "our kind of guy."

"Everyone wants big, fast, tough, smart guys who love the game," says Jacksonville executive scout Terry McDonough, who worked with Belichick and Pioli in Cleveland.

The Patriots clearly know what they don't want. "A player who has limited ability and a player who is a bad character guy," says defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. "If you fit that criteria, you don't fit in."

What the Patriots are looking for are players with football character.

"We're concerned about what the players are like as people and what things are important to them," says Pioli. "What their overall makeup is, what motivates them, how much pride they have. Essentially, how important football is to them. There's no test that will tell you that. It's a combination of observing, of asking questions, of gathering information."

The core question is: Can he be a Patriot? Will he buy into what we're doing? Can he fit in here?

"We're not for everyone, and not everyone is for us," says Pioli.

The three Patriotic essentials are commitment, focus, and discipline.

"Being where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there and doing your job," says Pioli. "That's what discipline is."

By that standard, Tom Brady is the team's star-spangled poster boy. Even during the bye week, he was thinking "all day, every day" about all three of New England's potential playoff opponents.

"What is the price you would pay for success?" he muses. "What would you give up to win this game?"

Brady was the 199th player chosen in the 2000 draft. Who would have predicted that he would quarterback the team to two Super Bowls?

"I don't think we would have been talking about Brady like that before the 2001 season," says Belichick. "Who is this guy? Some guy from Michigan? A sixth-round pick? What's the big deal about him?"

The big deal was Brady's intangibles (a word the Patriot brass dismiss; every quality is tangible, they insist). No quarterback in the league manages a game better. But that wasn't obvious until Bledsoe got hurt and Brady stepped in.

"It's a very unscientific business at times," concedes Belichick. "That's why there are so many mistakes in the draft, in personnel and free agency. Put guys in different systems, put them in different opportunities, it turns out differently."

You don't have to be a top draft pick to start for the Patriots. Wide receiver David Givens was a seventh-round pick, center Dan Koppen a fifth. But the Patriots had a sense that they would blossom in Foxborough.

"Bill and Scott start with bringing in our type of guys," says offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. "Then our job as coaches is to fit them in. Don't say, `Well, he can't do this.' Find out what he can do. We never look at a player as somebody we can't use."

Plugging away
The Belichick philosophy is that football players play football. Why can't Mike Vrabel catch touchdown passes? Why can't kicker Adam Vinatieri throw them? Why can't tight end Christian Fauria defend on Hail Mary plays? Why can't receiver Troy Brown fill in at cornerback?

"If you use a purist approach, you get in all kinds of trouble," says Walsh, who coached the 49ers to three Super Bowl victories and is now a special assistant to the athletic director at Stanford. "I always took the position that if a player has a redeeming quality, then he can help us."

If a player is athletic, intelligent, and adaptable, the Patriots see no reason why he can't play a different position, can't step up when needed.

"Everyone on that team has a role," says Madden. "Everyone is treated like a starter and everyone is taught to be a starter. In practice, they'll put in a backup linebacker and a backup safety to work with their No. 1 defense. So when there's an injury and the backup goes in, he's been there before."

The Patriots' remarkable ability to be whatever they have to be on a given Sunday has made them difficult to label. They aren't "The Greatest Show on Turf," they have no "Steel Curtain" or "Doomsday Defense." They just know how to put one W after another. That's the Patriot Way.

Parcells, who has logged 16 seasons as a head coach with four NFL teams, has a theory about football identities. "You are what you are," he likes to say.

If you're 2-14, you're 2-14. And if you're 14-2 . . .

The Patsies who used to live at this address were somebody else. These Patriots have rings on two fingers and are going for a third. They are what they are.

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