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Real Patriots

Super Bowl champions finally have turned skeptics into believers

September 22, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you thought the New England Patriots were a farce? You thought they'd be Super Bowl souffle by now? Boston baked beings?

Well, you're not alone.

"I certainly wasn't a believer," said Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls as coach of the 49ers. "I didn't believe in [the Patriots] until I saw them the last two weeks."

While the football world rubs its eyes, the underdog Patriots have been wiping out the competition, having beaten the Steelers and Jets by a combined 74-21. New England's offense, which scored a touchdown a game in the playoffs last season, has tripled that weekly output.

"You don't score that many points without doing something right," said Larry Webster, a defensive tackle for the Jets. "They're the world champions, and they're showing why."

If only the sports world had realized that a few months ago, maybe Lawyer Milloy wouldn't be so steamed. Milloy, a Pro Bowl safety, was one of several Patriots who made the six-hour flight from Boston to Los Angeles in the off-season for the ESPY awards. The Super Bowl champions were nominees in three categories: team, coach and breakout player of the year. Quarterback Tom Brady won the latter, but the team and coach awards went to the Lakers and their coach, Phil Jackson. Making matters worse, Jackson wasn't in attendance, so ESPN didn't even announce that award, leaving Patriot Coach Bill Belichick wondering why he had even bothered to come.

On the edge of his seat at the Kodak Theater, wearing his custom-made tuxedo, Milloy was fit to be bow tied.

"It was very disappointing. I think we're the closest team to ESPN," he said, referring to the network's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., a two-hour drive from Boston. "I was thinking we might get some special treatment.... But I'm never going to the ESPYs again. I wouldn't go. It was a joke.

"Everyone wanted us to be a fluke. We don't have a fluke coach here. Any time Bill Belichick coaches a team, you can't count it out."

This week, the betting line finally reflects that. The Patriots are favored, by nine at home against Kansas City.

Meanwhile, Brady, the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, is becoming one of the league's better quarterbacks. He was rewarded recently with a four-year, $28-million contract extension that included a $10-million signing bonus.

Belichick uses symbolic gestures to hammer home his coaching message. Early last season, when Miami rolled to a 30-10 victory over the Patriots, Belichick staged a mock funeral for the game ball, burying it in the practice field. At a minicamp over the off-season, he handed out T-shirts featuring the 2002 AFC East standings, with every team at 0-0. He had Celtic legend Bill Russell talk to his players about the importance of teamwork. And, at training camp, Patriot players wore T-shirts that read, "Targeting September," with their first four opponents--the Steelers, Jets, Chiefs and Chargers--all within a bull's-eye.

The Patriots are trying to become only the seventh franchise in NFL history to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Only one of those teams, the Denver Broncos in 1997 and '98, has pulled off the feat since free agency began in 1993 and keeping a roster intact became such a challenge.

New England not only kept its roster intact, retaining 20 of 22 starters from last season, but bulked up in the off-season with the addition of three better-than-average tight ends: free agents Cam Cleeland and Christian Fauria, and first-round pick Daniel Graham of Colorado. They also signed 6-foot-4 Donald Hayes, Carolina's leading receiver last season, giving Brady another big target. Hayes joins receivers David Patten, Troy Brown and Deion Branch, none of whom is taller than 5-10.

Put tactfully by running back Antowain Smith: "Now, we have a big receiver to go with our midgets."

The biggest difference this season is Brady, who by most accounts makes better and quicker decisions than Drew Bledsoe, the quarterback he replaced. Eight months ago, in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, San Diego defensive end Marcellus Wiley, whom Brady had faced in his third start, wondered if fame might take its toll on the young quarterback.

"[The pressure] will be in the off-season, when all his friends are patting him on the back, and he's at the bar and everyone's saying, 'Brady! Brady!' " Wiley said. "All that kicks in, and then he may miss a workout or two."

But Brady didn't miss a workout. In fact, his attendance record was so strong, he was awarded one of the best parking spots at training camp.

He did have some off-season distractions--a trip to the Playboy mansion, a ride in Donald Trump's personal jet, a stint as a Miss America judge--but he kept those to a minimum. When the city fathers in his hometown of San Mateo wanted to have a "Tom Brady Day," he put the kibosh on that, reminding them he's only 24 and, by his thinking, doesn't deserve to have a day named in his honor. He settled for a smaller ceremony at his alma mater, Serra High.

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