The New England Patriots are scheduled to arrive today in Jacksonville, Fla. They will have gotten there on the cheap.
Unlike the Philadelphia Eagles -- the team they will face in next Sunday's Super Bowl -- the Patriots didn't spend lavishly to assemble the cast that earned them a spot on football's biggest stage. Their 2004 player payroll of approximately $77 million ranks 24th among the NFL's 32 teams.
Corey Dillon took a pay cut in order to join the Patriots.
But that's nothing new for the club that has become the league's model franchise. Its decision-making triumvirate of owner Robert Kraft, Coach Bill Belichick and front-office chief Scott Pioli has built what qualifies as a dynasty in this era of free agency and the salary cap by proving again and again that it's not how much you spend on players, it's how well you spend. The Patriots are playing in their third Super Bowl in four years because they drafted well, signed the right free agents and got more out of their players than anyone else thought possible.
"I think it's remarkable what they've done, incredible what they've been able to accomplish," said former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, the architect of two Super Bowl teams. "It's like the run [late Packers coach Vince] Lombardi had, at least the start of it. I believe the Cowboys with Jimmy Johnson showed you can win [consistently] in this era. But with the injuries this team has had it's amazing they've been able to win, and to dominate in many cases."
The Patriots have high-priced players, including quarterback Tom Brady and injured cornerback Ty Law. But their high-priced players are not nearly as high-priced as those on other teams. Brady signed a four-year, $28 million contract extension in the summer of 2002. His entire contract is worth less than Peyton Manning's $34.5 million signing bonus, part of the Indianapolis quarterback's seven-year, $99.2 million deal. Manning has won the last two NFL most valuable player awards, but he never has reached a Super Bowl and the Colts have lost to the Patriots in the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
The Patriots pick players that they think will fit their system, and many end up being willing to take less money to stay with the club. Middle linebacker Tedy Bruschi negotiated a contract extension last summer, without an agent, that included a $3.5 million signing bonus and salaries totaling $3.9 million for the 2005, '06 and '07 seasons. Otherwise, he would have been an unrestricted free agent after this season. Some agents and players leaguewide were upset that Bruschi settled for such a modest deal.
When tailback Corey Dillon was traded from the success-starved Cincinnati Bengals to the Patriots last offseason, he agreed to rework his contract and reduce his $3.3 million salary this season for a guaranteed $1.75 million salary and a package of incentives based on his rushing yards.
Belichick is willing to make the tough decisions necessitated by the salary cap. He released popular and productive safety Lawyer Milloy just before the 2003 season because Milloy was unwilling to take the sort of pay cut that the team wanted him to accept. Law's hefty contract and his broken foot put him in jeopardy of being released during the offseason. The Patriots will need some payroll flexibility, with Dillon eligible for free agency after the 2005 season and Brady following the '06 season.
"Every team is striving to do what they do," Colts President Bill Polian said. "You have to have a certain system and approach to it. And believe me, it's much easier said than done. There's also no question that when Brady and the running back start commanding really top dollar, maybe they'll have a cap issue. Right now they're not paying top market rate for either guy. But that's not really an issue at this point in time. Just say this: It's a great team that's done great things and probably will keep doing great things if they can keep them together. So far they've figured how to do it. Give them all the credit in the world."
Belichick and Pioli inherited a team in 2000 that was beset with salary cap problems, largely because the payroll was top-heavy with too many players with big contracts. They changed that and have scored big with the additions of mid- to lower-priced free agents such as linebacker Mike Vrabel and safety Rodney Harrison. The Patriots will spend when they need to spend: They had one of the league's higher payrolls in the 2003 season after adding free agents such as Harrison, cornerback Tyrone Poole and linebacker Rosevelt Colvin.
But they are back to their thrifty ways this season. It all works because once a season starts, Belichick is able to get his players to put contract issues aside and function as a cohesive unit with a professional, team-first approach. Only four Patriots were selected to the Pro Bowl this season, and two were special-teamers -- coverage ace Larry Izzo and place kicker Adam Vinatieri. The others were Brady and defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who missed the AFC playoffs because of a knee injury but could return for the Super Bowl.
"The reason [Belichick] is so successful is the players he gets," said Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFL Players Association who had a Hall of Fame career as a guard for the Oakland Raiders. "He's like a mad scientist with some of these guys. Most coaches will correct mistakes after they see the film of the game. Hell, he corrects mistakes on the field right away. His players are so disciplined. They stay on the pass routes. They stay in their coverage zones and never leave them. They always are in the right position to make a play, even the younger guys. That's great coaching.
"You're looking at a dynasty. It's all of them -- Bill, the ownership, the organization, the players -- all working together. There aren't any egos. Look at Rodney Harrison. They take him, they did their research and they get quality years from the guy. And there are others -- Vrabel, Larry Izzo. How did they get so good now? Couldn't anyone else see these guys may not have hit the height and weight charts, that all they could do is play football?"
The Eagles, at $105.1 million, had the second-highest player payroll in the league this season, according to the computation method used by the players' union. Only the Washington Redskins' payroll, at a league-record $117.9 million, was higher. The Eagles made a Super Bowl-or-bust push last offseason with the high-priced acquisitions of wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse. And it has paid off, as they finally reached a Super Bowl after losing in the NFC title game in each of the previous three seasons.
The Eagles and Redskins were the only two clubs to have payrolls in excess of $100 million. Seven other teams -- Houston, Detroit, Seattle, Miami, the New York Jets, Minnesota and Indianapolis -- topped $90 million. The San Francisco 49ers, who had a league-worst record of 2-14, had the NFL's lowest payroll, at $62.6 million. The Dallas Cowboys, who had a 6-10 record, had the next-lowest payroll, at $65.4 million.
But once again, there was no clear correlation between spending and winning. The Redskins were the league's freest spenders again, as owner Daniel Snyder gave Coach Joe Gibbs everything he wanted, and went 6-10. Four of the league's six highest-spending clubs missed the playoffs. Half of the 12 playoff teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in spending.
They're all trying to be the Patriots, who have won 31 of their last 33 games and just keep plugging along. Belichick's favorite saying is, "It is what it is." He accepts what adversity comes his team's way, and adapts. That's why his club still is playing even after losing starting cornerbacks Law and Poole to injuries this season. And it's why he and Pioli just keep finding more interchangeable parts every offseason.
"You just try to take the situation at hand and do the best you can with it," Belichick said. "When it's over, [you] recalibrate, reload and go again."
Pioli has been sought by other teams for general manager jobs but has pledged to remain with the Patriots until his contract expires in 2006. Still, Belichick faces more retooling than usual during the upcoming offseason. He is virtually certain to lose both of his top coaching lieutenants. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has accepted the head coaching job at Notre Dame and defensive boss Romeo Crennel likely is headed to Cleveland to be the Browns' head coach.
"He's going to miss Romeo and Weis," said New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi, who was the Browns' GM when Belichick coached in Cleveland. "But Bill has had a lot to do with this. He's trained both guys, really, and I'm sure he's already got their successors in mind."