JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Super Bowl shifts to another less-than-idyllic setting -- Detroit -- next year. And don't be so sure that the New England Patriots won't be the team that's left doing next season's final on-field celebration at Ford Field as well.
"We're not necessarily done," linebacker Mike Vrabel said after Sunday night's 24-21 triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles here at Alltel Stadium gave the Patriots their third Super Bowl title in four seasons. "Our goal is to win championships. As long as we're playing, we will try to win them."
It is, without a doubt, a dynasty. The Patriots joined the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s as the only teams to win three Super Bowls in a four years. Quarterback Tom Brady won his third Super Bowl crown at the age of 27, and he and Coach Bill Belichick improved their postseason record together to 9-0. Each cemented his place in history.
An argument can be made, in fact, that Belichick not only is among the greatest coaches in NFL history but is the greatest coach in NFL history. He improved his postseason record as an NFL coach in Cleveland and New England to 10-1, eclipsing the 9-1 mark of the legendary Vince Lombardi as the best ever. And Belichick has done his work with the Patriots during a time that is most unkind to sustaining NFL success, with free agency and the salary cap. He has been part of five Super Bowl championships as an assistant coach and a head coach. And he's young enough, at 52, to add a few more to that total if he can avoid being worn down by the long hours that he puts into his maniacal preparation of his teams.
"We have a really great group of coaches and, as a team, I think our players really put it on the line for Coach Belichick," Vrabel said. "We have great coaches. But we also have great players that complement those coaches well, and it has paid off."
And the window of opportunity remains wide open for the Patriots next season.
Belichick is losing his top two coaching lieutenants. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis departs to be the head coach at Notre Dame, a job that he accepted in December. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel tentatively agreed after the Super Bowl to become the head coach of the Browns, pending the completion of a contract. But Belichick can promote defensive backs coach Eric Mangini, who's regarded as a rising star in the coaching ranks, to defensive coordinator, provided that the Patriots can keep Mangini from leaving for Cleveland or Miami or another team that might outbid them. His contract is expiring. But he probably will be loyal to Belichick, who got his NFL coaching career started in Cleveland by promoting him from public relations intern to entry-level assistant. And, to succeed Weis, Belichick can promote tight ends coach Jeff Davidson, who performed the play-calling duties for the Patriots when Weis was absent during the 2002 preseason after a nearly fatal stomach surgery.
Front-office chief Scott Pioli is a highly regarded general manager candidate league-wide but has vowed publicly to remain with the Patriots at least through the 2006 draft, when his contract expires. There are no temptations left for Pioli to leave this offseason. The Dolphins still are planning to look for a new front-office chief following the draft in April to work with first-year coach Nick Saban, a former Belichick assistant in Cleveland. But Saban has the final say over player-related decisions in Miami, and it almost certainly would take a GM job with the final authority over personnel matters to lure Pioli away from Belichick's side.
The Patriots could lose cornerback Ty Law, whose broken foot and $12.5 million salary cap figure next season put him in jeopardy of being released this offseason if he won't rework his contract. But the Patriots won this Super Bowl even after Law and fellow starting cornerback Tyrone Poole suffered season-ending injuries. They shut down the revved-up passing game of the Indianapolis Colts during the AFC playoffs. They exploited the Pittsburgh Steelers' prized rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in the AFC title game. And, although they allowed Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to throw for 357 yards Sunday night, it took McNabb 51 passing attempts to reach that total, and the Patriots intercepted him three times.
Brady is signed through the 2006 season. Tailback Corey Dillon is signed through next season. Those are potentially cap-busting contracts. But both players say they want to stay and realize that might mean giving the Patriots a discount. And the Patriots don't have to tackle those issues quite yet, anyway, if they don't want to do so.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri is eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. But he and the Patriots have been discussing a contract extension for months, and probably will be able to complete one before the free agent market opens. Otherwise, guard Joe Andruzzi, wide receiver David Patten and fullback Patrick Pass are the most prominent Patriots players eligible for unrestricted free agency.
"I'm sure there will be changes," Vrabel said. "There are always changes every offseason. . . . [But] the real core guys will be here. And the plan is going to be the same."
The Patriots' approach certainly won't change. "We really are a team," Brady said. "I mean, in four seasons I've never had a wide receiver complain about not getting the ball. I've never had a running back complain about not getting enough carries. We have an offensive line that always busts their backs every day and a defense that's just unreal.
" . . . I know I haven't had a day off in seven months, and it's all for this. . . . We realize how difficult it is and how tough teams are going to make it on us [next year], just like they did all year. We lost two games this year. But we needed to play well at the end of the year, and we really stepped up when we needed to."
Crennel Negotiations To Start Today
Crennel's agent, Joe Linta, is scheduled to open contract negotiations with the Browns today. Barring any snags -- and it doesn't appear that either side expects any -- Crennel's hiring in Cleveland likely will be official within the next few days.
Under NFL rules, the Browns had to wait until after the Patriots' season was over to offer the job to Crennel. But they didn't wait long, contacting him almost immediately after the game Sunday night. The Browns offered Crennel the job and he tentatively accepted it, pending the completion of a contract. Crennel confirmed the postgame discussions.
Crennel said that he, Belichick and Weis huddled on the field after the game.
"That kind of let you know that it was over and [it was] the last time we were going to coach together -- potentially the last time we were going to coach together," Crennel said, catching himself after being careful all week not to award himself the Cleveland job publicly before it was official. "It felt kind of different. A little strange. But if you have to go out a winner at the Super Bowl, that's a really special feeling.
"Charlie, Bill and myself have been together a long time -- not only as coaches, but as friends. And to know the finality of it -- it kinds of hits you. But this game is about change. Players change. Coaches change. And you have to move forward." . . .
Belichick is the first coach in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span. When the Cowboys did it, they were coached by Jimmy Johnson for two victories and by Barry Switzer for the other. . . .
Freddie Mitchell needs to go away quietly now. After sparring verbally with Patriots safety Rodney Harrison leading up to the game, Mitchell caught fewer McNabb passes Sunday night (one) than Harrison did (two). Said Harrison: "Freddie probably bit off more than he could chew." . . .
Harrison had two of the Patriots' three interceptions, and the New England secondary withstood yet another loss when safety Eugene Wilson was injured on a first-half special-teams play. The Patriots plugged in Dexter Reid and just kept going. Young cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Randall Gay played relatively well, meaning that the Patriots won't have to be desperate to have Law and Poole back in the lineup next season.
"The guys who had to step up stepped up," Harrison said. "They did a tremendous job of playing man-to-man coverage and breaking up some passes. They just really learned. It is a huge step for next year." . . .
Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens had every right to take an I-told-you-so approach after the game. And, of course, he did.
Owens had vowed to return for the game, seven weeks after suffering a severe ankle sprain that required surgery, even though his doctor, Baltimore-based orthopedist Mark Myerson, refused to clear him to play and said the recovery period following such an injury is at least eight weeks.
Owens had vowed to be a major factor in the game and not merely a decoy.
And he made good on those pledges, finishing with nine catches for 122 yards.
"Nobody but me knew I was going to play this game," Owens said. "Dr. Myerson, I give him all the respect in the world. [But] you guys believed what he said, that I couldn't play. A lot of people in the world didn't believe I could play . . . [but] nothing is impossible when you've got God on your side."
Owens underwent precautionary X-rays following the game but said he emerged without re-injuring himself.
"Before we came down here, I knew I was going to play all along," he said. "The media made it a situation to where they thought I was grandstanding. But like I told a lot of people -- in this situation other people, like Brett Favre, they would have called him a warrior. For me, they said I was selfish. If I'm selfish, I'm selfish because I wanted to help my team win."
The Patriots were impressed. "He's amazing, to be able to come out there and do what he did," Harrison said. "You could tell he was still hurting a little bit, but he played tremendous." . . .
McNabb blamed himself for the loss because of his three interceptions but said the Eagles still had a successful season, reaching the franchise's first Super Bowl in 24 years and finally taking the next step after losing the NFC title game in each of the previous three seasons.
"We've had a special year," McNabb said. "This is a year where no one expected us to do this. . . . When we got here, no one ever gave us a chance. But I bet you everyone was on the edge of their seats when we went back out there with 50-some [actually 46] seconds left. We possibly could have won that game."
The Eagles are well-positioned for a return to the Super Bowl, especially in the under-whelming NFC. Coach Andy Reid should be able to keep all or practically all of his assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Brad Childress and defensive boss Jim Johnson, in the fold.
The Eagles do have some work to do before the free agent market opens in March. Defensive tackle Corey Simon, defensive end Derrick Burgess, linebackers Jeremiah Trotter and Keith Adams, guard Jermane Mayberry, tight end Chad Lewis and tailbacks Dorsey Levens and Correll Buckhalter are among the Eagles players eligible for unrestricted free agency. Tailback Brian Westbrook is eligible for restricted free agency, giving the Eagles the ability to retain him by matching any contract offer by another team.
But the club always has been skilled at managing the salary cap and retaining its own free agents, and Reid and his players said Sunday night they're eager to return to football's biggest stage. "Our guys got a taste of it," Reid said, "and I'm sure they'll want to come back."
Titans Pursuing Chow
Tennessee apparently is willing to pay Norm Chow about $900,000 per season to leave USC to become the Titans' offensive coordinator. Chow has helped the Trojans to the last two collegiate national championships as their offensive boss under Coach Pete Carroll. . . .
The San Francisco 49ers hired Billy Davis, the New York Giants' linebackers coach, as defensive coordinator under new head coach, Mike Nolan. . . .
According to several reports, New York Jets quarterback Quincy Carter has checked into a drug rehabilitation center. The Jets excused Carter from their season-ending playoff loss at Pittsburgh, and club officials said at the time that Carter had left the team to be with his ailing mother. Carter also has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to reports.
Carter was released by the Cowboys in training camp, reportedly after failing a drug test. The NFL Players Association filed a grievance over the matter, saying that the collective bargaining agreement prohibits a team from releasing a player because of a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. The case is to be heard by an arbitrator within the next few months.