Patriots Reload for Another Title Run
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2004; 4:44 PM
The New England Patriots, winners of two of the last three Super Bowls, got better -- perhaps significantly better -- in the offseason and it doesn't quite seem fair. They are the closest thing to a dynasty and a model franchise in the salary-cap era of the NFL, and if they win a third Super Bowl in four years, they will be a bona fide dynasty.
It certainly hasn't been a commotion-free offseason for the ruling triumvirate of Coach Bill Belichick, vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli and owner Robert Kraft. Belichick has been involved in a nasty contract dispute with cornerback Ty Law, and recently there have been reports that offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is prepared to leave the organization after the season because of Belichick's refusal to bump up his salary.
But Belichick and Pioli plowed forward. They knew they would have a productive offseason because they had stockpiled draft choices, and they used one of them to address their glaring need for a productive tailback to complement quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots averaged only 3.4 yards per rush during a 2003 season in which Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk shared duties as the featured runner. The team dumped Smith, declining to exercise its option in his contract, and traded a second-round draft pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for Corey Dillon.
The Patriots slipped in to get Dillon after the Oakland Raiders refused to surrender a second-rounder for him. The Bengals perhaps could not have gotten a second-round selection from any other team. But the pick that the Patriots gave up was late in the second round -- No. 56 overall -- and New England, with an abundance of draft choices, could afford to risk overpaying a bit.
Dillon was perpetually disgruntled in Cincinnati. He turns 30 in October, the age at which tailbacks begin to have to answer questions about how much good football they have left. He lost his starting job with the Bengals to Rudi Johnson last season and rushed for only 541 yards. But he had run for at least 1,100 yards in each of the six seasons before that, becoming only the fourth runner in NFL history -- after Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin -- to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons. His addition represents a clear upgrade at the position for the Patriots, who also re-signed Faulk as a free agent and drafted Arkansas tailback Cedric Cobbs in the fourth round.
Belichick and Pioli, as always, spent wisely in free agency. They tried to re-sign defensive tackle Ted Washington but lost him to the Raiders. They later rebounded by replacing Washington with his former Chicago Bears teammate, Keith Traylor. They lost guards Damien Woody and Mike Compton but signed Bob Hallen.
As if the Patriots needed any luck, they had University of Miami defensive tackle Vince Wilfork fall to them for the 21st overall selection in the draft. He is a potential difference-maker on a defense that already has plenty of them. Belichick and Pioli used their second choice of the first round on Georgia tight end Ben Watson, and got good value picks with second-round defensive end Marquise Hill of LSU, Cobbs and fifth-round wide receiver P.K. Sam of Florida State.
The Patriots might not be done. It has been widely assumed that quarterback Vinny Testaverde will rejoin Coach Bill Parcells in Dallas following his expected June release by the New York Jets. But some executives around the league suspect that Testaverde could end up in New England, giving the Patriots a veteran backup and insurance for Brady. Testaverde put up solid numbers last season when Chad Pennington was injured, and his presence perhaps would enable the Patriots to remain Super Bowl contenders even if Brady were to get hurt.
It shouldn't be particularly alarming to Patriots followers that Weis is prepared to move on. Belichick is due to lose one -- if not both -- of his top lieutenants, Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Each might have been in line to receive an NFL head-coaching job in January if the Patriots hadn't advanced to the Super Bowl, keeping the two coordinators off the job market long enough for all the vacant positions to be filled. The Buffalo Bills, according to one NFL source, were poised to hire Weis instead of Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey if the Patriots had been eliminated from the AFC playoffs.
In the Law matter, Belichick has taken a smart approach, remaining quiet and composed publicly while Law has ripped him and the organization. The chances are that Law will have calmed down by training camp and will agree to a reworked contract. If not, Belichick certainly demonstrated no fear of making a tough choice with last year's decision to cut Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy just before the season because of a contract dispute. The Patriots fortified themselves at cornerback by signing free agents Jeff Burris and Otis Smith. They also drafted two safeties, third-rounder Guss Scott and fourth-rounder Dexter Reid, and have Eugene Wilson available to move back to cornerback after he started at safety as a rookie last season alongside veteran Rodney Harrison.
The defense would get another boost if linebacker Roosevelt Colvin, a high-priced free-agent acquisition last offseason who played in only two games before fracturing his hip and being placed on the injured reserve list, can make a successful comeback.
Belichick and Brady are chasing history now. Another Super Bowl triumph puts each among the all-time greats, and they have time on their side. Belichick is 52, Brady 26. Each has rebounded from adversity, and neither seems overly impressed with his own success to this point.
The Patriots won their final 15 games last season -- 12 in the regular season and three in the playoffs -- even after Belichick was forced to juggle the lineup constantly because of injuries. If anything, the ride should be smoother this time. This is a league in which teams coming out of nowhere to win championships have become the norm, not the exception. But the Patriots enter the season as clearly the club to beat, and the excellence of Belichick and Brady will make beating them a most difficult task.
Around the League
Browns, Northcutt Work Things Out
The Dennis Northcutt situation was resolved relatively amicably when the wide receiver agreed over the weekend to a three-year contract with Cleveland worth about $9 million. The deal includes a $2.2-million signing bonus and a $2-million roster bonus next year that could lead the Browns to release Northcutt to avoid having to pay it, making him an unrestricted free agent. Northcutt lost a chance to be a free agent this offseason when he and his agent, Jerome Stanley, missed a February deadline to void the remainder of his previous contract with the Browns.
That led to a protracted dispute in which Stanley tried to get the Browns to trade Northcutt. But Baltimore and Denver came and went as prospective trade destinations. Stanley accused the Browns of acting vindictively toward Northcutt and said he would file a grievance against them. He said that Northcutt never would play for Cleveland again.
But Northcutt ultimately had little choice but to return to the Browns, and the team made good on its pledge to do right by him. Northcutt's contract is worth far more than the $2.088 million that the club owed him over the next three seasons under the terms of his previous deal.
But it's also worth far less than the five-year, $16-million offer that Cleveland reportedly made to Northcutt before he and Stanley missed the February deadline. That proposal reportedly included a $3.5-million signing bonus. NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw recently mentioned Stanley among the agents that he thought had made mistakes this offseason and could be brought before the union's agent disciplinary committee. Stanley acknowledged his mistake but said he was focusing on moving forward to find a solution.
Ravens May Add Stewart Soon
The Ravens could move quickly to sign free-agent quarterback Kordell Stewart now that Kerry Collins has signed with the Raiders. Associates of Ozzie Newsome say that the Ravens' general manager has liked Stewart since the quarterback's days as Pittsburgh's starter. Agent Leigh Steinberg said Friday that the Ravens had called to express interest and he and Stewart were considering the opportunity.
Stewart was interested in Baltimore last year, but ended up signing with Chicago. He has been a free agent since being released by the Bears in March. He seemed relatively close to signing with Buffalo, but the Bills used a first-round draft choice on Tulane quarterback J.P. Losman and veteran starter Drew Bledsoe reworked his contract to remain with the club.
The Ravens need a veteran to back up Kyle Boller after losing Anthony Wright, who is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery today and could be sidelined as long as six months. . . . The Ravens re-signed linebacker Edgerton Hartwell and running back Alan Ricard, former restricted free agents whose rights reverted to Baltimore when they didn't sign offer sheets with other teams by last month's deadline.
Raiders Introduce Collins
The Raiders made it official and announced the signing of Collins this afternoon. "We're pleased and excited to have Kerry join the Raiders," Coach Norv Turner said in a written statement released by the team. "Kerry is a highly productive performer who will add to what is already a talented position."
Collins, 31, signed a three-year contract worth about $5.3 million per season. The deal includes a signing bonus of about $1.5 million. . . . Team owners are scheduled to meet Tuesday and Wednesday near Jacksonville, Fla. Among the primary topics of discussion will be the upcoming television negotiations, the league's efforts to put a franchise or two in Los Angeles and future Super Bowls.
Next: New Orleans Saints
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