Rod Rust, the New England Patriots' defensive coordinator who was fired on Wednesday by Ron Meyer, was rehired on Thursday by Raymond Berry, the Patriots' new head coach, who was hired on Wednesday by Patrick Sullivan, the Patriots' general manager, who needed a head coach because he was about to fire Meyer on Thursday, at least partially because Meyer had fired Rust without first telling Sullivan about it on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Confused? Don't be.

If this is Saturday, it must be New England.

Want to take it from the top, one more time?

Rust was out. Now he's back in.

Meyer was in. Now he's out.

Berry, who was in as an assistant before Meyer got the job three years ago and then was out when Meyer brought in a whole new staff, is in again.

Sullivan, a 32-year-old GM who was more or less born into this whole thing because his father, Billy, has owned the Patriots since their inception as one of the original AFL franchises in 1959, is still in.

Hey, Abbott: Who's on first. What's on second. I don't know's on third.

Got it?

Good, then explain it to me. And make sure to explain why it all happened now, when the Patriots are 5-3, one of only 12 NFL teams above .500. You see, while plenty of teams fire their coaches in midseason -- the 1-7 Browns just axed Sam Rutigliano on Monday -- according to the NFL, the Patriots are the first team in league history to fire a coach with a winning record in midseason.

This is not, as they say, doing it by The Book.

"I really oppose disruptions in the middle of the season of any variety," Patrick Sullivan said Thursday.

Then why do it?

"Because I oppose disruptions," Sullivan said.

And now a word from our moderator: Hey, Abbott!

The word from Boston is that Meyer, one of those hard-nosed, no-nonsense, winning-is-the-only-thing guys, was disliked by players and management alike. And that his capricious firing of Rust violated the Patriots' organizational ethic of decision by committee, because he consulted neither Sullivan nor Dick Steinberg, the Patriots' director of player development. "I think that was the straw that broke the camel's back," Brian Holloway, the offensive tackle from Churchill High School who'd been a Pro Bowl choice last season, said yesterday. "That broke the oath of communication that we had as a team. What has helped us become winners was our adherence to a concept of free and open communication among players, coaches and management."

The players liked Rust.

Steve Nelson, an 11-year veteran at linebacker and former all-pro, said earlier this season, "Rod Rust is a genius."

The players didn't like Meyer.

They didn't like him three years ago when he rode in from SMU and installed what might be called an ambitious set of rules. Rules like: One bus for all the offensive players, and a separate bus for the defensive players. Rules like: No player is allowed to leave the team's hotel on the road -- not even to see family. It is tough enough to sell grown men on a curfew, let alone a quarantine.

Last year Meyer dropped some of the rules and an uneasy truce between coach and players ensued. But this year the players' antagonisms flared again. Three weeks ago the players met with Sullivan -- at Sullivan's request and without Meyer present -- and renewed their complaints.

"You'd hear guys say that Coach Meyer made them feel 'uneasy,' " said running back Craig James, who jumped to the Patriots from the USFL Washington Federals this summer and was reunited with Meyer, his college coach. James likes Meyer, but he admitted yesterday that the Meyer he knew in New England was different from the one he knew at SMU. "He didn't have the control he wants and needs to build a winner. He was uptight here. It was easy to see. And you'd see players drifting off into little corners, talking about him all the time. That drags a team down."

" 'Disliked' isn't the proper word," Holloway said. "But I don't know that he was ever really respected as a head coach of an NFL team. He wanted to win so much. Too much, I think. Meyer's impulsiveness in making decisions -- and the growing frequency of those decisions -- was making everyone nervous."

Which players were unhappy with Meyer?

"Only those who played here longer than six months," said Leigh Montville, the wry columnist for the Boston Globe.

The players also didn't much care for the assistant coaches whom Meyer had brought in from SMU, none of whom had ever played a down in the NFL. "When you have Pro Bowlers being coached by people their own age, it gets very difficult to listen if they haven't been on the field," Holloway said. Seven of Meyer's 10 assistants were from SMU. Rust wasn't. He has coached in the NFL since 1976.

When Meyer joined the Patriots, he took over one of the worst teams in pro football. New England was 2-14 in 1981 and was regarded throughout the league as a prime example of a country-club team, one that consistently played far below its potential. In Meyer's first season the Patriots went 5-4 and made the playoffs in the strike-shortened year. In his second season the Patriots barely missed the playoffs, finishing 8-8, setting up legitimately high expectations. Sullivan said he'd be disappointed if this team didn't "go deep" into the playoffs. This about a franchise that never won a playoff game.

Meyer raised their hopes.

Then they razed Meyer.

When the Patriots got word that Meyer was gone, they were both relieved and happy. Julius Adams, a 14-year veteran at defensive end and former all-pro, looked at Stanley Morgan, an eight-year veteran at wide receiver and two-time Pro Bowl choice, and said, "Stanley, this is the first time I've seen you smile in three years. I didn't remember if your teeth were still white."

Meyer leaves with a career NFL record of 18-15, the best winning percentage in Patriots' history. Again, he is the only coach in NFL history to be fired in midseason with a winning record.

What does that say?

"That says," says Holloway, "that you have a management that is absolutely in tune with its football team."

If the Patriots won in spite of Meyer and not because of him, the question now facing them is: Will they win without him?