HOUSTON -- When you examine the Atlanta Falcons closely, you could make an argument that they bear some resemblance to the Patriots of 2001. That year, New England was a young team making its first Super Bowl appearance in several years and facing a high-powered, high-profile offense in the then-St. Louis Rams.
Today, it's the Falcons who find themselves in that role, to some extent, while New England is the consensus favorite to emerge victorious in Super Bowl LI. However, like the Patriots in '01, this Atlanta team – particularly on defense – is so inexperienced on a stage this large that it perhaps doesn't realize how unproven it is. And perhaps that won't even matter once the game kicks off Sunday evening.
"You've got to start somewhere. New England had to start somewhere in '01," observed Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox. He was one of Bill Belichick's veteran linebackers on that 2001 Super Bowl championship squad. Today, Cox is trying to draw from that experience – his only other Super Bowl to date – to help his charges on the Falcons' D-line deal with the magnitude of the game for which they're preparing.
"There are a couple of things that I think help," Cox continued. "Number one, you just can talk to the players when asked how you dealt with the process, where you saw pitfalls, or where you wanted to change things, if you could.
"Secondly, from the standpoint of having been in that [Patriots] locker room, you kind of understand what they're saying. The message hasn't changed. How they deliver it has changed, but I feel like I have a good understanding of what they're being told over there on that side of the field."
Cox's message to his players this week: Don't listen to outsiders.
"We're not playing the '01, the '03, the '04, the '14 Patriots," he pointed out, referencing all four of New England's prior Super Bowl-winning teams. "We're playing one team, and that's the '16 Patriots. So, don't get caught up in all the noise. Just go out there and focus and go about your business and the process in which you get ready. We'll go out there and throw it around on Sunday and see what happens."
Of course, these Falcons are receiving much more respect going into the Super Bowl than Cox and his fellow Patriots did 15 years ago versus the Rams. Atlanta's offense is one of the most potent in the NFL, and its defense, though less statistically significant, is nonetheless a collectively confident group of mostly young players.
Some of that strident belief in themselves might have been borrowed from Cox, never known as a wallflower during his 12-year NFL career. In that span, Cox played for five different teams and two head coaches who are either in the Pro Football of Fame (Don Shula and Bill Parcells) or will be soon (Belichick). And although his 2001 campaign was his only one in New England, Cox's connection to Belichick stretches further back to when he and Parcells brought Cox to the New York Jets from 1998-2000.
Cox believes his current boss, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, is destined to be mentioned in the same breath with those other three.
"Because he only tries to be who he is," Cox explained. "He's the most positive person in the world, and he always going to ask his team to do what they can do. He's not asking his team to be the New England Patriots. He's just asking his team to be the best version of the Atlanta Falcons that we can be. That's what makes a truly great coach."
Cox wants to get another point across to his players this week – that opportunities like the one his former and current clubs will have this weekend can be few and far between.
"You can't take them for granted," he asserted. "This is my 10th year coaching and first time back in the playoffs. You'd like to think that you do a good enough job that you'd be on a staff with a coach like Dan Quinn. Working for him, coming here and having fun, hopefully, more opportunities will come, but you can't take it for granted. Not easy to get to."
There aren't many members of the Falcons organization who can yet boast of having earned a Super Bowl ring, but Cox is one of them. Ironically, he rarely wears it.
"I only wear it if I'm going on a job interview. When you need a job, you pull stuff out," he laughed.
Cox revealed that he gave the ring to his son to treasure. He provided further rationale for his decision by recalling advice given to him by a former coach, "Mean" Joe Greene.
"The guys that do the most work to earn it don't need to wear it because people know what they did. It's the guys that are on the outskirts or just hanging on or just happy to be there for the ride that have to wear it to prove to people who they are. Everybody knows who I am. They know my history. I don't need to wear it."
His tenure in New England may have been short, but it was unquestionably memorable, not just for having won the Super Bowl, but also for a devastating hit Cox delivered early in that fateful season.
It was Tom Brady's first start at quarterback and the Patriots were hosting Indianapolis. Wide receiver Jerome Pathon made a catch over the middle and Cox laid him out. Brady later credited that tackle with setting the tone for the eventual Super Bowl champs that season. Cox remembers it well, but insists he's more concerned about looking forward this week.
"I appreciate all that," Cox chuckled. "I understand the significance of what it was. I understand, as a selfless player, how that thing came together. But I'm the enemy now. I'm on this side. I'm trying to get the team that pays my check the mindset of how we're going to take care of our business. That's what matters to me at this point.
"All the old stuff, all the things that happened 15 years ago, I'm appreciative of what Bill did for me in my career…" Cox paused, as a grin appeared on his face, "but I'm taking the things that he taught me, and I'm trying to use them against him, trying to beat the Evil Empire, as many would say."
Vellano's vote of confidence
One of Cox's current pupils is Joe Vellano. If the name rings a bell, it's because the defensive lineman spent the majority of the past three seasons with the Patriots. Undrafted out of the University of Maryland in 2013, Vellano wound up starting eight of 16 games for New England as a rookie.
His playing time steadily diminished thereafter, but Vellano was nonetheless a member of the Patriots' Super Bowl XLIX championship team in 2014. He, like his position coach, is the proud owner of a Super Bowl ring, courtesy the Patriots.
In 2015, Vellano toiled mostly on New England's practice squad (he was briefly with Indy's p-squad as well). He came back to Foxborough this past year, only to be released at the end of training camp.
That's when Atlanta signed him to their practice squad, where he worked throughout 2016 until the Falcons promoted him to their active roster in mid-January. Sunday, for the first time, he'll face the club that gave him his NFL chance.
"Yeah, that's the way it ended up working out," he smiled. "So many things have to go right for one team to get there, let alone two. It's great, but you come down here for the win. You want to cap it off by finishing the right way."
The 28-year-old still has many friends on the Patriots roster with whom he keeps in touch and insists he harbors no ill will about being released by New England.
"It's part of the business. Nobody got into coaching to cut people. That's just the nature of it sometimes. Wherever you land, put your best foot forward, get better every day, and hopefully what you learned in one place will carry over to another.
"I'm grateful for the teams I've been a part of," Vellano emphasized. "It's my fourth year in the league. There's a lot of work that I put into it, a lot of coaches who've helped me get to this point. I just try to do everything I can to help my opportunity and increase my role and get better and find a niche. You have to have confidence to play at this level. Confidence is the biggest thing. I feel I can play with anybody in the league. No question."
Mack is back
Falcons center Alex Mack, one of Atlanta's prized free agent signings this season, emerged as the anchor of their offensive line. However, he's suffering today from a fibula injury that kept him out of Atlanta's practices all last week.
Quinn told reporters that he expected Mack to increase his workload in training sessions this week in Houston, and the player himself spoke Wednesday like there'd be no doubt about his availability on Sunday evening.
"[The Patriots] are going to be a very big challenge. They have big, heavy guys up front that are run-stoppers. Everyone plays really well together. There's not going to be many gaps or holes in there.
"[Super Bowl LI]'s going to be an intense experience. My goal is to try and take a little in, remember that, and then just try to remember that it's still just a football game and go out there and play that first snap."