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Belichick's three F's help Patriots earn A's

Foundation, flexibility and fundamentals.

New England coach Bill Belichick has blended those ingredients to help his team avert disaster despite a potentially devastating injury spree that threatened to dismantle the Patriots' hopes before the calendar flipped to October.

Instead, his club sits atop the AFC East at an improbable 5-2 and rides a three-game winning streak back to Gillette Stadium, where it plays host to the Cleveland Browns, the team that fired Belichick in 1995 after five seasons and a 36-44 record in his first head-coaching stint.

While Belichick has made advancements as a head coach since then, it's his same old meticulous preparation that has helped his team overcome an incredible rash of injuries that forced 14 starters to miss an aggregate 40 games through the first seven weeks of the 2003 season.

But equally as important, he delicately guided it through the Week 1 adversity surrounding his decision to release safety and team captain Lawyer Milloy and the ensuing fallout from a 31-0 blowout loss to Milloy's Bills that same week.

Through it all, he leaned heavily on those three aforementioned F's along with the character he and personnel chief Scott Pioli have assembled on the roster. An injury epidemic might have decimated Belichick's depth chart, but not his locker room.

"I think these players have a mental toughness about them," Belichick said, deferring credit. "They take the hand they're dealt and do the best they can with it. This team honestly believes it can win despite the injuries."

Since those three F's have been integral parts of his team-building philosophy, they have given him the confidence to plug in replacements and simply move on.

"We have roughly 60 players in the system with the 53-man active roster, the practice squad and PUP (the physically unable to perform list) and things like that," Belichick said. "That's your depth. I tell the players that whichever 45 are out there on Sunday, we have confidence in. I sincerely believe that."

Remarkably, six of the players who have been regularly included in that 45 are 2003 draft picks, and three of them -- safety Eugene Wilson, defensive lineman Ty Warren and center Dan Koppen -- are regular starters.

"Almost everybody in that locker room has been here either since the spring or for two or three years," Belichick said. "We haven't had to go sign guys off the street and plug them in. We're not in that situation anymore. Fortunately, the guys we've plugged in, including the rookies, have been ready to play."

That is the main reason the team has been able to survive the injury spree, not some intricate scheming as most would believe.

"I know that everybody's looking for the magic wand, but I don't think it's out there," Belichick said. "We've been coaching these guys for a long time. You build a good foundation in the spring and in training camp so that you have flexibility and you're not locked into one thing where if you lose a couple of guys at a spot, the whole thing comes apart. Once you build that base, you try to draw on that background as needed."

But drawing on the blackboard rather than on background is where he truly thrives. And he might be doing an even better job of that than he did in 2001, when he won a championship with what former Packers general manager Ron Wolf called "a waiver-wire team."

Consider the Patriots' staggering weekly injury reports: Ted Johnson, Rosevelt Colvin, Ted Washington, Mike Vrabel, Mike Compton, Damien Woody, Adrian Klemm, David Patten, Deion Branch, Kevin Faulk, Antowain Smith, Fred McCrary, Willie McGinest and Ty Law. All are starters or fill-in starters who have missed at least one game, yet Belichick has taken their replacements and put them in position to succeed.

"Bill is one of the smartest coaches I've ever been around, and I'm not just saying that because I want him to put me in position to succeed," Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour said. "He makes the tough decisions. Drew Bledsoe. Lawyer Milloy. All the changes he's made. If those moves backfire, he's taking bullets. We have smart coaches. They're not too stubborn to make necessary adjustments."

But those coaches have now been forced to make more injury-induced adjustments than they ever imagined when 2003 began.

"When you have a lot of new faces in there, one thing you have to do is simplify things," Belichick admitted. "The only thing that ever works out there is something that is well executed."

If he has simplified things, it's certainly difficult to see. His defensive fronts have remained as diverse as ever. The Patriots have played a 4-3, a 3-4 and a "46" all in the same game, even without the players he thought would make the system a success.

When Belichick signed Colvin, his prized free agent, he hoped to generate pressure on quarterbacks without scheming, but a freak hip injury sent Colvin to injured reserve after two games and Belichick was back at the blackboard.

"I think our outside pass rush was a real strength with Vrabel, Colvin and McGinest," the coach said. "For some weeks, we haven't had all that in place so we've had to work around it. In some cases, it's somebody stepping in, and in some we've schemed to create more outside pressure.

"I told the coaches, 'Look, we can't do some of the things we're used to doing around here. We have to be tighter than we've ever been. We can't afford mistakes on the coaching end and we have to take advantage of every opportunity we can.' The staff and players have worked hard and done a good job, but it can always be better."

Even while providing an antidote for an injury epidemic, Belichick remains unsatisfied, and that drive filters down to his players, who have taken to their coaching and remained competitive regardless of which 45 play on Sunday.

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