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Bill Belichick, turnaround artist

It took until the second year of his second run as an NFL head coach for Bill Belichick to earn a division title.

But in this current tour of duty at the helm of the New England Patriots, he sees much in common with the only other playoff team he's had in his seven seasons as a head coach, the 1994 edition of the Cleveland Browns -- strong defense, key contributions from younger players, and pinpoint signings from unheralded veterans acquired via free agency.

It was the Cleveland turnaround that earned him his second chance at a head-coaching position. The Cleveland years saw him turn a 3-13 club into an 11-5 playoff winner during his first four seasons on the job. Only the midseason announcement of the franchise's transfer to Baltimore in 1995 kept the progress from continuing.

This year's reversal is almost the same, though it happened in a compressed time frame, as last year's 5-11 was reversed in 2001, earning the Patriots their first playoff bye since he served as the team's assistant head coach in 1996.

"That team took four years to build; this team has come together in the second year, so it doesn't have quite the same background of the team in Cleveland," Belichick said. " But both are steady, hard-working, high-effort teams."

What's different, though, is Belichick's increased emphasis on his relationships with players. Gradually, the former Bill Parcells lieutenant has managed to gain one of the unique traits Parcells had in his years as a head coach -- the ability to inspire intense loyalty from many of his players.

His efforts have resulted in a team that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. The Patriots sent just two players to the 2002 Pro Bowl, and neither of their representatives -- quarterback Tom Brady and safety Lawyer Milloy -- will start in the game.

"I think it's important to not just communicate with the players but to kind of be in constant touch with them, so I've tried to be more responsive to that," Belichick said. "Things change in a hurry; you need to stay on top of them and really have the pulse of the team and on the individuals. I've made more of an effort to do that."

Also helping the Patriots was one of the most strategic and successful offseason plans in the league. Lacking the funds under the salary cap to sign one or two big-name players, New England eschewed the headline-grabbing names and scoured the pool of available players for depth and specific needs.

Many not only delivered, but turned in the finest seasons of their careers.

Take wide receiver David Patten, an Arena League alumnus who had started 14 games in the first four years of his NFL career, with the Browns and New York Giants. He equaled that total of starts this year for the Pats, and promptly established career highs for receptions, yards and touchdowns.

Mike Compton arrived from the Detroit Lions and solidified the left guard slot. Antowain Smith set career highs for rushing yards with 1,157 and touchdowns with 13 after languishing on the bench with the Buffalo Bills in 2000. Twelve-year veteran defensive end Anthony Pleasant hopscotched his way through five teams from 1995 to 2000, but found a home with the Pats, starting all 16 games and posting his highest sack total since 1995, when he played for Belichick with the Browns.

The philosophy of acquiring the unheralded veterans was borne out of necessity. But it worked beautifully.

"We just didn't have the flexibility or the cap space and resources to be able to go out and sign the (big-ticket) players," Belichick said. "I think the players that we did sign are good players; they're guys that have worked hard, have some experience, are team players, are unselfish and they've molded well with the young players that we've drafted and some of the experienced Patriots players. The whole group has meshed together well."

Meshing well is an understatement. New England's 11-win total matched the 1978, 1985, 1986 and 1996 seasons as the best the franchise has achieved since the advent of the 16-game schedule. Further, the Patriots' AFC East crown represents just the team's fourth division title in that span.

All that came in spite of losing starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the Week 2 loss to the New York Jets. The team's success is due in no small measure due to the contribution of Belichick and his staff.

However, that's not something for which he will assume the credit.

"The players been diligent; they've prepared well; they've really played hard physically on Sundays," he said. "They've put a lot of time and effort into having a successful season."

And for Belichick, that success only makes his second head-coaching run all the sweeter.

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