INDIANAPOLIS -- Every year as the NFL offseason commences and teams start building for the new season ahead, the term "copycat league" is thrown into the vernacular as often as the words poked and prodded are written in relation to the Combine.
Two years ago, the Patriots were a fluke team not worth copying. They won with a waiver wire team and the luck of a rule called tuck. They won because David Patten's head was out of bounds in Buffalo and because of a deflected pass in New York. They won because of special teams touchdowns that no team can truly count on.
But then two years later, they won again. This time they won by winning 15 games in a row, a streak of dominance not seen in NFL circles since the 1972 Dolphins went 17-0. Now teams are starting to take notice. They're looking at just how the Patriots have built their team and revisiting their own strategies. They're realizing that it's not about signing the biggest name or best player, but the right player.
But signing free agents who have not reached star status and then expecting them to fill major roles on the team is not always easy and is risky in the court of public opinion. It takes keen evaluation and projection to figure that a player like Mike Vrabel will translate from a backup in someone else's system to a key starter in yours. That's not the easiest thing to copy.
"You can't copy their intelligence," Giants Senior Vice President and General Manager Ernie Accorsi said while addressing reporters at the Combine. "They're awfully smart. They've got players that know how to play, older players that are competitive and clutch. There are very few big names. They've made tremendously sound judgments and they've coached the heck out of them. They've done a great job."
So maybe to copy the Patriots is to get a piece of them. Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli – the point men on all personnel decisions – remain, but others in the organization have been highly sought.
Defensive backs coach Eric Mangini had a chance to go to Oakland and when he declined the opportunity, linebackers coach Rob Ryan took it. Quarterbacks coach John Hufnagel brought his one year under Belichick to Accorsi's Giants. Jason Licht left the Patriots scouting department last year to take over personnel in Philadelphia. Coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel surely had their brains tweaked during the head coaching interview process.
"We better start learning from them because they'll beat everybody forever," Bills General Manager Tom Donahoe said of the Patriots. "Obviously what they're doing is working. They've done a great job of building the roster. They've done a great job convincing all the players on the roster of their importance and when guys have a chance to step in play, they produce. That's where we're all trying to get to, but they've just done it a lot better than the rest of us."
There is a perception that the Patriots won't pay big money for their players, but a quick scan of the Franchise salary levels for 2004, which are based on 2003 cap numbers, show two Patriots at the top of their respected positions – cornerback Ty Law (cap number $8,701,365) and kicker Adam Vinatieri (cap number $2,066,176).
"I don't know what that means," Belichick has said. "Our philosophy is to try to get good football players and have a good football team. If that means signing Mike Vrabel … he's not playing for the minimum. I wouldn't say Adam Vinatieri or Tom Brady don't have decent contracts. They're not playing for the minimum. Call the contracts whatever you want – generous, frugal, below market. They're not minimum contracts. Just because we didn't pay some other free agent on the market what we paid Vinatieri, does that mean we won't spend money? I don't see how you can look at it that way. We sign the players we feel give us the most value."
Accorsi and the Giants may have started the trend away from signing marquee names back in 2000 when they took a more frugal approach and won the NFC Championship.
"We made those changes in 2000," he said. "We didn't break the bank with big name stars, but the one thing Jim Fassel and I wanted were people who loved football.
"I had a long talk with Bill Belichick at the spring meetings before they went to the Super Bowl [in 2001], and I'm not saying he copied us because they've won two Super Bowls, but he signed 17 players and most of them were not marquee names. The thing is to find clutch, veteran players who will help you win. The whole package includes character and competitiveness."
It's an approach that has quite obviously worked in New England, but because it takes the right decision-makers, it may not be as easy to copy as say, switching to a spread offense or a 3-4 defense because those schemes are in vogue.
You can bet teams will try to copy the approach, and owners will love the signing bonus money they save, but since patience is in short supply around the league and the pressure to win yesterday is prevalent, it's difficult for any staff without job security to go that route. It's easier to spend a bankroll and go for it.