HOUSTON – When examining the Patriots success over the past three years, one quality generally stands out among the team's players. If you're strictly out for individual accomplishments, you need not apply at One Patriot Place.
That's been Bill Belichick's mantra since taking over in 2000. He targets players who feel that football is important to them and are willing to conform to the team concept.
"It's important for our team to function well collectively as a unit," Belichick said at his first press conference just minutes after arriving at the team hotel for the start of Super Bowl week. "But there's no one set formula. [A player] has to be able to do what we need him to do in our system. There are all different styles and personalities and backgrounds for all players. The main thing is we need to work together cohesively."
Those traits were attractive to various Patriots who signed as free agents in recent seasons. Tight end Christian Fauria, who inked a deal with New England before the 2002 season after seven years in Seattle, was sitting in his pool at home in Hawaii when he first noticed the differences between the Patriots way and others around the league.
Fauria was well into the offseason after the 2001 when he gathered with his family to enjoy Super Bowl Sunday. As the Patriots were set to take on the heavily favored Rams in New Orleans, Fauria's father-in-law was taking bets from any and all comers – but he was backing the underdogs.
"The game was about to start and I was willing to bet him anything the Rams would win," Fauria recalled with a smile. "Then the pregame came and all of a sudden these guys come out of the locker room together and weren't introduced. When you're a little kid you watch how each of the players comes out and everybody has their own little routine or dance. The Patriots were different and I knew right then I had lost my bet. I even tried to welch on my father-in-law before the game started.
"I was trying to decide where I was going to play the next season but I had already made up my mind. If I had the opportunity to come here, I was going to jump at it. Football is about more than just offense and defense. That was their moment. It was huge."
That maturity and recognition are very important to Belichick and his personnel chief Scott Pioli. Obviously talent is important to them, but intelligence and coachability rank just as high. That's particularly important on defense, where Belichick and Romeo Crennel have the reputation for running one of the most complicated schemes in football. Those schemes have certainly been successful given the team's performance this year when it allowed the fewest points in the league.
Following the AFC Championship win over the Colts, Belichick specifically credited the veteran players whose knowledge and savvy allowed the Patriots to think outside the box with their game plan in order to confuse Peyton Manning and torment Indy's talented receiving crew. The results were staggering as the previously red-hot Manning tossed four interceptions and managed to put just 14 points on the board.
"It's the system from top to bottom around here," cornerback Ty Law said. "Certainly things rub off on you. Coach Belichick has had more success in this league than any of us. We trust him and we respect him. All of us are individuals, but we all have to be able to play within the team concept."
"We have good players in a good system," added linebacker Roman Phifer, who signed as a free agent before the 2001 season. "It's easy to be successful when you're working with guys who aren't selfish and who are committed to winning no matter what it takes. People here will do what they have to do for the betterment of the team, even if that means sacrificing their own promotion.
"That's difficult to find because there's so much individual hype and money involved. And there's the ego factor. On this team the common goal is winning and everybody understands that everything starts with being successful. To get the individual recognition and the financial rewards, you first need to win."
Make no mistakes, if Belichick and Pioli comprised a team full of choir boys who all played together but had little ability, the Patriots "system" wouldn't be successful. It takes for than just a positive mindset and unselfish attitude to win 14 games in a row.
"I know a lot's been made about the situation here and about how [the coaches] are just putting us in magical spots," linebacker Mike Vrabel, another member of the 2001 free agent class. "But I've always felt and people have told me if you can play then you can play anywhere [in any system]. Ultimately, the players have to go out and execute."
The combination has been golden for the Belichick and the Patriots. The type of player the organization looks for has generally panned out, from higher caliber players like Rodney Harrison and Rosevelt Colvin to previously unheralded guys like Vrabel and Tyrone Poole, have been able to conform to the Patriots way of doing things.
"People on this team understand [winning comes first] because of the success we had in 2001," Phifer said. "We still have that nucleus in place. When new guys come in, all they want to know is how they can get to the Super Bowl. They want to experience that and we can show them how."