As the Patriots prepare for their first playoff game since 1998, the focus of the national media is on quarterback Tom Brady, the Cinderella Kid of the 2001 season.
Many astute NFL observers understand that while Brady was voted to the Pro Bowl in his first year as a starter, the heart and soul of this team -- the one player who has embodied the spirit and style of the 2001 Patriots -- is strong safety Lawyer Milloy. In addition to leading the team in tackles for the fourth straight season, his physical, aggressive brand of football has set an example that the rest of the players have followed.
"He's a warrior," coach Bill Belichick says. "Whether it's our team or the opponent, everybody knows that Lawyer's out there. He consistently makes an impact."
For a while this season, Milloy wasn't having his usual impact on opposing players. The Patriots were playing a more conservative "cover two" brand of defense in which he and free safety Tebucky Jones stayed back to provide protection against deep passes.
Midway through the season, however, Milloy and some other veterans lobbied for a more aggressive approach. They didn't want to sit back in coverage. They wanted to get after quarterbacks with safety blitzes up the middle and corner blitzes off the edge. The coaches agreed and a playoff run ensued.
Part of that new philosophy also called for Milloy to be more involved in the run defense. In from the deep secondary he came, lining up more like an extra linebacker than a member of the secondary. He still plays in deep coverage much of the time, but that's no longer his sole responsibility.
"I'm out there doing everything the coaches ask of me," says Milloy, who is one of only three starters remaining from New England's 1996 AFC championship team. Cornerbacks Ty Law and Otis Smith are the others, meaning the Patriots still have three quarters of the starting secondary from their last trip to the Super Bowl.
"I might not be spotlighted because we've got more of a team effort out there on defense," Milloy says. "I don't know my stats too well, but I've been contributing. Whether it's sacks or just getting my hands on the ball or getting interceptions or making tackles, that's my approach. I just want to maintain my consistency."
That's an area that separates Milloy from some of his high-paid teammates. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe, defensive end/linebacker Willie McGinest, and wide receiver Terry Glenn are three of several Patriots who have been unable to maintain their high level of play since signing big-money contracts. Milloy was just selected to his third Pro Bowl and actually has increased his contributions since signing a seven-year contract before the 2000 season.
There were some doubts about whether the Patriots would make a big move to re-sign Milloy when Belichick came aboard after the 1999 season. Because of the big contracts handed out to Law, McGinest, and linebacker Ted Johnson, the club was under some salary-cap constraints and there was a question about whether it would make a strong safety one of its highest-paid players. But Belichick had made Milloy a priority. He'd seen the impact the former second-round draft choice had on the defense as a rookie in 1996 and made it clear that keeping Milloy was a must.
"He was a rookie when I was here last," Belichick says. "He's a football player now. He's been through the wars and has maintained the right attitude about playing the game. He goes into every game with a confident, competitive, and aggressive attitude. It's not phony. It's sincere and legitimate and really sets the tone, particularly for the defense but really for the whole team."
Belichick and the Patriots will be looking to their spiritual leader for that same kind of spark Saturday night, when they open the playoffs against Oakland at Foxboro Stadium. Milloy may not be in the pregame spotlight, but rest assured, he will make his presence felt.