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Patriots focus on titles rather than cold cash
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Deion Branch needed just five little words to explain why the New England Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowls.
Asked Monday if he had any thoughts of leaving the team when he becomes a restricted free agent, the Super Bowl MVP replied: "My home is in Foxboro."
Then, referring to team owner Robert Kraft, Branch added: "I'm proud of the family that Mr. Kraft has built."
An emphasis on winning over money is what drives the Patriots to success in an era when free agency and the salary cap force major turnover for most teams each season.
Next season's Patriots certainly will be different than this season's. The biggest losses are not players but coaches: Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is the new head coach at Notre Dame, and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel accepted the Cleveland Browns' head coaching job immediately after Sunday night's game.
Crennel's move, which gives the NFL a record six black head coaches, was hardly a secret. As the Patriots' 24-21 win over Philadelphia was ending, coach Bill Belichick put his arms around his two top aides in a gesture of affection and appreciation.
They will be hard to replace.
"Romeo and Charlie have done a great job. A lot of the success we've had should go to them," Belichick said Monday. "I've been with them both a long time. I go back to 1981 with Romeo and I'll miss both of them a lot."
The Patriots might, too.
Next season, they will be seeking to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls and the first to win four in five seasons.
The San Francisco 49ers came closest to three NFL titles in a row, winning the 1989 and 1990 Super Bowls, then losing the next NFC championship game on a last-second field goal by the New York Giants' Matt Bahr.
That New York team, which went on to beat Buffalo in the 1991 Super Bowl, had a coaching staff headed by Bill Parcells and including Belichick, Crennel and Weis, along with future NFL head coaches Tom Coughlin, Al Groh and Ray Handley. Two of the players on that team are also coaches and are reportedly on Crennel's wish list for his staff with the Browns: Pepper Johnson, New England's defensive line coach, and Maurice Carthon, the offensive coordinator in Dallas under Parcells.
Belichick's first order of business, therefore, is rebuilding his coaching staff, although he will take at least a week off, traveling to California for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Most of the core players, however, should be back, although some are getting up there in age, notably linebacker Willie McGinest and safety Rodney Harrison, both of whom have played major roles in the team's success. Harrison, who had two interceptions in Sunday's game, will turn 33 next December, when McGinest will turn 34.
One member of the Patriots unlikely to return is cornerback Ty Law, who missed the second half of the season with a broken foot after quarreling with the team over his contract in training camp.
And while Belichick indicated that the team will spend the next few weeks renegotiating contracts for salary-cap purposes, Law's deal is unlikely to be among them. With rookie Randall Gay and second-year player Asante Samuel at cornerback, the Patriots obviously did well without him; after Eugene Wilson left the Super Bowl just before halftime with an arm injury, they played the second half with Harrison as the only regular starter in the secondary.
That's how the Patriots work -- they always find someone to fill in without losing a step.
Branch, who had 133 yards in receptions and tied a Super Bowl record with 11 catches, was the game's MVP, but it could have been any one of a number of players: Harrison; linebacker Tedy Bruschi; or Mike Vrabel, who played linebacker, defensive end, had a sack and also caught a touchdown pass for the second Super Bowl in a row.
Or, of course, it could have been quarterback Tom Brady, the MVP in the Patriots' first two Super Bowl victories, who played his usual steady game.
"Every time we play, it's a total effort from everyone," said Branch, an emerging star who had a 60-yard touchdown catch and a 23-yard TD run in the AFC title game in Pittsburgh. "It's a total organizational effort from the top down."
Some of the top of the organization will be missing with Weis and Crennel gone. Belichick said that he had been too busy working on the Super Bowl to start considering replacements, although it's a sure bet he has some in mind.
Then he brushed off all the talk about a dynasty.
"Every year is a new year," he said. "We start at the bottom with the other 31 teams."
That philosophy is one reason New England tends to wind up at the top.