Peyton Manning stood behind center, just three feet shy from the goal line and victory, patting his hip to tip the play.
The perceptive Patriots players on the other side notice the slight mistake, then hone in on another when the guard leans a certain way in his stance to signify the running back's target.
|Rookie Eugene Wilson helps make one of the three huge stops on Edgerrin James in Week 13.(AP)|
Checkmate. Pats win.
In a day and age when the fans beg for high-priced free-agent visitors, loudmouth show boaters and immediate results, the Patriots have quietly built the perfect model for success.
They have a coach who relishes in the details of weekly adjustments, players who thrive in the system, a personnel whiz who provides the perfect players for the coach, and an owner who shows complete trust in the model.
Two years ago, newspaper columns and Internet sites were preaching the gospel of the New England Patriots' system for building a winner. Column upon column attempted to break down how New England pulled off the impossible.
Only a hard-fought 9-7 season in 2002 gave the football scribes a serious case of shortsightedness. But the Patriots are back on top, forcing other owners, GMs and coaches to stop and wonder why they can't build the way the Patriots do.
The answer is simple. They don't have Bill Belichick. And they can't scare up a Scott Pioli, the Patriots head of personnel, who is often overlooked in the success.
"He's one of the top young personnel guys in the league as far as sniffing out low-rent guys and accumulating draft picks," said Rick Spielman, Pioli's counterpart with the division rival Miami Dolphins. "He gets a ton of guys who can contribute right away, and a lot of that has to do with hitting guys in the draft.
"He does an extremely thorough job of researching guys and getting in players who fit the schemes the coaches want. He gets guys who fit the criteria the coaches are looking for. Not everybody does that."
Personnel men around the NFL say the Belichick/Pioli tandem is the perfect match. The coach needs a certain type of player to buy into his product. The Belichick/Pioli player needs to be intelligent, hard-working and able to fit a certain job one week, then another the next.
It's not every man who can accept being a role player. It is what every single Patriot on the roster is -- aside from quarterback Tom Brady and perhaps one or two others.
Several requests by SportsLine.com to interview Pioli through Patriots public relations were not returned. But in an interview following the team's Super Bowl victory two years ago, Pioli admitted there was a different rhyme to the Pats' reason.
"Just because a player is right for us doesn't mean he's right for someone else," Pioli told SportsLine.com at the time. "We have a demanding system, and we expect a lot for our players. We have to get a certain type of player that fits with our coach."
The Patriots are the anti-Redskins, highlighted by the fact owner Robert Kraft gives Belichick/Pioli full authority on all personnel moves -- whether a player is coming or going. There is no meddling, no undercutting. Just trust of two guys who have proven their system works, despite the lack of big-name recognition.
"The two of them really understand value of players in their system," Spielman said.
"Two years ago they gutted the team, got themselves out of salary cap problems and turned around the franchise and got them a Super Bowl," one AFC personnel director said. "Nobody would have thought that would have been possible."
Before that magical 2001 campaign, Pioli brought to Belichick castoffs such as Bobby Hamilton, Anthony Pleasant, Mike Vrabel, Bryan Cox, Roman Phifer, Antowain Smith, Charles Johnson, Marc Edwards and a host of other low-rent talent. In total, the personnel man brought his coach 23 free agents of this caliber, 17 of which made the team and prospered in their postseason run.
"They get guys who are smart, guys who are tough, high character and dependable," said Jets general manager Terry Bradway, who has the unfortunate pleasure of facing Pioli's personnel decisions twice per year. "That's why Bill relies upon guys like Pioli, because they function so well together. Scott knows what Bill is looking for, and Bill trusts what Scott gives him. That's an advantage that they have."
They were nudged out of the playoffs last year as the entire AFC East all beat up on each other.
Only the Jets made the postseason, while others with much weaker division schedules rolled to postseason paychecks. But after another offseason under Pioli's personnel supervision, Belichick has again given Mr. Kraft reason to sit back and smile.
Not only did Pioli again bring in solid free agents who have helped position the Patriots for a first-round postseason bye, he also showed to be more hit than miss with the draft -- a personnel man's dream.
The Patriots drafted six players in April who already play a major role for the team. First-rounder Ty Warren has been solid at defensive tackle and safety Eugene Wilson has started all but one game as the replacement for Lawyer Milloy.
Speedy Bethel Johnson, who blew apart the Colts on Sunday, has gained a reputation as Dante Hall Jr., while Dan Klecko and Asante Samuel both start in the team's nickel defense. Even their fifth-rounder, center Dan Koppen, has started all but one game.
In addition to reloading their roster, they simultaneously set themselves up for an enviable 2004 draft. They have two No. 1 picks, two No. 2 picks, a third and three fours, one of which they in turn traded for big Ted Washington.
Six solid players, a Pro Bowl veteran and a handful of additional picks could signify the grandfather of draft bonanzas.
Hitting in the draft is nothing new to the Pioli/Belichick game plan. The Patriots are the only team in the NFL to have a pick from the 2000 draft make the Pro Bowl his rookie year. A pick from the 2001 crop also made the honor his rookie year.
Add Rodney Harrison, Washington, Tyrone Poole, Mike Cloud and others via free agency, and the blue print once again is proving to be worth nothing short of football euphoria; football 101 in Pioli and Belichick's world.
"What have they had, something like 40 different starters this season due to injuries?" Bradway marveled. "Scott gets Bill rookies who can step up and guys off the street who he knows will step up. Bill isn't afraid to play the young guys they get. ... Some coaches are afraid to put young guys in there."
Call it low rent. Call it specialization. But the NFL must also call the Scott Pioli/Bill Belichick model a success ... one others will eventually try to copy.