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NFL season opener: A run at history

Patriots are trying to become the first team to win 3 straight Super Bowls

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, here talking with receiver Troy Brown, gets his team to focus on the future.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, here talking with receiver Troy Brown, gets his team to focus on the future.
Stephan Savoia, Associated Press

When he coached the 49ers, back in the days of the team's dynasty, George Seifert used to philosophize every summer that what happened the year before meant nothing.

He would argue there was no carryover effect, that, even in the era before free agency, when the face of a team changed relatively little from year to year, every team started over again every season.

Bill Belichick, who has been successful at getting his team to look ahead instead of back, has made the same argument in recent years in New England. That is one reason the Patriots became just the second team to win the Super Bowl three times in four years; they never took it for granted.

Still, New England has managed to benefit from stability in an uncertain league. Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel were the blocks upon which the Patriots managed to build the NFL's first dynasty of the 21st century.

Now, however, as the Patriots try to become the first team in nearly 40 years to win three consecutive NFL titles, even the most cynical would have to concede, finally, that Belichick is correct: This really is a new year. A team that has won 32 of its last 34 games and a quarterback who has won all nine of his postseason starts are entering into what is, for them, new territory.

Gone are not only Weis and Crennel but linebacker Tedy Bruschi, the spiritual leader of the defense, and several other key players. The Patriots were the first team since the 1994 49ers to win the Super Bowl and lose both their coordinators; as we know, the 49ers have not returned to the Super Bowl since.

Nonetheless, it would be folly to write off the Patriots because of who remains: Belichick, who has proven he's the game's best coach; Brady, who has proven he's the game's premier money player, the Joe Montana of his day; and Scott Pioli, the personnel director, who always seems to come up with replacements who are even better than the key players they replace.

Since the Packers of the '60s, who are the NFL's only three-straight champions of the last 70 years, the 49ers in 1990 came closest to three in a row. They had a one-point lead on the Giants in the NFC Championship Game, but Roger Craig lost a fumble with 2:36 remaining, leading to a field goal that won the game for New York.

The made-up word, "three-peat," rarely has been heard since then. And certainly you won't hear it now, not from Belichick or Brady.

"We're not defending anything. We're not repeating anything," Belichick said during a training camp news conference. "Nothing that happened in the past really has any bearing on (this year). Don't get me wrong. I'm respectful of what this organization has accomplished . . . but none of that really has any bearing on anything we do."

"The team is so different than it was at the end of last year," Brady said. "We are so far from thinking about something like (three-peat). I love it when teams think like that because it just tells you where their minds are. Our thoughts are trying to . . . get better."

Because Belichick's expertise is on defense, it's expected the coaching changes will be felt mostly on offense, particularly since Belichick did not name anyone to succeed Weis. Eric Mangini, a defensive assistant whom the Raiders tried to hire a year ago, was promoted to coordinator to succeed Crennel.

Some who visited the Patriots' training camp say there already are signs that Weis is missed. One camp visitor said Belichick hinted that Weis' contributions were overblown, while Brady reportedly has told people he will miss Weis' help on the sideline.

Whatever the case, however, Belichick undeniably had a big hand in Brady's development when Brady became the starter during the 2001 season, and Belichick said he has met with the quarterbacks almost on a daily basis since then. Belichick is a more complete coach than many outsiders realize and, now, Belichick, Brady and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels will direct the offense by committee.

"I think the coaching staff is going along OK," Belichick said.

Personnel changes, of course, are not the only issue that could trouble the Patriots. They play in the NFL's toughest division and, according to NFL figures, will play the second-most difficult schedule in the league based on the 2004 record of their opponents (Miami's schedule is rated more difficult only because the Dolphins have to play the Patriots twice).

But the Patriots have been a resilient team during their run at the top of the league. In 2001, their quarterbacks coach, Dick Rehbein, had a fatal heart attack in training camp and, in the first month of the season, Brady became the starter after Drew Bledsoe was injured. In 2003, popular safety Lawyer Milloy was released on the eve of the opener, and 15 players were injured in the first three games. In 2004, the defensive backfield was so decimated by injuries that wide receiver Troy Brown became the nickel back.

"I don't know what normal is," Belichick said. "You can go back and look at the past few years. There are always going to be changes."

Yet, three of the last four seasons ended with Belichick and Brady clutching the Lombardi Trophy. Since a playoff game was first held in 1933, Dallas (1992, '93, '95) and Green Bay (1965-67) are the only other teams to win three titles in four years or less.

The Patriots could become the first team to win four in five years.

"You can sit here and make excuses and say, 'Wow, we're really going to have a hard time,' " Brady said during camp. "But you know what, times change. Every team is different from year to year. I have to continue to grow and improve, or else I wouldn't be very happy about myself."

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service