August 18, 2005

Tough questions for New England Patriots

By Jason Szep

FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts (Reuters) - From dousing rookies
in mud to shaving off chunks of their hair, the customary
hazing at the New England Patriots' training camp gives some
light relief to the hard questions shadowing their every step.

Foremost among these is whether one of America's greatest
football dynasties, led by a coach hailed as a genius by his
peers and a "mad scientist" by opposing quarterbacks, can reap
another year of historic success despite big line-up changes.

The looming season's prize of a third-straight NFL
championship and an unprecedented fourth title in five years
looks ever more challenging as questions swirl over its ability
to replenish ranks, especially at the linebacker position.

Head coach Bill Belichick brushed off questions of whether
the Patriots were thin at linebacker in a briefing with
reporters this week after the final day of training and ahead
of Thursday's exhibition game against the New Orleans Saints.

"I certainly wouldn't put it that way," he said. "Would we
like to have everyone out there? Of course."

Already beset by the absence of star linebacker Tedy
Bruschi who is out after suffering a stroke and the abrupt
retirement of Ted Johnson, the Patriots also must now contend
with veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel's recently injured leg.

Belichick says Vrabel -- whose defensive and offensive
roles were crucial in the Patriots' last three Super Bowls --
is recovering day-to-day after a left ankle injury suffered in
last week's pre-season game against Cincinnati.

Vrabel missed the final two days of practice this week.
Another linebacker, rookie Ryan Claridge, has gone on injured
reserve after hurting his shoulder.


Vrabel's injury is the latest setback for the team regarded
as the envy of American professional sports franchises.

Long-time offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has not been
replaced since leaving to coach Notre Dame. Defensive
coordinator Romeo Crennel has also left for the Cleveland
Browns, though he has been replaced by Eric Mangini, the
defensive backs coach of last five years.

That leaves Belichick without the men who have been at his
side for nearly two decades.

Richard Seymour, who led New England's linemen in tackles
each of the last three seasons, returned to training this month
after weeks of absence, but Boston media have speculated his
recently renegotiated $4 million salary fell short of what he
sought with two years left on his contract.

An irregular training schedule by Tom Brady and a wrap over
his elbow last Friday stirred talk that the three-time Super
Bowl-winning quarterback's prized right arm was hurt.

The Patriots denied any injury and Brady himself doused the
talk at practice on Tuesday -- telling reporters his throwing
"felt good" and making the point by hurling several dozen
passes, from tight, close throws to sturdy 30 yarders.

The speculation had gathered steam when Brady sat out
Friday's pre-season 23-13 win at Cincinnati and kept his
throwing to a minimum this week.

But the Patriots say that strategy was to allow a better
chance to focus on the team's other quarterbacks -- Doug
Flutie, Rohan Davey and promising rookie Matt Cassel.

"Coach wants to get other guys a look and at the same time
it's nice to get a few days off from throwing. It's a long long
season," said Brady.


The Patriots' 2004 victory sealed their status as one of
the all-time greats alongside the Green Bay Packers of the
1960s, Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, San Francisco 49ers of
the 1980s and Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, the only other team
to win three NFL titles in a four-year span.

Their football dynasty is all the more impressive in an era
of salary caps and free agency where locker rooms are fitted
with revolving doors.

It is also bound with Belichick and his brilliance in
adapting to change and instilling fierce loyalty among staff
and players, some of whom take millions less than they could
earn on the free-agent market to stay in New England.

The regular season starts on September 8. Belichick's
presence and Brady's $60 million arm keep the odds still
stacked in favor for New England, along with much improved
special teams, the force of running back Corey Dillon and the
most accurate kicker in Patriot history, Adam Vinatieri, who
has scored 1,058 points in nine Patriot seasons.

"We know we're facing different challenges and our team is
evolving differently," said Belichick. "It's all just part of
it. Whatever you have to deal with, whatever changes there are,
then collectively as a team you manage them."