- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- We live in a tail-wags-the-dog world.
Kobe Bryant pouts and -- woosh! -- coach Phil Jackson and center Shaquille O'Neal are no longer Los Angeles Lakers. Eli Manning doesn't want to play for the San Diego Chargers and -- poof! -- he's wearing a Giants jersey.
There was a time in sports -- and life as we knew it -- when authority was respected. In the wild and wooly days of the NFL, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula and Tom Landry prowled, scowled on the sidelines. Players did not question their decisions. They didn't appeal to the players' union (like the Giants) because workouts were too tough. They didn't quit on whim in training camp leaving their team in disarray like the Dolphins' Ricky Williams.
When the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVIII, quarterback Tom Brady earned his second MVP award in three years. If you imagined that all that fame and fortune and the sheer force of this 27-year-old's personality would transform the Patriots into his team, please adjust your set. We are here to report that the Patriots remain and will continue to be head coach Bill Belichick's team. Yes, it's still 1960 in Foxborough.
In the Patriots' first preseason game, New England handled the Philadelphia Eagles 24-6. In a battle of potential Super Bowl combatants, the Patriots were very clearly the better team. Their quarterbacks, including Brady, completed 14 of 22 passes with no interceptions. But in Belichick's pragmatic world the glass is always half empty. Predictably, the 52-year-old leader was not pleased with the passing game.
"It wasn't any good," Belichick said the following week. "The only passes we completed were ones where we scrambled around on or broke a tackle in the pocket or some loose play where we got it out to somebody, scrambled out of the pocket after the protection broke down or after the coverage broke down."
Tom Brady, Golden Arm, are you listening?
"That's football," Belichick continued. "But at some point during the year you've got to drop back, block them, throw it, and catch it. That's what the passing game is. It's not junior high, schoolyard football, everybody running in different directions."
Brady, as usual, was quick to agree. This from the guy whose offseason might have been more productive than his 2003 exploits on the field.
He was a regular fixture in the Boston society pages; Brady was regularly spotted out and about on the town in upscale clubs and restaurants. His purchase of a $4 million Back Bay condominium (complete with deeded parking spaces) also made headlines. He was a guest of President George Bush for the State of the Union Address. Brady spent the summer treading red carpets, from the ESPY awards to the premier of "I, Robot" that starred his girlfriend Bridget Moynahan. He met Michael Jordan at Donald Trump's golf course and toured the capitals of Europe, meeting Pope John Paul II in Rome.
Despite that extraordinarily high-profile offseason, there aren't any signs that Brady's head has grown too large for his Riddell helmet. He was one of the first Patriots players to complete the mandatory 40 offseason workouts. One of those days, May 10, underlines his sober approach to the game. That was the occasion the Patriots flew to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Bush, the spoils of their victory in Houston. The players who made the trip were credited with a workout day, and most of them took advantage of the weights-free day. Not Brady. He arrived at Gillette Stadium in the darkness, around 5 a.m., ran through his workout and showered before jumping on the bus to the airport.
In his training camp sessions with the media, he sounded a lot like Belichick.
"I think I've made some progress in the last couple of weeks," Brady said in early August, "but I'm still not really where I want to be, not for the first game."
He says he has worked hard on his two offseason priorities: 1) getting stronger so that he can better hold onto the ball; last year, he fumbled 13 times, and 2) throwing fewer interceptions than last year's total of 12.
Although Brady has made 52 straight starts and never lost a playoff game, he still displays a refreshing, self-effacing attitude. One of the reasons he has been able to stay on the field, Brady said in training camp, was because there was nothing for him to pull.
"I'm serious," he said. "I can't pull a muscle I don't have."
Belichick, for his part, hasn't pulled any punches.
When 365-pound defensive tackle Ted Washington attempted to break the Patriots' free agent bank, Belichick and player personnel man Scott Pioli waived goodbye. They drafted Miami's Vince Wilfork in the first round and added free agent Keith Traylor. Last season, when top free agent signee Rosevelt Colvin -- viewed by many as the free agent with a chance to have the biggest impact -- suffered a serious hip injury, Belichick moved on and patched together an elaborate defense that helped the team win 17 of 19 games. When Tom Condon, the agent for first-round draft choice Ben Watson, wouldn't budge from his insistence on having his client not sign a deal exceeding five years, the tight end from Georgia fired him. Within days, Watson had a new agent, Pat Dye, and the six-year contract the Patriots were offering. Because he missed a significant chunk of training camp, Watson got a signing bonus approximately $500,000 less than the original proposal.
Belichick, a stickler for roster versatility, had his fingerprints all over the Patriots' intriguing use of personnel during the preseason. Dan Klecko, a second-year defensive lineman, is seeing time at linebacker. Wide receiver Troy Brown took a turn at cornerback and even made a few tackles. Few questioned these moves because, as you may remember, Belichick lined up linebacker Mike Vrabel as a tight end and Brady hit him with a 1-yard touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
It was Belichick, of course, who elevated a little-known sixth-round draft choice ahead of well-respected Damon Huard during training camp in 2001. When franchise hero Drew Bledsoe was injured, Belichick inserted Brady and he carried the team to the Super Bowl. Even when Bledsoe regained his health, Belichick stayed with Brady. After the season, Belichick dealt Bledsoe, beloved in New England, to Buffalo. It was an eerie echo of his very public parting with fan-favorite Bernie Kosar when he was the head coach in Cleveland.
And if Belichick is still the head coach in New England seven or eight years from now, when Brady's skills inevitably begin to diminish, you can be sure he will find someone younger and more talented to get the job done. Belichick has always been focused on the present with an eye to the future.
The Patriots players have already been treated to a viewing of a reel of non-highlight bloopers from the 2003 season. It was Belichick's way of reminding them that the team's first Super Bowl victory did not yield a playoff spot the following year.
As Belichick likes to say, each season should -- make that will -- be approached as if "whatever happened last year didn't happen."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Tom Brady has helped lead the Patriots to two Super Bowl wins, but there's no doubt that this is Bill Belichick's team.