In a study being reviewed for possible publication, a pair of economists recently cited the New England Patriots for effective use of the salary cap, for spending money judiciously throughout their roster, for being more resourceful than the competition.
There's no telling how many months Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago and Yale University's B. Cade Massey spent in reaching their conclusions. Whatever the time investment, however, it's a pretty good bet that the economists could have dramatically truncated the process by simply surveying a few NFL head coaches.
Sure, in any scientific undertaking, you want the preponderance of evidence to be more empirical than it is anecdotal. But the bottom line in any analysis is, well, the bottom line. And in the case of the Patriots, the results are likely to be the same whether you conjure up dozens of charts and statistical permutations, or just query the people who have studied them for the past four seasons.
"What they do in every facet of the game is unbelievable," acknowledged Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio during a break in training camp a few weeks ago. "In terms of the salary cap, acquiring players, using everything available to them, finding ways to create roles for everyone on their roster in some role, they're way ahead of the curve. I don't know what it is, but I guess there's some word that [captures] what they've got there."
One word best describes the Patriots' unflagging pursuit of excellence and Vince Lombardi trophies: Efficiency.
It wasn't all that long ago that even the most loyal fans disdainfully referred to the team as the "Patsies" and said the logo should have been the famous Revolutionary War tableau of bandaged soldiers, limping home with drum and tattered flag. But three Super Bowl victories in the last four seasons have transformed New England into a model franchise. A team with a bloated defeat total only five years ago, and with a roster of suspect players, now has more phat than fat cats.
Credit the transformation from woeful to winner, from a team no one wanted to emulate to a blueprint franchise, to the Patriots' lack of mistakes.
New England, even when choosing players late in the draft, continues to draft well. The Patriots make few free agency splashes but annually find enough veterans to step into key roles. The staff, led by the incomparable Bill Belichick, coaches well. And the organization, in an era when longevity with the same team has been replaced by a lure of the big paycheck, manages to engender loyalty in its players. Most of the all, though, the Patriots succeed because the trinity of owner Bob Kraft, Belichick and vice president of personnel Scott Pioli has perfected a paradigm which marries football and finances.
Look around the rest of the NFL -- note the franchises that have been forced to undergo roster purges, even after successful seasons, because of salary cap excesses -- and it is apparent how difficult it really is to merge fiscal responsibility with consistency on the field.
Such synergy, at least under the current system, has proved elusive for most teams. But the potion so difficult for other franchises to concoct has been an elixir for the Patriots in the past half-decade. Somehow, the Patriots have gotten the players to buy into the business of winning more so than the business of big bucks.
They have turned a simple philosophy -- that winning benefits everyone -- into the closest thing the NFL has to a dynasty under this collective bargaining agreement. It is a concept that has a surprisingly effective appeal, and one with results to reinforce it. It is, in a word, efficient.
"They pretty much look you in the eye, tell you how you're going to fit in and what they expect from you, what you're going to mean for the team," said star strong safety Rodney Harrison. "You'd be surprised how easy they make it to buy into that. So you're sitting there thinking, 'Well, maybe I can make more money if I go somewhere else. But, man, I'd love to get me a [Super Bowl] ring.' And suddenly, it all makes sense, and you want to be here."
When the Patriots brought Harrison to town two years ago after his release by the San Diego Chargers, he was on the verge of signing with the Oakland Raiders for more money. Poised to agree to terms with the Raiders but sensing the deal would still be on the table, Harrison figured he had nothing to lose by listening to Belichick's sales rap. He ended up winning two Super Bowl rings because he heeded the logic articulated by the New England coach.
It isn't as if Belichick, the reigning genius of this era, is a pied piper. But players savvy enough to peruse the Patriots' recent track record for reclamation projects, and for being able to enunciate roles for lesser-known veterans still seeking validation for their careers, have certainly reaped the benefits.
"I think we're honest [with players]," said Belichick. "If you work hard, play hard and play well, and do the things that are asked of you, then you're going to fit in here."
That's true. But there is, New England players acknowledge, far more to the success the Patriots have carved out than just that simple formula.
The cornerstone is arguably the synergy that exists between Belichick and Pioli, a sort of Vulcan mind-meld (for all you "Star Trek" fans) that seemingly enables the two to view any player, rookie or veteran, through the same prism. The kind of relationship the pair enjoys is rare in a league in which personnel directors and coaches are historically, and by the nature of their respective agendas, at natural odds.
As a result, the Patriots rarely "reach" for players, and every acquisition, it seems, comes with a plan in mind for that player. The New England coaching and scouting departments have a unique ability to see players for what they are, not what they think they might be, and react accordingly in their assessments. In the draft, the emphasis has typically been on choosing players who can serve some apprenticeship before moving into the lineup, but that isn't always the case.
So while some scouts regarded Fresno State guard Logan Mankins in the draft as a bit of a risk because of his injury history, the Pats felt that, with the final selection in the first round, they were getting a blue-collar prospect with the kind of tough-mindedness to fit in on their line. Mankins is likely, barring any unexpected occurrences over the next two weeks, to start at left guard. In veteran linebackers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown, a lot of teams perceived a decent special teams player and a one-time Pro Bowl performer who was in decline, respectively. The Pats, after their usual considerable research, decided the two could fill the inside linebacker vacancies created by the loss of Tedy Bruschi to a stroke and Ted Johnson to retirement.
The Patriots spent another spring adding guys like Brown and Beisel, wideouts Tim Dwight and David Terrell, backup quarterback Doug Flutie, corners Chad Scott and Duane Starks, and a few other veterans. As usual, New England didn't spend big -- a total of less than $1 million in signing bonuses -- for its free agent shopping spree. So sold was Starks on the notion of not only resurrecting his career but also winning a Super Bowl ring, that he accepted a salary reduction to facilitate a trade from Arizona to the Patriots.
Said Starks, a once-brilliant coverage defender whose recent career has been plagued by injuries, but who has witnessed what Harrison and players like cornerback Tyrone Poole accomplished by moving to New England: "It's like they don't do anything without a plan for you. There's no wasted effort, no wasted energy here, it seems. I guess, yeah, they really are efficient in how they do things. They know what they want from you. They know what they're willing to pay to have you come in and do it. And it seems like, if you don't want to do it, they'll find someone else who will."
It isn't as though Kraft is the NFL embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge. The Boston Herald reported recently that the New England payroll for 2005 -- the real layout for player-related expenses and not the team's salary cap total -- will exceed $100 million. That might make the Patriots the highest-spending team in the league, a perch the franchise had previously managed to avoid, despite its three Super Bowl titles in four seasons. Since the arrival of Belichick in 2000, the team has never rated higher than 24th in the league in total payroll.
Yet even with the relative spending spree, one fueled by the new six-year, $60 million contract signed by quarterback Tom Brady this spring, the Patriots are hardly frivolous. Brady's deal, while pricey, was still a bargain for a player of his stature. The upgrades in the contracts of tailback Corey Dillon, Harrison, defensive lineman Richard Seymour, linebacker Mike Vrabel and defensive end Jarvis Green were all palatable. In the cases of Seymour and Harrison, in particular, modest bumps in their 2005 compensation levels headed off potential acrimony.
New England ultimately will have to pay the piper on some players, notably Seymour, who is one of the most coveted front-four players in the league. Recent history of negotiations with the team suggests the Patriots will find a way to get it done without a major upheaval of its internal salary structure. Why so? Because the Pats have been able to do so in virtually every previous case.
There are just 11 players on the current roster with base salaries for 2005 in excess of $1 million. The starting quintet on the offensive line, an area in which the Pats have been able to plug modestly paid players without a drop-off, is among the NFL's lowest paid. But because of the coaching of longtime line coach Dante Scarnecchia, and the ability of the scouting department to identity tough youngsters who won't break the bank, the unit has ranked among the league's best and most efficient. And it is a unit in which the foresight of the organization, as with the selections of Mankins and future starter Nick Kaczur this year, is evident.
Just one of the team's wide receivers, David Givens, will bank more than $1 million this season. The most valuable player in Super Bowl XXXIX, Deion Branch, will earn the minimum salary for a three-year veteran, $455,000. By spreading out the wealth, and stretching the salary cap with creativity, the Patriots can add to areas of need and know they are not upsetting the financial applecart. And add they do, since the Patriots are never quite satisfied with their roster, as evidenced last week by the trade for former Cleveland wide receiver Andre' Davis.
That deal, landing a former second-round pick in exchange for just a fifth-rounder and acquiring a potential playmaker for a base salary of just $481,250, was quintessentially New England. Davis is a player of size and deep speed, commodities the Patriots were lacking, and investing a fifth-round pick in him was certainly worth the gamble. Largely, because when New England rolls the dice, the result is rarely snake eyes.
"How could a player not want to come here?" Davis said. "This is a team that has been able to turn around careers. They've got magic here, it seems, and they know what they are doing with guys. Just look at the last few years, right?"
Sneaking a peek into the rear-view mirror, of course, is not a luxury Belichick permits himself, his staff or his players. He preaches a gospel with a forward-looking theme, and parables that stress the lack of efficiency brought on by living in the past. Change is a constant in the NFL and Belichick embraces that reality. The irony is, the more things change in the league, the more the Pats stay the same.
"There's a kind of tunnel vision here," Beisel said. "They want you to put blinders on, to not notice those three [Super Bowl] trophies, to just worry about winning the next one. But part of the reason some of us are here is because of those trophies. I mean, you can't help but be aware of them, and of what this organization has accomplished. It's a very streamlined mind-set around here. Everyone is here for one purpose."
And it doesn't take a ream of spreadsheets or statistical analysis by economists to figure out what that is, or that the Patriots have divined an effective and efficient formula for achieving it.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.