Saturday, February 05, 2005

Super Bowl six-pack

They are the New England Patriots' version of the Original Six. Troy Brown. Tedy Bruschi. Ted Johnson. Ty Law. Willie McGinest. Adam Vinatieri. They are the constants and the survivors, the winners among the winners. They are the only six Patriots who have played on all four of the franchise's Super Bowl teams (1996, 2001, 2003, 2004) teams of the past decade.

It's a hell of an accomplishment, and each of them took a different path to achieving it. Some, such as McGinest and Bruschi, have evolved through the years, becoming variations on the players they once were. Others, like Vinatieri, have been dependable and steady from that first day at Bryant College right on through this evening in Jacksonville. (Knock on wood.)

All the while, they have held their ground and stayed the course, remaining Patriots while so many coaches and teammates have come and gone. Goodbye, Drew. Hello, Tom. Beat it, Pete. Welcome, Bill. On this, the eve of their fourth Super Bowl together, it seems appropriate to acknowledge all they have done to contribute to what will forever be remembered as the glory days of Patriots football.

Troy Brown, wide receiver/defensive back, Class of '93

I'd say that picture pretty much tells you how long Brown has been around New England - 12 years now, amazingly enough. You never would have suspected he had such staying power upon arriving in 1993 as an eighth-round pick, the same season the tall, long-since-departed fella in the photo was chosen first overall.

As a rookie, Brown had to scratch and claw his way onto Bill Parcells's talent-deprived roster as a special teamer, punt returner, and fifth receiver, often ceding his playing time to never-weres such as Michael Timpson and Ray Crittenden. An extended stay seemed unlikely, and it came as little surprise when he was released in camp the next season.

I've often wondered what would have happened had another enterprising (or damn lucky) team signed Brown during his period of football unemployment in 1994. This much is sure: Pats fans would have never come to know someone who is now one of their all-time most beloved players. Fortunately, Brown was re-signed in October, seven weeks into the season, and he's been a Patriot staple since.

Brown prefers to refer to himself as a "football player," rather than by any specific positional designation. Considering how his career has progressed, it's easy to understand his pride in the designation. He's been a shifty punt returner, a fearless special teams gunner (Brown missed Super Bowl XXXI with a groin injury; on Desmond Howard's game-turning kickoff return for a touchdown, he ran through a hole left vacant by Hason Graham, Brown's replacement), a clutch third-down receiver, and, during their first Super Bowl victory, their go-to guy in the passing game.

Even now, as he's fallen behind youngsters David Givens and Deion Branch on the receiving depth chart, you get the sense Brady still trusts him above all others, even as he plays little more than a cameo role.

A cameo role on offense, that is. At age 33 and supposedly approaching his twilight, he's playing his most selfless role yet, taking on a new position this season - slot defensive back - to do what he has always done best: help the team. Even as longtime admirers of Brown, it has been remarkable to watch a veteran player risk embarrassment at a new position simply for the betterment of the whole.

It serves as one more reminder: If one player embodies what the budding dynasty Patriots are all about, it is Troy Brown, football player, the most selfless of them all.

Tedy Bruschi, linebacker, Class of '96

It's Tedy Bruschi who sets the tone for everything New England does defensively. He's the glue that holds that system together. He's so smart, and he can do so many things well. He's great in coverage. He can blitz or drop at the line of scrimmage, so the quarterback has to account for him on every snap. - CNNSI's Scout's Take: Super Bowl, 2/5/04

Yeah, that captures the essence of Bruschi, wouldn't you say? He is to the Patriots' defense what Brady is to the offense. He's simply indispensible, and for those among us who have followed his career since his arrival as a misfit third-round draft choice in 1996, it's wonderful to see him getting recognized as the outstanding all-around player he has worked so hard to become.

Bruschi was recently added to the AFC Pro Bowl team, an honor that is at least two seasons overdue. Yet when he arrived in '96, the notion of him becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber performer seemed improbable. Bruschi didn't have a true position when he joined the Pats; at the University of Arizona, he had tied the NCAA's all-time sack record as a defensive lineman, but at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, he was much too small to play the position in the pros.

Parcells, along with a certain defensive coordinator named Belichick, admired Bruschi's intensity and passion for the game and decided they could create a place for him somewhere. As a rookie, Bruschi thrived as a special teams spaz while backing up Ted Johnson at linebacker.

By the time the Patriots made their next Super Bowl appearance, five seasons later, Bruschi had found that niche, improving each season until he emerged as a dependable starting linebacker. And today, when the Patriots take the field to pursue a place in history, it will be Bruschi - a genuine star now - who leads the charge.

It really has been a remarkable ascent from his uncertain first seasons. But Bruschi's journey to the top is far from over. Something tells me this man hasn't come this far to lose.

Ted Johnson, linebacker, Class of '95

Confession: There are times when I've forgotten that Johnson is still on the Patriots. Well, not forgotten, exactly, but . . . just oblivious to his presence, I guess.

It's not something I'm proud of, for the 9-year veteran is still a very adept run-stopper and a relevant piece of the Patriots' deep defense. It's just that Johnson's role has become so specialized through the years that you tend not to notice him for long periods of time. It's almost like he's a relic from another era - when you think of him, don't you still picture him in those USFL-reject Pats uniforms from the early '90s?. I half expect to see Chris Slade helping him off the pile after missing the tackle himself.

Then, just as you're thinking about his career in the past tense, there he is, live and in person in the AFC Championship game, drilling Jerome Bettis in his tracks on a crucial fourth-and-1. And you remember: Damn. Teddy Johnson. All these years later, and he still owns the Bus.

And wouldn't you know, then the memories of his best years come flowing back, and you remember when his name was mentioned with Ray Lewis's as one of the best young inside linebackers in the AFC, and how he once knocked Terrell Davis head-on and head-long into a parallel universe, and how he was named All-Pro once and seemed destined to be again until the injuries began to chip away at his skill and strength.

And you remember how he's sacrificed playing time, money (he's renegotiated for the team's benefit more times than his accountant would care to admit) and a healthy chunk of his ego just to remain with this franchise.

And then you see him out there now, not as much as you used to, but still, he's out there, separating running backs from their senses just like during his personal heyday. And you think. Damn. Teddy Johnson. How could I forget?

Ty Law, cornerback, Class of '95

The best cornerback in franchise history not named Mike Haynes has been a footnote to this season, having gone down for the count when he busted his foot in the Halloween loss to the Steelers. But these Patriots wouldn't be going for Lombardi Trophy No. 3 if not for his immeasurable contributions to the first two Super Bowl champions.

Early in Super Bowl XXXVI against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, Law rattled St. Louis's as-macho-as-John Mayer receivers with several bone-jarring shots which, frankly, were unbecoming of a supposed cover cornerback. He also returned an interception of a Kurt Warner pass for the Patriots first touchdown, setting the stage for what at the time was thought to be an upset of historic proportions. (It's not so surprising in retrospect, unless you happen to be named Mike Martz and your ego is the size of Saturn.) Law's performance was so impressive - and so necessary - that he was the thinking fan's choice for the game's MVP honor.

As brilliant as his performance was, though, it wasn't even Law's defining moment. That came last year, in the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. Law intercepted Peyton Manning three times in helping New England stop an offense that the experts told us was unstoppable. (Sound familiar?) It is not an exaggeration to say it was the finest game I have ever seen a cornerback play.

Certainly Law has had his lows along with his highs - like many of his teammates, he grew lackadaisical during the Pete Carroll years, and c'mon, did anyone really buy the "it was my cousin's stash" excuse? But even when he was embroiled in personal turmoil, he rarely failed to be a fantastic player for the Patriots since arriving as a first-round pick in 1995.

As we all know, there's fair chance that Law has played his final game for the Patriots. He'll count $12.5 million against the cap next season, a high price for any player, let alone a 31-year-old cornerback with a creaky wheel. But Law has been visible during recent days, gleefully puttering around on a motorized scooter with his foot in a cast, and for the first time he's indicated he may be willing to rework his deal in order to stay.

Hopefully, that's how it plays out. It would be nice if Law can finish his career where it began, and the whole one-team thing may enhance his Hall of Fame chances as well. If not, well, we'll at least be able to say this: it's been a hell of a fun ride, Ty, bumps and all.

Willie McGinest, linebacker/defensive end, Class of '94

I challenge you to come up with another defensive player in franchise history who has reinvented himself as often - and with as much success - as Mr. McGinest.

He arrived in 1994 as the defensive savior, a No. 4 overall pick who was such a can't-miss hotshot at USC that he bestowed their legendary No. 55 as a freshman. In the early days he seemed prepared to live up to his vast promise, if not quite those overheated comparisons to Lawrence Taylor. He had 25 sacks in his first three seasons, and no defensive player was more responsible for the Patriots' surprising run to Super Bowl XXXI than McGinest, who overwhelmed Jaguars All-Pro tackle Tony Boselli in the AFC Championship game. It seemed he was certain to be a Pro Bowl lock for seasons to come.

It didn't quite happen that way. Like many of the young veteran Patriots, he seemed to grow complacent during Pete Carroll's laissez-faire (that's French for "jacked and pumped") reign as New England coach. The little injuries accumulated and lingered, and McGinest never quite developed into that pass-rushing beast he promised to be. He was never a bad player. Just an underachieving one. It seemed a change of scenery might do him good.

Instead, all it took was a change of coaches. McGinest has thrived during the Belichick era - in fact, you could say his career has been reborn. The young pass rusher who once dominated the AFC Championship game is now a wizened, versatile veteran who plays a little at linebacker, a little at end, and anywhere else his coach thinks he might be able wreak some havoc. And damned if he doesn't still save his best for the big moments. (Peyton Manning is nodding in agreement right now.)

No, he may not have been the next Lawrence Taylor - cripes, who is? As it turned out, being Willie McGinest - a true original - has been plenty good enough.

Adam Vinatieri, kicker, Class of '96

Just the fact that Vinatieri made the Patriots' roster in Training Camp, 1996 should have been inkling enough that he was a pretty darn capable kicker.

After all, his first NFL job came at the expense of 17-year NFL veteran Matt Bahr, a Parcells favorite whom the Tuna often said was the most dependable kicker he'd ever coached.

But no one could have expected Vinatieri to evolve into this: the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history. Ah, why not, let's take it one logical step further. He's the best kicker ever, period, exclamation point, end of story.

Just look at the resume. The fundamental stuff is impressive enough. He's had at least 100 points in each of his nine seasons, he's made two Pro Bowls, and in 1996, he flagged down a world-class sprinter (Herschel Walker) from behind to prevent a touchdown on a kick return, a play that first endeared Vinatieri to Pats fans as an actual athlete and not just another frightened weakling kicker. But it's his heroics in the postseason that have given Vinatieri a cachet that should be enough to get him through the doors in Canton - that is, if the pompous old coots who decide such things ever deign to let a true kicker into the Hall of Fame.

Ponder this, Hall voters: Of the 10 most famous kicks in NFL history, at least four have come via Vinatieri's steel toes. You've got the two Super Bowl game winners, of course, as well his game-tying and game-winning boots in the Snow Bowl. (Think of it this way: he shanks that 45-yarder that evened the score in the fourth quarter, and the Pats' dynasty is likely derailed before it ever gets started.) Hell, you could argue those are the top four kicks in league history, and his frozen-footed game-winner against the Titans in the AFC Divisional round last year might also rank among the top 10 or 15 best.

Say what you will about the Tuna, but he sure knew what he was doing all when he kept the calm, confident kid from South Dakota over the kicker he trusted the most. So many years later, and there's not a kicker in modern NFL history who can be trusted more than Vinatieri.