The Patriots' way

IS IT TOO MUCH to ask Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, to tackle a few problems outside of football? The war in Iraq, immigration reform, the Los Angeles Unified School District's dropout problem ... he can have his pick. No pressure.

As the regular season approaches its final weekend, once again Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots have performed a feat that has broad appeal beyond the National Football League: They continue to thrive in a system designed to beat victors back into mediocrity. In the case of the NFL, it is a virtuous, revenue-sharing, dynasty-busting mediocrity.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the NFL may be the most communist organization left on the planet. On any given Sunday, as the saying goes, any given team has a chance to win. (Now NFL teams play on Thursdays, Mondays and a few Saturdays, so maybe the league motto needs an update. How about "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs"?)

The NFL sustains this parity by essentially punishing successful teams -- giving them low draft picks the following season, for instance, and a tougher schedule. It also imposes a salary cap so teams can't buy themselves a championship.

The NFL says this system benefits football fans in all of its markets, because each team is at least theoretically competitive. Gone are the days when lucky fans in just a few cities tasted success year after year. Opponents, however, say that although the system does provide equality, it's done away with the excitement. Who wants to watch a couple of mediocre teams play for a share of second place? Twelve of the league's 32 teams are currently one game above or below .500.

It is in this context that the Patriots' success, which includes victories in three of the last five Super Bowls, is remarkable. The Patriots have succeeded in large part because of the cerebral Belichick, who has been analyzing game film since childhood. And there is Brady's arm.

But most of all, the Patriots have a team, not a collection of egos. (Brady has even deferred part of his salary so his team has more money to spend.) In corporate-speak -- which is not so different from coach-speak -- each member of the team places the success of the group above that of the individual.

The team's intricate defensive schemes and game strategies remain intact, despite the loss of several crucial players to the salary cap and a spate of injuries that would have devastated teams built to revolve around a few superstars.

It's not an easy formula to duplicate. But it can be done. Give the team a few more years of success, and maybe people will be comparing the current Patriots team to the Lakers of the 1980s.

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