HOUSTON -- Safety Rodney Harrison tried to picture himself in Raiders black. As he sat daydreaming in Oakland's offices, minutes from signing a free agent deal, the cellphone of his agent, Steve Feldman, began ringing in earnest. "It was [Patriots vice president of player personnel] Scott Pioli," said Feldman. "He said, `Don't do anything until you come here first.' "
Pioli spent the next 15 minutes on the phone with Feldman. As members of the Oakland front office began to shift nervously in their chairs, and Feldman began to whisper big numbers with dollar signs attached into the phone, Harrison began to smile. Feldman turned to the Raiders contingent and said, "We'll get back to you."
They were going on a road trip.
Harrison and Feldman still were wearing shorts the following morning when they stepped off the red-eye into the crisp March air of New England.
"It was about 30 degrees outside," Harrison recalled. "I said, `What am I doing here?' "
He was picked up by a team scout in a sedan. The scout took Harrison and Feldman to lunch -- at the Ground Round.
"Yeah, they really wined and dined me," Harrison said. "No Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in my future. Right to the Ground Round. And you know what? I didn't mind. I liked it, in fact. There was no b.s. about it."
By the time he sat down with Bill Belichick, a defensive-minded coach who had been admiring Harrison's no-nonsense toughness for years, the silver and black of the Oakland Raiders was a fading memory. Harrison listened to Belichick's philosophy (with a few interruptions from the Raiders, who repeatedly called Feldman), then asked a few questions of his own.
What was their position on Tebucky Jones, their starting safety? And what about Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy, who was under contract but had refused to restructure his deal and was headed for a showdown with his team?
"My main concern was, `Don't use me as a negotiating tool for your other guys,' " Harrison said. "They assured me they wanted me. They told me I'd be playing either left safety or right safety.
"Then they backed it up when they put a contract in front of me."
Harrison quickly signed it. By the time the Patriots opened their 2003 season, Jones (traded to the Saints) and Milloy (released and signed by the Bills) were gone, and Harrison was the focal point of a totally revamped secondary that included veteran free agent cornerback Tyrone Poole and promising rookies Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel. That secondary, with veteran Ty Law as its anchor, led the league in interceptions (29) and allowed the fewest touchdown passes (11).
Harrison signed a six-year, $13.995 million contract (including a $2.5 million signing bonus), a more lucrative deal than the Raiders had offered. That goes against the commonly held notion that New England resists paying top dollar for marquee names. Just last week, former quarterback Joe Theismann joked that when New England went shopping, it was "at Wal-Mart and Kmart, for the blue-light specials."
"The New England Patriots are absolutely, positively not cheap," Feldman said. "In fact, I've found them to be one of the few organizations that will step up and create extra money when needed."
Ten months after the fact, the signing of Harrison proved to be the most significant offseason move of the Super Bowl-bound Patriots. In landing him, Belichick and Pioli snared yet another player who fits their optimal profile: tough, athletic, coachable, dependable.
"We have an organizational philosophy," Pioli said. "We look for guys with a certain makeup, a certain value system, a learning curve, and a sense of reliability. I've been together with Bill a long time. I know what he wants."
Quite a team
Pioli and Belichick have built a team that will appear in its second Super Bowl in three years, retooling on the fly. Although Belichick often is heralded as the resident genius, he's the first to acknowledge Pioli's contributions. It's Pioli who lays the groundwork for each free agent courtship, each draft pick. He's the one who coerces and coddles the agents. He's the one who works out the cap figures. He's the one who challenges Belichick. The final word belongs to the coach, but it's rare he utters it without Pioli's input.
"The two things I'd say about Scott [are], he is outstanding at what he has done professionally, and I would say he is one of my best friends," Belichick said. "That covers a lot of ground, both personally and professionally.
"I guess in a way, I look back at myself when I first came into the league, and I didn't know anything. I feel like I've learned a few things along the way with some years of experience. When Scott came into the league, he didn't know anything, and through his years he has learned a lot along the way."
Belichick hired Pioli as a personnel assistant in 1992 when he was coach of the Cleveland Browns. Pioli would follow Belichick to the New York Jets, and then to the Patriots in 2000. They have experienced the good (in Foxborough), the bad (in Cleveland), and the ugly (in New York, when Belichick accepted, then bailed on, the head coaching job there).
"We've spent so much time together that we both have a good understanding of what we need collectively as a team," Belichick said. "Sometimes, I think you have to play a little outside the box and look at a player and say, `This guy is not exactly what our profile is, but he might be an exception to our rules. Here's where he would fit.'
"Sometimes I bring that to him. Sometimes he brings that to me. Then we evaluate accordingly. Usually, if we disagree, then we're better off moving on from that guy and finding somebody else because there are so many players we do agree on, that every once in a while, when we don't, we feel like rather than force it down the other guy's throat, we just move on to somebody we both feel the same way about."
Pioli and Belichick established a core of strong veterans by adding Joe Andruzzi, Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, and Bobby Hamilton to play alongside mainstays Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, and Troy Brown. At times, they have favored character over charisma, good sense over good size.
They also have stopped trying to impress people.
"No player is bigger than what we've established here," said Pioli.
No bells, whistles
When free agent linebacker Rosevelt Colvin began his recruiting trips last spring, he went to Detroit and saw his name on a Lions jersey. He went to Arizona and enjoyed a stretch limo ride to a five-star restaurant. Similar tactics were used by the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Houston Texans.
The Patriots did nothing. He didn't even get a burger at the Ground Round.
"It was not a glamorous visit," Colvin said. "I went to Bill's office and talked to him for an hour. Then Scott came in, and we talked another hour. Bill asked if I wanted to see the locker room. He opened the door a crack and said, `There it is.' There were no lights on. He took me to see the club seats -- in the dark.
"The whole place was deserted. There was nothing to see. Just a bunch of sand, dirt, and snow."
So why, then, did he walk away so impressed that he signed a six-year, $25 million deal?
"I was looking for basic things," said Colvin. "Like a plan to win."
There was a time (yes, that would be in Cleveland) when Belichick subscribed to the red carpet approach to free agents. He rolled out the limos, bought the top of the line Bordeaux, showered them with perks. It didn't work for him then, and it doesn't work for him now.
"If that's what a guy cares about," Belichick said, "then he's come to the wrong place."
He notifies his draft picks he will be looking for guts, not glitz. He likes his young, single players to live near the stadium, not in Boston. When players are drafted by the Patriots, the team philosophy is spelled out, with little margin for error. The veterans enforce this for the coaches.
According to Belichick, the preparation for the 2003 draft began with a pool of 4,000 names. Pioli and his staff reduced that to 1,500 names, then whittled the pool further, based on ability, background, and potential, to about 100.
"That's when I jump in," Belichick said.
Together, he and Pioli dissect film, highlight needs, and draw up hundreds of draft scenarios. Sometimes their assessments are dead-on. Sometimes they get lucky.
In 2003 they were both.
At the start of the second round, the Patriots were holding the 41st pick and hoping to draft Wilson, a defensive back out of Illinois. They felt certain they could sit tight and still get their man.
"But then there was a small run on corners, and the pool was starting to shrink," Pioli said. "So, at that point, you have to determine what you like, what you can live with, and what everyone else on the board ahead of you likes."
Pioli and Belichick examined the board and quickly conferred. The coach was concerned Wilson would be gone by 41. Pioli agreed.
"Let's say, for example, you are sitting there at 42, and the draft board is 30," Belichick said. "You are 12 picks away, and there are three players you really like. After those three are gone, there's a significant dropoff. If it's as significant as you think, and you have extra [draft] choices, then you can afford the opportunity to move up. What you don't want is big holes later in the draft. You don't [want to] have a third-round pick, and then not another one until the sixth round. That screws up the draft."
Belichick decided Wilson was worth moving up for. He traded his 41st pick and his 75th pick to Houston for the 36th pick and the 117th pick. Yet even with that maneuver, the Patriots still were not convinced they'd get their man.
"We knew the Bears were looking at corners," Belichick said. "They ended up taking Charles Tillman one pick before us, but we were kind of holding our breath on that one. They could have easily taken Wilson.
"Moving up probably got us our man. But consider two years ago, with Deion Branch. We could have moved up to get him, but we didn't have as many picks on the back end. We determined there were enough good players on the board for us to be OK. Sometimes you have to let the draft come to you."
Belichick calls the draft an "inexact science," yet he and Pioli grabbed two second-round picks (Wilson and receiver Bethel Johnson) who played major minutes, two fourth-round picks, defensive tackle Dan Klecko and cornerback Samuel, who made legitimate contributions, and a fifth-round pick, center Dan Koppen, who started the final 15 games of the season.
"But hey, we've blown 'em, too," Belichick said. "T.J. Turner wasn't exactly a great pick." (The Patriots picked Turner, a linebacker from Michigan State, in the seventh round of the 2001 draft. He played only two games for New England.)
Belichick insists the 13th overall pick, defensive tackle Ty Warren, "will be just fine. We're very happy with him."
Pioli says it would be a mistake to make any declarations about the current rookie class, because the results over the long haul are what matters.
"Imagine if anyone judged Tom Brady on his rookie season," said Pioli. "He never played."
A strong nucleus
New England's nucleus of young stars includes the 26-year-old Brady, 24-year-old two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour, and the 26-year-old Colvin, who missed most of this season with a hip injury but is on course to play next season. No wonder some people already use the word "dynasty" when they peruse the Patriots' roster.
As Belichick and Pioli arrived in Houston, they accepted accolades from their peers for everything from a boffo draft class, to trading for nose tackle Ted Washington, to snaring Harrison.
They are recognized in tandem for their efforts. In fact, maintains Poole's agent, Hadley Engelhard, "I don't think one would be nearly as effective without the other."
Harrison agrees. The tag team of Pioli and Belichick had him in the fold before he knew what hit him. He said he's never been this happy, and plans to spread the good word when it's time to start vying for 2004 free agents.
"There's no question players are your best recruiting tool," said Belichick, with just a hint of a smile.
Not to mention that free popcorn at the Ground Round.