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No love in their X's and O's

Salt-of-the-earth guys David Patten, Troy Brown, Roman Phifer, Joe Andruzzi, and Ty Law are gone. They helped shape the character of three Super Bowl-winning teams in four years. They showed the way in the locker room and on the field.

Out with the old, in with the new. Sentimentality has always been in short supply in Foxborough. You hear the word "business" a lot. You hear a lot of numbers -- ages, salaries, cap figures -- and Patriots fans, judging by the e-mails, don't seem upset by the player departures. There's been a smattering of emotion over Brown's release, partly because of reports that he could return at a more cap-friendly salary. The sporting public has been educated into believing that the $5 million owed the 33-year-old Brown for the 2005 season was far too much for a guy who played both ways and on special teams. Too much, even considering his long and meritorious service to the Patriots. Too much to make just one exception to the "business" plan.Sentiment is gone, and most people think that's a good thing. "They're obviously breaking it up a little bit, getting rid of the older guys and trying to bring in younger players," said one prominent agent. "With their success, who can really question them? I think the guys they're getting rid of are guys who set a tone for the locker room. But at this stage they're probably more valuable to another team that needs a veteran presence and someone who can show them what to do."

Three Super Bowls have earned Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli the benefit of the doubt on personnel matters. There's a feeling that these players will be replaced (in most cases an upgrade) and the dynasty will roll on.

Corey Dillon for Antowain Smith. Rodney Harrison for Lawyer Milloy. The combination of Dan Koppen and Stephen Neal for Damien Woody. Josh Miller for Ken Walter. Duane Starks for Law? Except for missteps after the 2001 season when the Patriots signed Donald Hayes, Steve Martin, and Tom Knight, the free agent pickups have generally improved the team. The losses of Woody, Ted Washington, Bobby Hamilton, Anthony Pleasant, and Marc Edwards haven't been felt.

Next season, the Patriots look forward to the healthy return of tight end Ben Watson, safety Guss Scott, and receiver P.K. Sam, three rookies who spent parts or all of the year on injured reserve. They will add defensive lineman Rodney Bailey, who spent the year on injured reserve. With Tedy Bruschi's status unknown, middle linebacker/fullback Dan Klecko could be an important presence after his season was cut short with a knee injury.

The Patriots see Starks, 30, as a winning player who has been in a losing environment in Arizona. They have followed his career closely, and have seen glimpses of the guy who played on one of the greatest defenses in history, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Starks missed all of 2003 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, but the Patriots hope his injury issues are behind him as he enters the prime of his career.

Free agent wide receiver Derrick Mason chose Baltimore over New England for family and geographical reasons despite the Patriots reportedly offering more money. The Mason courtship is an obvious sign that the Patriots are in the market for a big-time receiver.

Will they enter the Plaxico Burress sweepstakes or will they opt for a top receiver in the draft?

The inside linebacker market also will be interesting.

Ted Johnson would certainly love to play more, but it appears the Patriots will try to add at least one more inside linebacker in free agency and one in the draft. Pittsburgh's Kendrell Bell seems perfect. Then again, given their depth on the defensive line, they could play more 4-3 than 3-4 next season.

The Patriots' philosophy has worked very well, but the pain in Andruzzi's voice is clear when he talks about leaving, even though he'll more than double his paycheck with the Cleveland Browns. Brown went on vacation last week after hearing the news of his release, trying to get away from the disappointment and dealing with what could be a crossroads in his career.

Patten had one of the greatest games in Patriots history against Indianapolis on Oct. 21, 2001, when he rushed for a touchdown, threw a touchdown pass, and caught a touchdown pass. He made numerous other big plays throughout his tenure. He was certainly disappointed about leaving, disappointed his playing time had dwindled late in the season.

"After what happened to Lawyer, that showed me right there it's a business," said Law. "A lot of guys understand that, but when it happens to them, when they get cut out of the blue, that's when it really hits home for them. That's when they really understand what they thought they understood."

Weis offers a few final reflections

Snippets from a recent conversation with Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis:

On Troy Brown: "Troy will always be a very dependable slot receiver between now and the day he retires. That could be five years from now and he'll be able to get the job done. He might not be an every-down player anymore, but he can do the job." Asked whether Brown felt the strain of wearing too many hats, Weis said, "I think if you ask him he probably thought it was pretty cool. Certainly a tribute to him. I think the strain was far more mental than physical."

On why he didn't take coach Jeff Davidson (now the Browns' offensive line coach) to Notre Dame: "Jeff and I are very close. He was often a sounding board for me. I'd love to work with Jeff again, but I promised Bill [Belichick] I wouldn't take anyone and I kept that promise. I don't regret it. Jeff will do a great job in Cleveland, and I've been able to assemble an excellent staff here."

On whether he's said good-bye to Tom Brady: "I'll never say good-bye to Tom. He's a lifelong friend, someone I'll always keep in touch with. I think right now he's gallivanting all over the world and attending the Oscars and stuff like that and maybe he's big-timing me, but I'm sure we'll be talking."

On being considered the coach who developed Brady: "I'll lay claim to part of that, but there were other people. Bill had a part. [Former quarterback coach] Dick Rehbein had a part. Scott Pioli had a part in bringing him here. Tom deserves the biggest part."

To remind himself where he needs to get to as a college coach, Weis said, he asked Patriots special teams coach Brad Seely for Pete Carroll's telephone number.

"I left Pete a message just to say that he's set the bar very high for college football coaches," Weis said. "What he's done for that program with the recruiting and the coaching and the talent he's developed is unparalleled. There's Pete Carroll and then there's everybody else. I just wanted him to know how I felt about the work he's done there."

The Belichick of college football?

"How could you argue against that?" Weis said.

Savage can salvage Browns' operation

Observers have been very impressed with the rebuilding job done by Browns general manager Phil Savage. Team president and CEO John Collins did due diligence in coming up with the right man. He certainly considered Ozzie Newsome, Savage's mentor in Baltimore, and New England's Scott Pioli, but in the end, he might be very pleased with Savage. "He'll build that team through the draft, and when you examine his work in that area, he's been the best," said an AFC executive. "He did A-plus work for the Ravens, helped them build talent to win a Super Bowl and has also done a great job retooling for the Ravens once they had cap issues.

"He's already made a lot of moves to suit his head coach [Romeo Crennel]. What will be interesting is how he does with free agency. But I don't think free agency is going to be as big for Phil as the draft, knowing if he doesn't improve the young talent base, it'll delay the Browns' ascension." Savage said at the Scouting Combine last week, "I think you're barking up the wrong tree if you try to build through free agency. I think the draft will end up being the lifeblood of the Browns as we go forward."

Etc.

Parting words

Roman Phifer's release from the Patriots was the result, at least in part, of a failed physical. He said he had shoulder surgery, which will require some fairly significant rehab time. But he has only good memories of the Patriots.

"I have nothing but great things to say about Bill [Belichick] and Scott [Pioli] and the Krafts. They treated me so well. They gave me a chance to play again after the Jets, and I got to win three championships. You can't put that into words."

Phifer has not ruled out playing again.

"My first priority is to get my shoulder right, and I have the desire and the fire to still play," he said. "But right now I'm just going to enjoy my family and if the time comes when I'm 100 percent and there's a team that needs an old linebacker, I'll be ready.

"I have no idea what the future brings, but I'd be open to returning to the Patriots if they had a need. But if I don't play again, I'm all right with that, too. I've had 14 years in the NFL, which is a blessing. But I know I can still play and after you win a championship, you have that fire to keep playing."

Getting all the names straight

When Louisiana State professor Leigh Clemons went to NFLShop.com to order a Patriots jersey with the name of one of her former students, cornerback Randall Gay, she was rejected, according to Rex Wockner, a columnist for 365gay.com, a website for gay- and lesbian-related news and issues. Clemons was told that the league's official online merchandise center does not print "naughty words" on jerseys. She had to make a series of phone calls to get "Gay" on a jersey. Columnist Jim Buzinski of Outsports Magazine, which covers the gay sports community, did further research and found there are 1,159 banned words in the NFLShop filter. Among the acceptable words were "Hitler," "Fag," "Terrorist," and "Bin Laden." Buzinski's story got the NFL to revise its filtered list, and now Randall Gay fans can order a jersey with his name on it.

QB was cast in supporting role

Former Patriots quarterback Michael Bishop, now playing for the Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football League, was one proud guy last Sunday when his cousin, Eric Bishop, better known as Jamie Foxx, won an Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Ray Charles in the movie "Ray."

Coates is in position to know

Former Patriot Ben Coates, who was just hired as tight ends coach by the Browns, on Drew Bledsoe, his former teammate, signing with Dallas: "I know that tight end over there [Jason Witten] is going to help Drew out a lot. I worked with Jason last training camp when Bill [Parcells] brought me in for the minority coaching internship program, and he has a lot of ability. He went on to have a big, big year. The tight end is important to Drew, and I think when he went off to Buffalo he really didn't have that. Witten has a lot of speed for a tight end. I think Dallas is a good fit for Drew. He knows Terry [Glenn]. Terry had his best year with Drew throwing him the ball and he's got a good possession receiver in Keyshawn [Johnson]. I think it could definitely be a place where Drew can revive his career."

They're at the head of Law's list

Ty Law, recently released by the Patriots, said last week he would love to play for either Herm Edwards (Jets) or Tony Dungy (Colts), two coaches he admires.

League has a business plan in place

In the Life After Football Dept., the NFL and the Players Association will provide business education for as many as 70 NFL players at Harvard and Wharton business schools, beginning in April.

He remembers dealing with Dante

Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has been around so long that he was special teams coach in New England in 1985 when one of his players was Tom Condon, the super-agent. "Being around this long and being around so many head coaches is a tribute to what an outstanding coach he is," Condon said.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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