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Change is their constant

FOXBOROUGH -- They aren't Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson. Rest assured, linebackers Chad Brown and Monty Beisel are acutely aware of that fact. Trying to help fill the void left by two of the most popular Patriots in recent memory has appeared, at times, to be a Herculean task, not just because of the two Teds' abilities, but because of their presence both in the locker room and in the community. Bruschi, in particular, has been elevated to the level of sports icon, the embodiment of everything tough and endearing about this franchise.

Good luck trying to get anyone to forget about him any time soon.

Trust me, neither Beisel nor Brown would dream of it. Every day, they are confronted with a reminder of the impact of their predecessors.

''It's definitely out there," Beisel acknowledged. ''You see all those Bruschi jerseys hanging in the pro shop, and people around town wearing Ted Johnson's number. But it's more than that. I saw them play on television last year. I know what they accomplished and how important they were to this team's success. So, sure, I'm aware of it."

Change in the NFL is inevitable. Both vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli and coach Bill Belichick have proved to be masterful at absorbing key losses, plugging the holes, and maintaining their level of excellence. The Patriots mourned former Pro Bowler Lawyer Milloy for all of a week before they regained their composure, implemented the necessary personnel, and moved on. The departure of nose tackle Ted Washington to Oakland last season was expected to (literally) leave a gaping hole in the middle of New England's defense, before rookie Vince Wilfork proved himself to be yet another wise, impact draft choice. When Damien Woody opted for the big money in Detroit, we fretted what impact that would have on the offensive line. The answer at the end of the day: nothing of significance. Quarterback Tom Brady had all the protection he needed to systematically dismantle the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.

Yet somehow this year seems different. Charlie Weis, the offensive mastermind, and Romeo Crennel, the defensive stalwart, took their considerable talents elsewhere. The players continue to speak openly about the influence both men had on this football team. The Patriots will open the 2005 season without offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi, Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law, and linebacker mainstays Roman Phifer, Bruschi, and Johnson. The latter three, offers defensive lineman Richard Seymour, have required the biggest adjustment to date.

''We lost our three starting linebackers," Seymour said. ''You can't take those guys out and expect everything to be the same. We haven't done as well as we'd like, but it's early. If we had all the answers, we wouldn't need camp."

Combine the sobering fact that Mike Vrabel has been injured most of the preseason, and it's understandable why the defense has been in flux. In their last exhibition game, the Patriots gave up 187 rushing yards (4.3 yards per carry) to New Orleans and enabled the Saints to convert 11 of 18 third-down chances (61 percent). They hope to improve on those numbers tomorrow night against Green Bay, when they will dress all of their healthy regulars.

Be careful, cautioned Vrabel, of putting too much stock in preseason numbers.

''As a team, we've yet to form our identity," said Vrabel. ''But every year we've proven we can play great football down the stretch. You get the sense that people are worried, but I think it's a little early to start hitting the panic button."

Vrabel does not discount the chemistry that Andruzzi and Bruschi provided, nor does he downplay the professionalism players such as Johnson brought to work each day. He likes the new guys -- he just doesn't know them yet.

''Are we where Ted and Tedy and I were? Of course not," Vrabel said. ''But when I came in here in 2001, it's not like I automatically hit it off with those guys. It took time. I had to build a relationship with Willie [McGinest] and Tedy and Ted. They had to learn to trust me."

The trust must be earned. Both new linebackers have been, in Beisel's words, merely trying to ''follow the line."

''They've challenged us," Beisel confirmed. ''I'm sitting in a meeting the first day and they start asking me questions about what I know about the defense, right in front of everyone else."

Belichick appeared piqued Tuesday when queried about his run defense, and his new linebackers in particular. Asked if it was unrealistic for fans to think Brown and Beisel could make as few mistakes as the previous inside linebackers, Belichick answered, ''I don't know. What difference does it make?"

''There are 11 people out there playing defense," Belichick said. ''What makes a difference is how those 11 people play. That's what defense is about. It's about team defense. You are always trying to isolate it into one player, one situation or one thing, and it just doesn't work that way."

Belichick later contended it is far too early to judge anybody on his performance.

''I don't think anybody knows where their team is three weeks into training camp," he said. ''I think you have a lot better idea after six regular-season games. That's when I think it starts to really come together."

Rodney Harrison can attest to that. It took him several weeks to find his comfort zone with the team when he arrived as a free agent in 2003.

''A guy like Chad Brown is still trying to get up to speed with this system and all the different personalities," Harrison offered. ''I'm confident one day we're going to look up and pow, he's going to have it all figured out.

''It took me until the seventh or eighth week, but once I got it, I felt like I had been here for years."

Nobody is asking Brown and Beisel to be Tedy and Ted -- least of all Belichick. The secret to the coach's success has long been his ability to assemble a pool of talent and meld it into a unit that works off each other's strengths. That system changes slightly from year to year, depending on the personnel.

Having said that, if he is able to transition this team into yet another Super Bowl contender, it could well be his most impressive performance to date. Plugging holes based on ability is one thing, but plugging them with athletes who provide similar leadership qualities is quite another. Sure, there's comfort in knowing three of your most critical pieces -- Brady, Seymour, and kicker Adam Vinatieri -- remain intact. But can the emotional leadership of Bruschi be matched? Will the offensive line be as reliable without Andruzzi? How much will they miss Weis's creativity?

''There are changes every year," Belichick said yesterday. ''If you told me last year that Troy Brown would be playing in the secondary and Randall Gay and Asante Samuel would be starting in the Super Bowl, I would have looked at you like you were crazy."

The man has a point. He usually does. Check back with him in Week 6.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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