FOXBOROUGH -- This is the 20th year Marty Schottenheimer has been a head coach in the National Football League, so he understands that, regardless of what other propaganda you may hear, there are limits to any team's resiliency. Limits to its ability to adapt and make do with lesser lights suddenly thrust into the limelight. Limits, as he put it yesterday, to the number of fingers available to any coach, no matter his strategic brilliance, when the two most important members of his team have become
''I just think what happened is you've only got 10 fingers to stick in the dike," Schottenheimer said not long after his San Diego Chargers had pounded a gaping hole in the dike of the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, 41-17, yesterday at Razor Blade Field. ''At what point does it turn the other way? No one can quantify which injury tips the bowl. You can't keep replacing players. At what point in time are you pushed over the edge?"
Schottenheimer talked of his admiration for what the Patriots have accomplished the last four years, pointing out that in this day of the salary cap, free agency, and the draft, ''what the New England Patriots have done defies logic and reason because our system is set up in a way that no team should win three Super Bowls in four years." So how did his Chargers come in and dismember that team, dominating it so thoroughly in the second half that they outscored it, 24-0, outgained it, 243-61, and had 15 first downs to New England's three?
Many things played a part, but in Schottenheimer's opinion the growing absences of familiar faces is beginning to take a predictable toll on the Patriots because, in the end, a coach is only as smart as his talent. Schemes are important. Flexibility is helpful. Long-term planning plays a factor in any team, for good or ill. But, in the end, how many fingers do you have? How many holes can you plug?
''During the course of the week I wondered, 'Is there a breaking point that pushes you over the edge?' " Schottenheimer said of the depleted Patriots lineup. ''They had eight new starters out there from their team of a year ago. That's nearly half your starters. Where's the limit?"
Considering what went on yesterday in Foxborough, the Patriots seemed to have reached it. It was almost like their brave last-minute rally against the Steelers last week after watching Rodney Harrison, Matt Light, and Kevin Faulk all carted off the field unlikely to return for two months or longer required their last bit of resolve. Seven days was not enough time to rally the troops, not enough time to turn Guss Scott into Harrison or Nick Kaczur into Light or Patrick Pass into Faulk, and there are not enough days in the season to turn young Monty Beisel into Tedy Bruschi.
Yet as grim as things were in the second half yesterday, as the Chargers simply battered New England's defense between the tackles with LaDainian Tomlinson and threw over it with Drew Brees, Schottenheimer insisted the season remains long and the Patriots' history indicates this is not the final chapter in a season that now has sunk to 2-2 after the team lost two of its last three games.
''I would have bet a lot of money, if I were a gambler, that with today's system you couldn't achieve what the Patriots achieved the last four years," Schottenheimer said. ''I'd never bet against Bill Belichick on anything. I don't know him well, but what he's done here is remarkable. But how much can you take?"
Yesterday there were five new starters on defense from this time a year ago. Very likely none of them would be starting if the players who manned those positions last season were still healthy and available. There were three new faces on offense and the same was true for at least two of them, rookies Kaczur and Logan Mankins, who replaced Joe Andruzzi after he left in free agency without the Patriots putting up a fight.
That's a lot of change for any team, but for one trying to become the first to win three straight Super Bowls it has put a heavy weight on their shoulders, and yesterday, at least, it seemed to break them. No scheme could replace them all. No grand plan could stop Tomlinson from cavorting through the center of New England's line into a secondary that no longer had the intimidating presence of Harrison in the box slamming runners to the ground.
San Diego center Nick Hardwick repeatedly got a block on nose tackle Vince Wilfork and got him turned enough to make room for Tomlinson's quick cutbacks into holes vacated by inside linebackers Beisel and Chad Brown. Tomlinson said he had noticed on film last week the Patriots' tendency to overpursue on running plays, leaving open lanes to cut back into if the center was quick enough to get on Wilfork. Hardwick was and there was no Harrison-like presence anywhere to dissuade Tomlinson from feeling he could make one cutback and find open running room.
''Regardless of what kind of defense we were playing and regardless of what kind of blocking schemes they had, there were creases," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin explained. ''The object of the defense is you want to build a wall and put up a front so they don't have anywhere to run. When guys get out of gaps or somebody overplays a run one way or another you have cutback lanes."
Tomlinson had seen the same thing on tape but often he also saw the presence of No. 37, Harrison, making up for some of those defects. Yesterday he was gone for good, and in the second half so was Tomlinson.
''Rodney is a playmaker," Schottenheimer said. ''His absence had nothing to do with the way we went about it [on offense]. We would have gone at it the same way, but maybe with a little less success.
''The loss of Rodney is huge. He's an intimidating presence. That guy back there is a force. I think his absence had to be a significant loss."
Belichick and the Patriots would never concede such a thing, because for them the mantra is always the same. Got to get better. It's 11 men. No one stands above the rest (except Tom Brady of course, as Mike Vrabel conceded last week). Yet the reality is, as Schottenheimer said, every team has a limit to how many bodies it can replace and still be the same.
Yesterday was the most points a Patriot team had given up since the dawning of the Belichick Era. It was, in fact, the most they'd given up since 1998. Only the Tennessee Titans on Dec. 16, 2002 ever manhandled a Belichick Patriot team the way the Chargers did yesterday, dominating the line of scrimmage and running over them with an attack so powerful they held the ball for nearly a quarter longer than New England and put together a mind-numbing 15-play, 72-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter that lasted eight minutes and 55 seconds and for all intents and purposes sealed the Patriots' fate.
So where do the Patriots go from here? They go to Atlanta, where Michael Vick is limping with a sprained knee, a Johnson & Johnson problem the Falcons have to deal with. But Atlanta also has a physical defense that will try to maul and mesmerize rookie offensive linemen Kaczur and Mankins and an offense that will try to exploit the inexperience of Harrison's replacement, Scott, and that of Brown and Beisel at inside linebacker.
They will try to go after their corners, who are not Ty Law and Tyrone Poole but rather Asante Samuel and Duane Starks, and sometimes Chad Scott, all of whom got singed a bit by San Diego.
They will show them no mercy, as San Diego refused to, having grown weary of the Patriots' dominance. When a talented team is wounded there is no sympathy for it, no helping hand, no moment of compassion. There is only the feelings shared by Chargers left tackle Roman Oben.
''Fifty-three guys make up a team," Oben said. ''Nobody felt sorry for us the first week when [tight end Antonio] Gates was out. I don't know how much of a factor Harrison being out was because you say you can take advantage of a guy but you really can't.
''I won a Super Bowl with Tampa and the next year our team got hurt and nobody felt sorry for us. I got a ring. They got three rings. Everybody wants what those guys have."
What ''those guys" have at the moment is a depleted team that is less than it was a week ago and less than it was a year ago. What Belichick can do about that remains to be seen, but Chargers wide receiver Keenan McCardell knows what's missing.
''I understand what they're going through," McCardell said. ''It's tough to get your chemistry right. Right now their chemistry is just a little bit off. They're not sure if the guy next to them is going to do his job or not.
''You miss the presence of a guy like Rodney Harrison. He was a key part of what they did. You miss that dominance. You miss the tone-setter. Right now they're looking for that guy."
And a few more like him as well.