Patriots, Panthers put team ahead of egos

Posted: Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Even ardent football fans would have trouble naming more than five players between the two Super Bowl teams.

Which makes several points about the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers, as well as about the NFL and America's biggest day for drinking beer and munching chips.

First, superstars are overrated when it comes to winning. Teamwork and coaching matter more.

Look up and down the rosters of the Patriots and Panthers and there is not a player about whom anyone would say with any certainty: He is a future Hall of Famer.

Each team has plenty of talent. Some players, like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and cornerback Ty Law and Panthers' defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins, already are among the best in the league and may develop into some of the game's greats.

What these teams lack in luminaries at the moment, they make up for in harmony and execution. They are brilliantly coached, gritty enough to win close games, and careful not to make a lot of dumb mistakes.

Indianapolis had co-MVP Peyton Manning and Philadelphia had Donovan McNabb, but in the conference championship games Sunday both star quarterbacks were neutralized by rugged defenses and the stone hands of their receivers.

The Patriots and Panthers performed as finely meshed teams, without a lot of clashing egos. In that sense, they have something in common with the winners of the World Series the past two years, the unheralded Florida Marlins and Anaheim Angels, who toppled star-studded teams and won over a lot of fans on the way to the championship.

Second, the NFL has changed after more than a decade of salary caps and free agency. It took a while for most teams to figure out how to finagle contracts to stay under the cap, but by the end of the '90s the changes were producing an endless game of musical chairs, with players going from one city to another.

A few legitimate superstars might sign long-term contracts and stay put, but hardly any team could build consistently on its success and develop a core that would gain national attention.

No longer would there be mini-dynasties, as there were with the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins in the '80s and '90s, or with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins in the '70s. Those teams had players of national renown and defensive or offensive lines with their own nicknames. They stayed together long enough to build an identity.

Going beyond parity, the NFL succeeded in creating a league where anonymity trumped stardom. Truly, nobody was bigger than the game.

It's a testament to the coaching savvy of Bill Belichick that, in this era of rotating players, he has taken the Patriots to the Super Bowl twice in three years. If ever there was evidence that a head coach can be more important than a player, the Patriots proved it after acquiring Belichick four years ago with a compensation package to the New York Jets that included a first-round draft pick.

The flip side of the fall of dominating teams in recent years was the rise of the most ragged losers. Even the lowly Cincinnati Bengals nearly made the playoffs. The new laws of the NFL jungle made it possible for a team like the Panthers, 1-15 two years ago, to make one of the quickest turnarounds in sports history under the guidance of coach John Fox.

Third, the absence of stars on the Patriots and Panthers hardly matters either to the teams or the fans. What might seem on the surface a TV ratings disaster in the Super Bowl may not turn out so bad after all if the game is close, as it figures to be.

''America doesn't want us, but it's going to be a game,'' Carolina defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said Monday. ''Because right now in the NFC, we're the best thing going.''

They are exactly that, and America will settle for whoever shows up Feb. 1 in Houston.

Super Bowl Sunday is America's unofficial holiday, as much a part of the nation's culture as Thanksgiving Day and the Fourth of July. No matter who is in the game, millions of families will gather round their TV sets or join friends and relatives for the annual feast of football. The parties will go on even if the game is a stinker and little more than background noise.

If the ratings for the playoff games the past couple of weeks are any indication, the NFL is on a roll. New England's 24-14 victory over Indianapolis on Sunday got the highest overnight rating of any TV program sports or not since last year's Super Bowl. The NFC championship game between Carolina and Philadelphia wasn't far behind.

The Super Bowl, like the two teams playing in it, has eclipsed the stars.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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