Big game of no big names

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2004

HOUSTON The media mass was six deep straining to hear the words of New England quarterback Tom Brady, one of the few recognizable faces in this otherwise faceless Super Bowl.

Not far away, sitting alone at a table and reading a newspaper, was teammate Richard Seymour, an All-Pro defensive tackle and probably the Patriots' best player.

On Sunday, it is very possible Seymour will have more impact on who wins the NFL championship than any other Patriot. On Thursday, though, he was hardly an attraction.

The same can be said for many of his teammates and most of the Carolina Panthers.

Most casual football fans will have no idea who they're watching on TV. Hey, even the stars on these teams barely sparkle compared to the Sapps and Keyshawns and Rices and Woodsons who populated last year's Super Bowl.

''I listen to some of the stuff on TV and it says, 'This team doesn't have a lot of superstars, but they have a lot of good players,'' said the Patriots' Willie McGinest, a Pro Bowl end/linebacker. ''I don't understand what qualifies as a superstar. We have a Super Bowl MVP on our team. We have guys going to the Pro Bowl. We have guys that have been playing well. What's a superstar if you can't go to the big game?''

Rarely have two conference champions been more team-oriented than the Patriots and Panthers.

''Guys can self-promote all they want,'' McGinest said. ''If they're at home at the end of the season watching, what good is that? We're all about team here. Maybe the team concept isn't that popular in the league, but it works for us.''

Sure does. The Patriots are just the second team to win 14 straight games in one season, joining the undefeated 1972 Dolphins. Yet only Seymour and Rodney Harrison are All-Pros. They didn't have a rusher in the top dozen of the AFC, or a receiver in the top 20. Their top sack man, Mike Vrabel, wasn't in the top 15 in the league.

No big-time stats means few headlines. At least the Patriots, having won the championship just two years ago have something of a nationwide following.

The Panthers, who toil in the heart of NASCAR country, are often overlooked in their own state. Being just down Tobacco Road from Carolina's college basketball mecca doesn't help, either. Not only are they surprise qualifiers for the Super Bowl, they come to the game with nothing resembling a Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Mike Krzyzewski to attract attention.

''These guys might not have big names,'' said defensive end Mike Rucker, one of the NFL's best (and least known) pass rushers, ''but if you work hard and succeed, people will begin to recognize you. If you win a Super Bowl, everybody gets recognized.''

Well, not quite. The Patriots are living proof of that.

Not that they care. Self-promotion is as taboo as open practices in New England, and that's the way this group likes it.

So Seymour can digest an entire tabloid in peace and quiet during a media session, only occasionally being interrupted to answer a query.

''I tell you what, the more we win, the more we'll get in the national spotlight,'' he said. ''More people will want to know who the Patriots are. Winning takes care of that.''

For now, though, the ''Who's that?'' quotient is off the charts. While the likes of Jordan Gross, Dan Morgan, Deon Grant and DeShaun Foster easily could be difference-makers Sunday, how many viewers will know anything about them? How many will be able to tell the difference between those Panthers and Matt Light, Tedy Bruschi, Tyrone Poole and Antowain Smith of the Patriots?

No big deal, Carolina safety Grant claims.

''When you're a champion,'' he said, ''it doesn't matter if they know your name, only that you're wearing that ring.''

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