JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They are too close now to appreciate it, like an artist who tries to critique a masterpiece while standing an inch away.
And certainly, what these New England Patriots did will be illuminated – even worth marveling at. History's limelight has a way of doing that. But it's worth remembering that even this spotlight started small.
With a little 40-watt light bulb that Patriots coach Bill Belichick kept burning late into the night.
"I know what I'll remember," said New England defensive end Ty Warren while fiddling with the brim of a Super Bowl champions hat at his locker.
"Every game I have ever played here, every time we have ever gotten onto a plane, I would walk by the coaches sitting up at the front. Always, coach would be there – I mean, every single road game in two years – working on the game with his laptop. Win or lose, he never stopped going or working."
Warren says he would shuffle by Belichick in first class, slip into a seat near the rear of the plane, and watch as the jet slowly went dark one light at a time. But before he closed his eyes, and no matter how late it was, there would always be one bulb left burning. Without fail, the last glint of illumination was always way at the front, hovering over Belichick's head.
"He would be up there clicking on that laptop nonstop until we got back," Warren said. "Guys would all turn out the lights and everybody would be asleep and he's up there doing something. There would always be that light."
Such a small story is why the word "dynasty" is such a shame. It's a label that almost becomes too big – an overwhelming glare that washes out all the little 40-watt light bulbs that delivered these Patriots to where they are. Which, when Sunday came and went, was precisely where most of the football world thought they'd be – winners of three of the last four Super Bowls.
The game plan for New England's 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles was likely pulled from one of Belichick's late-night sessions of tapping his laptop keys like Chopin cranking out a sonata. Even players admitted their admiration for the genius of Belichick, who pulled them together earlier this week to announce he was dumping their 3-4 defensive front – which the Patriots had run all year – in favor of an aggressive 4-3 look he thought would take the Eagles by surprise.
It was a bold move, but one that won't be given its due simply because the world has become used to seeing the Patriots making every adjustment look easy. But when Belichick went to his 4-3 alignment, it allowed him to play linebackers like Rosevelt Colvin, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel essentially as pass-rushing ends and get more linebackers into the action.
"Coach Belichick wanted to get as many of his athletic guys onto the field as he could," Colvin said. "It was brilliant."
"He said he thought it was something (Eagles quarterback Donovan) McNabb wouldn't be totally comfortable with," Warren added, "and he was right."
McNabb passed for 357 yards and three touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions and was beaten up badly. As the game wore on, he seemed to be floating and wasting time, especially when the team was down by 10 points with just over five minutes left. Rather than going into a hurry-up offense, the Eagles continued to huddle, as McNabb operated with little urgency.
"I don't know if he was confused or what," Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said.
On offense, New England was almost equally befuddling. While the Patriots wobbled early against Philadelphia's blitz-heavy schemes, they made crucial adjustments as the game went on. Whether it was going to spread sets that forced middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter into coverage, or baiting the blitz and then throwing screens that tore off chunks of yardage, New England kept the Eagles from playing the bully role they had maximized against Minnesota and Atlanta earlier in the playoffs.
"The man had a plan," defensive end Jarvis Green said of Belichick. "His plans always work, so it's not hard to trust in them."
Once again, the credit glows back to Belichick, who is 10-1 in the playoffs and on Sunday surpassed former mentor Bill Parcells to join the ranks of Joe Gibbs, Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh as the only men to have won at least three Super Bowls. Indeed, Belichick not only built this team and fine-tuned it, but he created it under a man Parcells couldn't work for.
Now Belichick will be credited with out-coaching Philadelphia's staff, which struggled with poor clock management and didn't react when the Patriots adjusted to the blitzing. But the Eagles are only the latest to be outsmarted in a single-game situation. Critics would note that Belichick's staff has two coordinators who will take over their own teams (offensive mind Charlie Weis to Notre Dame and defensive whiz Romeo Crennel to the Cleveland Browns). There is a reason Reid was at a coaching disadvantage.
Now Reid goes back to the repair shop, but he does so with new mental motivations. As for Belichick, he goes back to the light bulbs, which will have to illuminate new motivations and schemes. Not that he'll need the motivation himself. As owner Robert Kraft said of Belichick's mindset this week, "If we had lost this game, it would just be like falling off a cliff."
That doesn't seem a likely option for this franchise. The Patriots show no signs of fading away from being the most dissected team in professional sports. Their status as copy-proof masterpiece is safe, even with every new theory or rationale for its success. If anything, the Patriots' ideologies are too simple to duplicate, too ordinary to be real. Don't stop and don't be afraid to change, but never look back until there are no other directions left to consider.
It's that undefined element in Belichick which sets them apart. Maybe it's easier to describe what Belichick and the Patriots are not – rather than what they are.
"I have something," tight end Christian Fauria said, offering a piece of stolen prose. "I know it by heart.
"It goes like this: Upon the plains of hesitation, lie bleached the bones of millions, who on the threshold of victory, sat to wait – and waiting they died."
Fauria smiles and sticks his index finger up, as if to punctuate his grand discovery.
"That," he says, "is not us."