By Mary Paoletti
FOXBORO -- The Patriots aren't taking time to reflect on 2010's accomplishments. Not yet. Even fitted with the AFC East Championship belt, they're locked into Week 17 and focused on one last regular-season game. Such mental toughness is The Patriot Way, but to see it in action is impressive for such a young team.
It comes down to leadership.
New England selected team captains in September: Kevin Faulk, Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. When Faulk was placed on the injured-reserve list just weeks later because of a torn ACL, tight end Alge Crumpler was called upon to bolster on-field support. With the exception of Mayo, who's in his third year, all have at least seven seasons of NFL experience. They're showing the way to a team with 22 first- and second-year players on the roster, many of whom have key on-field roles.
Coach Bill Belichick believes this crew of captains has a lot to do with the Patriots' success.
"I think all four of those guys five including Kevin have done a real good job this year both by example, particularly by example, but also in their overall leadership of the team," he said. "I meet with those guys on a weekly basis and they certainly provide a lot of insight and input for me in terms of helping me manage and deal with the team. I think theyve done an excellent job.''
The group meets with Belichick at the end of each week, and also on an as-needed basis. They talk to him individually, and they talk to each other.
What about? A more apt question would be what don't they talk about?
"They meet in the mornings and talk about everything,'' said running back Sammy Morris, an 11-year veteran. "Even keeping things clean in the locker room -- the showers and stuff -- so the cleaning staff doesn't have to take care of it all. It's everything. It's about intensity at practice and attention to our lines. Captaincy is really an extension of our coach."
That line of communication, the one that runs to and from Belichick, is particularly important.
"They have some input with Bill on how we're feeling,'' linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "They kind of speak for us in the sense of what the team's going through, how we're feeling, and some of the things that are going on in the locker room. They have a voice for us."
None of the Patriots captains wear a 'C' on their jerseys, as some teams do in the NFL. On Wednesday, Belichick joked that he "forgot" to put the patches on. It's probably just as well. The players give the impression that titles are an honor, and that guidance comes from everywhere.
"I think we have a lot of people that could be captains that aren't,'' Morris noted. "The leaders that we do have . . . their play speaks for itself. Just the type of people that they are. All the guys look up to them, the veterans and young guys.''
Deion Branch is one of those unofficial resources. Though the wideout has only been with the 2010 Patriots since Week 6, he's fallen back into mentoring because of his time in New England from 2002-05. Experience is precious to this team, especially as the regular season wraps up.
"Me, Tom, Vince Wilfork, Gerard Warren; we fall in that role now," Branch said. "It's making sure we get across to the younger guys the importance of going out and taking this game, taking advantage of the opportunity we have right now. We've got a very important week this week.
"People are talking about, 'Hey, we've got this clinched and that clinched,' but that stuff is irrelevant right now. We still have a very important game this week against the Dolphins. We've also got to keep the momentum that we have going into the postseason."
Pressure to keep the team grounded is ratcheted up with the NFL playoffs looming on the other side of Sunday. The Patriots use 10 rookies. Add in players with just two years of prior NFL experience, and that makes 22 first- and second-year players. That's over 40 percent of the roster.
Its a good thing theyve got Brady.
"Tom, of course, is the biggest leader on the team," Ninkovich said. "He's a great guy to look up to. Me being a younger guy and watching him play when I was a kid, it's kind of surreal to be his teammate. But it's cool because you interact with him and he's a great guy, a good leader."
This is Brady's ninth season as a Patriots captain. A lot has changed since 2002, his first year as captain. The quarterback did add two Super Bowl titles since then, but only five players -- Branch, Dan Koppen, Matt Light, Wilfork, and Tully Banta-Cain -- are left from the Pats' last championship team in 2004 (not counting Faulk, Ty Warren and Stephen Neal, all of whom are on IR).
Branch said the personnel changes have affected Bradys style.
"When I was here earlier we had more of a veteran team," the receiver said. "He didn't have to force his will as much as you could say he's doing now, due to the age gap that we have. It's more younger guys than it was in the past. And rightfully so, he deserves to be that way.
"He could have done it back then but he didn't have to with those guys: Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Mike Vrabel, Ted Washington, Ted Johnson . . . It's a whole list of guys that we don't have here now."
This season has showcased a louder, more fiery QB. Brady makes his passion obvious every week, whether that means bawling someone out about poor play, spiking footballs, or screaming on the sideline. The physical commitment is something Belichick points to as an ideal leadership quality.
"Hes relentless in his preparation, his quest for perfection," the coach said. "He tries to continue to do things better both in preparation and then mechanics, practice habits. So, I think if you just watch him do his job, I think that's about as good an example as a player could set for another player."
The extra effort has to be taxing. But responsibility has a sweet payoff because the fight in these Patriots is the most satisfying thing the captains could ask in return.
Just take a listen to Wilfork. The nose tackle could have been mooning over his Pro Bowl selection on Wednesday. Instead, he spent most of his press conference talking about the pride he has in his teammates and the work left to be done.
Thing is, he knows they'll put in the effort. Every single one of them.
"You have a bunch of guys that give it their all. You have a bunch of guys that love this game. You have a bunch of guys that respect one another, that have trust with one another on this field. I think guys study their tails off. They work hard every day.
"They just keep grinding and thats the special thing about this team is that no matter what happens, we find a way to keep going forward, keep going forward," Wilfork added. "So, were going to need to continue that, especially this week."
To those on the outside, itll be amazing if this young New England team continues its run at the Super Bowl. But the Patriots couldnt care less about that. In their locker room, the only concern is for meeting the lofty standards set and expected by each other. Ninkovich said it's simple, really. Success comes from following the leaders.
"Our captains are basically just the definition of our team: Good, smart football players."