A few years ago, Bill Belichick was asked how an undrafted free agent cornerback named Randall Gay had performed so well in the NFL when he wasn't even a starter at LSU.
``We thought he was pretty good in college,'' Belichick replied. ``He was just behind a guy who will be a first-round draft pick.
The guy Gay was behind turned out to be a second-rounder: Corey Webster, who's currently struggling in the New York Giants' overwhelmed secondary. Meanwhile, Gay starts for a team that two weeks into the season has folks uttering the ``U'' word, as in unbeaten.
Belichick's secret to success is not spying. Almost every team in the NFL does that in some form. He just happened to get caught using a method banned by the league.
The Patriots have stayed at the top of the NFL for most of this century because they understand how to put together a team of players to fill specific roles and keep finding unheralded role players such as Gay. Yes, they got Randy Moss this season because he came cheap and still has most of his awesome ability, but Belichick also loves Moss' new running mate, Wes Welker. The one-time San Diego Chargers castoff and former Miami Dolphins receiver already has 14 catches in the team's two 38-14 wins.
Welker, Gay and starting guard Stephen Neal, a one-time college wrestler whom Belichick kept around for a couple of years to teach the fundamentals of offensive line play, are important not only because they can play. They're also good players who are relatively cheap, allowing the Patriots to splurge every so often on stars who fit their schemes, as they did last spring on Moss and linebacker Adalius Thomas.
Beyond that, almost all of the Patriots are players who can do a lot of things. In Baltimore, Thomas lined up at inside linebacker, outside linebacker, safety and defensive end.
``A lot of times, a player has a lot of versatility. That's really what their strength is and what their role is,'' Belichick said during an unusually candid session in training camp two years ago in which he explained his personnel philosophy.
``If you put them in one particular spot, you might have a guy that's better at that one thing than they are. But when you look at the player's versatility, his intelligence, his physical skills, his ability to adapt to different situations, he just has so much value on a broad base, that's really more valuable to your team than a guy who's better at one individual position.''
Think of it another way.
A lot of people credit the trade that brought Moss to the Patriots for almost nothing - a fourth-round pick - for the obvious improvement in the New England offense.
Yes, Moss has made a huge difference with 17 catches for a 16.9-yard average and three touchdowns in two games. But typically, Belichick refuses to talk about him as a special player.
Hence this answer to questions about Moss this week:
``Randy and I have talked quite a bit. We've talked football. I have a lot of conversations with the players. Those are player-coach conversations and we keep those between the player and the coach. ... We talk about things that are important. That's the way it is with all of the players.''
What Belichick is saying is that all Patriots are created equal.
True enough.
The spying controversy and the fact New England has two big wins has overshadowed that the Patriots are without two of their best defensive players: lineman Richard Seymour, out for at least the first six games with what is purported to be a knee injury (Belichick doesn't talk about those things), and strong safety Rodney Harrison, suspended for the first four games for a substance abuse violation, reported to be human growth hormone.
Both are being replaced by typical Belichick-era Patriots.
Seymour's spot has been filled by Jarvis Green, a fourth-round draft choice in 2002 whom the Pats have used as a pass-rushing specialist (18 1/2 sacks in five seasons). But he also can play the run and has filled in for Seymour and Ty Warren regularly. Harrison has been replaced by James Sanders, taken in the fourth round in 2005. He was worked in as the dime back and is considered Harrison's eventual replacement.
This year's new role player is Welker, whom Belichick spotted on Oct. 10, 2004, after he signed with Miami following his release by San Diego. A pregame injury to kicker Olindo Mare forced Welker into service against the Patriots in Foxborough and he ended up kicking a 29-yard field goal and an extra point in a 21-10 loss.
He also returned five kickoffs in that game, exhibiting the kind of versatility Belichick likes. After Welker caught 67 passes to lead the Dolphins last season, Belichick signed him as a restricted free agent and ended up giving up second- and seventh-round draft picks after Miami hinted it would match the offer.
Green, Sanders, Gay, Neal and other Patriots are the products of a personnel policy that ranks prospects less on raw talent and more on how they fit New England. The team also gets rid of disappointments as soon as they demonstrate they can't play. Most other teams keep draft picks, especially high ones, because they don't want to acknowledge publicly that they made a mistake.
All of this has been obscured by the $500,000 fine on Belichick and the $250,000 on the team for using a videocamera to tape the New York Jets' signals from the field during the season-opening game at the Meadowlands.
That's set off rumbling from teams the Patriots beat in Super Bowls and championship games that somehow New England got its rings from cheating - a bunch of players suggesting that somehow the Patriots knew their offensive plays and defensive schemes.
Hey, every coach looks for any advantage he can get. Jimmy Johnson recounted during the Fox pregame show last week how he used to have interns go through the garbage in the press box booths used by opposing coaches. His assumption: tossed-out game plans and scouting notes could prove useful at some point.
Belichick's mistake, an uncharacteristic one, was to do what he did so openly against a team coached by a former assistant, who then broke an unwritten NFL coaching rule: ``Thou shall not rat out the opposition.''
The truth: Belichick's team is good enough that he doesn't need to spy.
At the current pace, that could mean 16 wins. All 38-14.
DIRTY DOZEN: The top six and bottom six teams based on current level of play:
1. New England (2-0). The schedule isn't too hard, but the Patriots WILL lose. Everyone does. Maybe on Nov. 4 in ...
2. Indianapolis (2-0). Don't be fooled by the close call in Tennessee. The Colts lost there last season and still won the Super Bowl.
3. Pittsburgh (2-0). After a year off, the refreshed Steelers are back.
4. Chicago (1-1). The Bears will never be mistaken for a pretty team, but in the NFC they don't have to be.
5. San Diego (1-1). The Chargers get one more week to look impressive. It may be hard in ...
6. Green Bay (2-0). Old Brett Favre looked like young Brett last week.

27. Cincinnati (1-1). Not good when you score 45 points against a bad team and lose.
28. New York Giants (0-2). See Bengals. Take the over every week with both.
29. Buffalo (0-2). Understandably preoccupied with Kevin Everett. But not much talent there.
30. Kansas City (0-2). Dull. Dull. Dull.
31. Oakland (0-2). There's some life, but it will take a while.
32. Atlanta (0-2). Immobile Byron Leftwich isn't the answer in an offense built for Michael Vick.

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