NEW YORK -- A year ago, the New England Patriots made a rare big-money free agent acquisition, signing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin to a $30 million deal.
Colvin was lost for the season in the Patriots' second game, but New England still went on to win the Super Bowl with a team that lacked star power, but had perfect chemistry.
The Patriots are unlikely to make a major splash in free agency when it starts Wednesday. Neither are a number of other teams - emulating the champion is the standard in the NFL.
"Football is the ultimate team sport. No matter how many 'stars' you have, you're not going to win games without team chemistry," Robert Kraft, the team's owner, said this week.
"Bill Belichick manages a roster like a stock portfolio. He's always trying to upgrade the bottom of a roster, like you try to upgrade your bottom five or six stocks."
Even with the salary cap at $80.6 million, about $1.5 million more than expected, this looks like a season of selective signings.
There are some big-name free agents: Warren Sapp and Jevon Kearse, to name two. Terrell Owens, who was supposed to be a free agent, is off the market for now because his agent didn't file papers on time that would have voided the last three years of his contract.
All carry baggage: age and declining skills with Sapp; an injury history with Kearse; and an Owens' attitude, which has turned off teammates, coaches, opponents and the league.
On the other hand, agents know it takes only one team to make a market. For the past five years that team has been Washington, which is likely to be aggressive again, perhaps as early as 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
Still, even with Joe Gibbs back as coach, the Skins are the anti-Patriots.
Since Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999, he has treated them like a fantasy league franchise, spending big money on fading veterans Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Jessie Armstead; young stars like Laveranues Coles; and big-name coaches Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and now Gibbs.
The result? A 38-42 record and one playoff appearance, in Snyder's first year.
That philosophy doesn't seem to have changed, even with the arrival of Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with the Skins from 1981-92. Washington already has agreed to a deal to acquire veteran quarterback Mark Brunell from Jacksonville. Another that would send four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round draft pick to Denver for running back Clinton Portis is close.
"We've got everything laid out," says Gibbs, who didn't have free agency to deal with in his first stint in Washington. "We pretty much know what we're going to do. We know exactly what the numbers are of the people we're going to try and get."
Other teams are more cautious.
"We've had this system for a decade and we should know the pitfalls by now," Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian says. "Big money for big-name players in decline is not the way to go"
Polian has a huge salary cap problem because he was forced to make quarterback Peyton Manning, last year's co-MVP, the Colts' franchise player. Unless a long-term deal can be worked out, that guarantees Manning $18.4 million next season, 22.5 percent of the team's cap. If that holds, the Colts won't be able to sign much-needed defensive help at anything but bargain basement prices.
So reuniting Sapp with Tony Dungy, his coach in Tampa, is practically out of the question, even though Sapp could be a major addition to Indy's shaky defensive line.
Then there's Kearse.
He was an instant sensation in 1999, setting a rookie record with 14 1/2 sacks, earning the nickname "The Freak" and helping Tennessee get to the Super Bowl. But he has played only 18 of a possible 32 games the past two seasons, hampered by foot injuries.
"I'm not sure what the market holds," said Titans general manager Floyd Reese, who declined to protect Kearse with the franchise tag. "We'll let the market seek its own level."
That level may be too much for the Titans, an estimated $16 million over the cap. But most teams are at or below it, which will allow the most aggressive agents to use their best marketing skills.
Agents know the buyers. Kearse is represented by Drew Rosenhaus, who persuaded the Buffalo Bills to use their first-round pick last season on a more seriously injured player, running back Willis McGahee.
So look for Rosenhaus to turn to Washington. Snyder loves big names and needs defense.
Still, the New England approach seems more logical - similar to the approach used by Carolina, which made it to the Super Bowl last season, two years after finishing 1-15.
The Panthers added two important free agents in 2003, but neither was a conventional signing.
One was running back Stephen Davis, released by Washington (wouldn't Gibbs like him now?). The other was quarterback Jake Delhomme, who languished as a backup for six years in New Orleans, came for a low QB salary of $4 million for two years, and became a solid starter.
But the core came via the draft: defensive linemen Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker; linebackers Dan Morgan and Will Witherspoon; and promising cornerback Ricky Manning Jr.
Same for New England, which got important production from six rookies last season, including two starters, safety Eugene Wilson and center Dan Koppen.
The Patriots' offseason priority is restructuring the contract of cornerback Ty Law, one of the game's best, although their philosophy would allow them to let Law go if he doesn't redo his deal. Last year, they parted with safeties Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones, and filled their spots with Wilson and Rodney Harrison after he was cut by the Chargers.
Starting left guard Damien Woody also is a free agent. But Woody missed the AFC title game and Super Bowl with a knee injury, and the Patriots plugged in journeyman Russ Hochstein with no apparent falloff.
"That's the real secret to free agency," Polian says. "Find the right role players and have Bill Belichick as your coach."
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