Building Team Chemistry

Robert Kraft understands that it takes leaders to build a successful organization. What he didn't see in last season's wildcard loss to the Ravens is directly related to that issue. New England's focus in 2010 appears to be to rebuild some of the chemistry which was lost when the team leaders all moved on.

From returning veterans and budding young players to New England's owner himself, one of the overwhelming topics of discussion this offseason has been the need for increased leadership and improved team chemistry.

Asked at last month's NFL meetings about his team's chemistry in 2009, owner Robert Kraft reflected upon New England's embarrassing wild card loss to the Ravens in his quite candid response.

"I just speak for myself. I think the chemistry of the team, the locker room, a lot of games are won and lost before you hit the field," Kraft said. "To come out and start a game the way we played a playoff game in our stadium, that should never happen. It was really one of the most frustrating moments I've had since owning the franchise.

"You talk about sudden death. That was like in the first five minutes. I don't ever remember us being in a game and having things go that way and us appearing to be so non-competitive in the 16 years I've owned the team. I can assure you I've heard from some fans, but I felt exactly what they felt. It was such an empty feeling."

He might be speaking only for himself, but Kraft's words clearly carry a good bit of weight.

The fact that there was a void in the locker room last season probably should not have been a surprise for a team that parted ways with key veterans, mostly on defense, including Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel. For years New England's success on the field had a lot to do with the theory that if one guy went down with an injury, another guy stepped in. That theory didn't seem to hold true in the locker room in 2009.

"The leaders we had (before 2009) were older guys and they're not here anymore, but now you start to see younger guys becoming leaders," Vince Wilfork said shortly after signing his five-year, $40-million extension. "We have guys in this locker room that know what it takes to win and you've just got to trust to it. We as players and as leaders on the team, we have to ask more of ourselves and we have to ask more out of our players, point blank."

Two guys who'll seemingly have more asked of them in terms of leadership are Wilfork and fellow returning defensive captain Jerod Mayo.

Theoretically Wilfork now has the stability of a long-term contract while Mayo enters his third season with more experience and leadership confidence under his belt.

"I think I can definitely step my game up as far as being a vocal leader on this team," said Mayo.

"Last year, I still was a second-year player. I still tried to lead by example, but this year I think losing guys like Junior (Seau) and Tedy Bruschi, even though that was a couple of years ago, I think it was a void as far as having that vocal guy on this team in general.

"I think this year is the year when guys can really step up and say what they have to say. It's a young team as a whole and the young guys will listen."

While Mayo works this offseason with his teammates to get stronger, faster and better physically throughout the offseason program, he'll also be working to hone vocal leadership skills that he admits don't necessarily come naturally.

"It's a thin line between phony rah-rah speeches and genuine speeches that guys like Junior can do easily," Mayo said. "I have to find that line and hopefully get that point across."

Wilfork's point seems pretty simple - you're either aligned with him in getting New England back to playing true Patriots football. Or you're not.

"We're going to have to start in the offseason training. Everybody has to be accountable," Wilfork said. "When you are on the field you have to give it 100 percent. The only way - you've got to weed out the bad seeds, point blank.

"If something is wrong, we have to address it. We can't let it go on. We have to address it and get it better and people have to realize that we're trying to get somewhere. It's nothing personal. If you don't want to win, you don't have to be here, point blank. So if you want to win, this is how we're going to have to do it. You've got to be the believer and you've got to go forward and you might have to do a little something extra."

The first step toward fixing a problem is admitting you have one. The Patriots are on the way to recovering from a lack of chemistry and leadership that hindered the 2009 team. Now, it is entering the long team-building process toward ensuring that the issue doesn't pop up again this coming fall.

"The level of leadership, the level of consistency and the level of trust, we have to raise it because we have to start this thing up the right way," Wilfork stressed. "I think we can all get off on a good start if we can establish that level of trust from the get go and that starts with competing in the offseason. I think last year we just got beat sometimes because we weren't competitive enough, point blank. That's going to change."

Preseason Schedule
--New England released its 2010 preseason schedule on March 31. The four game slate opens Aug. 12 with a visit from the Super Bowl champion Saints. The following week the Patriots travel to Atlanta for an Aug. 19 meeting with the Falcons. The supposedly regular-season like third preseason game has the St. Louis Rams traveling to Gillette Stadium on Aug. 26. New England then closes out the preseason with a trip take on the Giants at the team's brand new Meadowland's Stadium, with the exact time and date of that game up in the air other than the fact that it will take place between Sept. 2 and Sept. 5.

UConn Do It
--UConn's women's basketball team is on a record-breaking run toward another NCAA title. As he so often does in his relationship with other high level coaches in a variety of sports, Belichick has a relationship with Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. Belichick apparently calls Auriemma occasionally, recently discussing UConn's incredible winning streak.

"I'll hear from him telling me, 'You guys are unbelievable. You continue to raise the bar. You guys are amazing,'" Auriemma told The Day newspaper in New London. "I think people that have done great things, they appreciate how hard it is to do.

"They appreciate how hard it is for kids to play this hard all the time and compete and try to get it right all the time. To see it being done the way it's being done by these particular players is just, I think anybody who appreciates that kind of stuff, is really taken by it."

The Lady Huskies take on the Standord Cardinal in the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship Tues night.

A second Career For Meriweather?
--Pro Bowl S Brandon Meriweather appeared at a Harlem Globetrotters' game in Providence March 27, somewhat fulfilling a boyhood dream of playing for the team. Meriweather appeared at halftime for a football themed show in his Patriots uniform, joined by a trio of Globetrotters wearing Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas jerseys.

"I actually wanted to do it then, but I realized I wasn't that creative," Meriweather said of his boyhood hoop dreams. "That was my earliest memory of the Globetrotters. Ever since then, I've always wanted to come to their shows, but I never had a chance to."

QUOTE TO NOTE: ""Whoever passes up on me, it's over with. I feel like I'm going through the same situation Randy Moss did. That man had issues and teams were passing up on him, and when he got on that field, he killed them. He murdered them. Look at him today: One of the best players in the NFL." -- Oklahoma State WR prospect Dez Bryant on his seemingly falling draft status, comparing it to Moss slipping to the Vikings at the No. 21 pick in 1998.

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