<
>

Can Bill Belichick hear clock ticking?

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick ...

It is the New England Patriots' cadence, their own version of Shakespearean iambic pentameter.

They open their season on Sunday in Miami, and the American football world watches and wonders when their championship window will clamp shut -- even as some detractors suggest it already has slammed down on coach Bill Belichick's sticky fingers. That's the sort of narrative that bubbles to the surface when you haven't won a title in nearly a decade.

Some Patriots patterns are as predictable as Belichick's monosyllabic "news" conferences: They will dominate the hapless AFC East and will host a first-round playoff game (preferably on a Saturday night in a driving blizzard, if the influential Kraft family has its way with the television committee).

But then what? The past two seasons, New England has been dispatched in the AFC Championship Game. The season before that, it lost in the Super Bowl. For most franchises, that would be an encouraging trend. Not this one. Futility has replaced winning as a postseason habit and it's sticking in the craw of the holy trinity of the coach, the quarterback and the owner.

The clock is ticking on the Belichick dynasty, on the health (and welfare) of Rob Gronkowski and on the career of quarterback Tom Brady, who has come to embody the electric run of three championships in four seasons as well as the maddening frustration of having two additional Super Bowl trophies slip through his grasp.

Brady turned 37 in August, but don't count me among those who fret over his immediate staying power. Brady already has identified the most critical components of achieving peak performance as he ages: a modified lifestyle, a carefully constructed nutritional approach and a regimented year-round conditioning program. Athleticism has never been Brady's thing anyway, so if he's a step slower, will anyone really notice?

Plus, the NFL has gone to great pains to assure those in its glamour position remain upright most of the time, so we can assume Brady, Peyton Manning and the rest of the glittery QBs will be provided better protection than Flo flaunts in her Progressive ads.

Here's another reason Tom Brady won't be the next Logan Mankins: His contract is expertly tailored to tail off as his years advance. Brady's salary will be $7 million next season, $8 million in 2016 and $9 million in 2017, with cap hits of $13 million, $14 million and $15 million.

It's hard to imagine anyone will be screeching that he is overpaid at 40, especially when you consider Matt Ryan's contract averages $20.75 million a year.

And yet, even a reflective Brady acknowledges the end often comes abruptly, without notice, and the impetus is on him to play like there's no tomorrow.

It appeared the Patriots shared his sense of urgency when they inked Darrelle Revis to a lucrative deal. It simply can't be overstated what effect Revis will have on the secondary and the defense as a whole. It's not just his skill level; it's the intangibles. He is an elite player who behaves like a journeyman fighting for his job. If you want some insight on Revis' leadership, I recommend Nicholas Dawidoff's fascinating book "Collision Low Crossers,'' which details the turbulent 2011 season of the New York Jets and clearly identifies Revis as the shining light of the organization.

The Revis signing was a no-brainer; bringing on Brandon Browner was a little more complicated. Browner will start the season on the sideline because of a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Four games is a quarter of an NFL season, but the Patriots blithely looked past that with an eye toward January, when it all matters most.

The additions of Revis and Browner, combined with a healthy Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo and the continued development of young upstarts Devin McCourty and Chandler Jones, gave off the vibe of a team ready to go for it this season.

That was before Mankins' invitation to the party was ripped up into tiny little pieces. The heart and soul of the offensive line was approached about taking a pay cut and refused to play along. He had to know then that his days were numbered.

Belichick previously has exhibited the moxie to cut ties with high-level players before they start to lose value. The release of Lawyer Milloy and the trade of Richard Seymour have been cited repeatedly in the days since Mankins' shocking trade, but there's another player who fit that bill -- linebacker Mike Vrabel.

Vrabel had a year left on his contract in 2009 when he asked the Patriots to redo his deal. Within weeks, he was shipped to Kansas City. The trade sent shock waves through the New England locker room. Not only was Vrabel a team leader, he was a Belichick favorite. Chances are, if he hadn't asked for a new contract, he wouldn't have been dealt.

The linebacker was so hurt and angry that he didn't speak to Belichick for almost two years. Vrabel told me he later had a "revelation" that Belichick, by sending him to another city in his declining years, preserved Vrabel's reputation in New England. He made amends with his former coach and declared in 2012, "We're more than fine now."

It's too soon to guess whether Mankins will ever feel the same way. In the meantime, we will intently follow the money saved by Mankins' departure -- a McCourty extension, perhaps, or maybe an extended run for Revis, who, you can be sure, will not be offering any discounts.

In the long term, the Mankins trade might have merit, but in the short term it did not make New England better, not on the field or in the locker room. Just ask Brady, who clearly was crushed by his departure.

If the Patriots are experiencing the urgency to win it all now, it begs the question of why they would quibble over a couple of million dollars for a player who has been everything you could have possibly wanted. Mankins, remember, is the guy who played the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL. You'd think a player like that would be worth it.

Yet this is how Belichick rolls. He is all business, no sentiment, a man fixated on the bottom line.

You can clamor all you want for the Patriots to make a run at Andre Johnson, but that's not New England's blueprint. Aside from Randy Moss, Brady has been asked to make do with talented, serviceable, affordable receivers.

That's because Belichick's championships have been predicated on defense.

He will bank on Revis and McCourty and Browner and Wilfork and Mayo and Jones and Rob Ninkovich.

The question is whether that group can prove to be as stout as the Seattle Seahawks or the San Francisco 49ers in February, because last time I checked, that's all that matters around here. The sustained excellence is impressive, admirable, even, but unless New England wins it all, it will go home deeply disappointed.

The championship drought has raised questions among New England's former players and coaches, some of whom lament the decision to move away from "character" players who provided passion, toughness and discipline in the locker room. They feel veering from that core philosophy has hurt the team's mission.

Perhaps. Certainly those qualities have merit, but if David Tyree didn't have stick 'em on his helmet in 2008, if Wes Welker and Brady had connected on a critical pass in 2012, that conversation would be moot.

So would the specter of Spygate, which hangs over the Patriots like Banquo's ghost. Until they hoist the Lombardi Trophy again, the Patriots have no answer to those who say they haven't won since their cheating ways were exposed. It is infuriating to the players, but that's Belichick's cross to bear.

The Patriots are not favored to be Super Bowl champions in 2015. There are five teams (Seahawks, Broncos, Niners, Packers, Saints) with better odds, but Brady and the boys certainly will be in the mix.

They usually are. But the clock is ticking, louder and more insistent than ever.

You wonder if the coach can hear it.