HOUSTON — HOUSTON - As Scott Pioli came over to the table, he couldn't help but notice all the reporters waiting. The only other people to draw as much attention were New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
"Wow, all of this for me," said Pioli, joking.
Pioli, 36, the Patriots' vice president of player personnel, is a hot commodity. As far as evaluating talent, he is at the top of the game along with Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.
But Pioli is on the verge of something big. The Patriots actually could win their second Super Bowl title in three years in a league that is designed for competitive balance.
Can there be a dynasty in the era of the salary cap?
"There are a lot of ways to do it," Pioli said about staying on top. "We haven't shown that we have the answer yet, but I think maybe we're on a track to start showing it. Football is the ultimate team sport. We believe that. Individuals go to Pro Bowls, and teams win championships."
You have to like where the Patriots are headed. They've got the league's best coach in Belichick, proven offensive and defensive systems, a young quarterback in Brady, a solid core of veterans and enough salary cap room to restructure any of their major contracts.
They may have had the best 2003 draft class in the NFL with defensive backs Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel, defensive linemen Ty Warren and Dan Klecko and receiver/returner Bethel Johnson. In April, the Patriots have five picks in the first three rounds of the draft, and seven in the first four.
And of course, New England has Pioli.
"He is outstanding at what he does, and I would say he's one of my best friends," Belichick said of Pioli, the Ravens' former director of pro personnel. "It's always been a team effort here. Without him, we wouldn't have had as much success. He brings a lot to the table."
Pioli can't stop studying film. Even when the VCR is off, the tape is still playing in his mind. He has a great recollection of facts and figures. He might still be able to name the starting defensive tackle on C.W. Post's 1977 team.
When the doors are closed at the team's training facility, two sets of lights are still on. One belongs to Belichick, the other to Pioli. He learned the work ethic from his father, Ronald, who installed telephone lines in corporate offices.
But don't get the impression Pioli is all business. He calls himself a former knucklehead, the Class Clown of the 1983 class at Washingtonville (N.Y.) High. You might catch him and Belichick at a Bon Jovi concert. Loyalty to high school and childhood friends is a trademark.
Pioli hooked up three college teammates with Super Bowl tickets and hotel rooms. When his high school coach, Frank Green, was eased out of a job, Pioli organized a big dinner to honor him and raised money to build a weight room. Green played a huge role in getting Pioli into Central Connecticut State, where he was a defensive lineman.
"Scott is a man of integrity," said Patriots defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant. "He does things differently. He will look you in the eye and tell you the truth. He will treat you like he wants to be treated. He will surround himself with good people, not just good football people, but quality individuals."
Players have to make a certain number of public appearances. It's in their contracts. There won't be a lot of Patriots on the Boston police blotter. When offensive lineman Kenyatta Jones was accused of dumping scalding water on a teammate earlier in the season, he was cut two days later.
The Patriots are the embodiment of the team concept. Only two players made the Pro Bowl team, defensive lineman Richard Seymour and cornerback Ty Law. In contrast, the Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs each had eight. But which team is in Houston?
Brady is the team's most notable player, and even he hasn't claimed star status yet. Why?
It's the systems. Brady is nothing more than the best of the clock-management quarterbacks who dominate the league. Most of his passes are short, which complements the Patriots' running game. Defensively, the Patriots wall every thing up front with their defensive line but cause confusion with a lot of looks and blitzes from the back seven.
Because of various injuries this season, the Patriots have gone through 42 different starters, but a lot of them have a history with Belichick or Pioli. Some didn't, like strong safety Rodney Harrison, who may have been the free-agent acquisition in football this season, or cornerback Tyrone Poole, who knocked down 21 passes this season.
"Our model and our system is the right thing for us because philosophically we believe you have to build an organization that fits the attitudes and personalities of the people who are in the leadership group," Pioli said. "There is no player bigger than the team, there is no coach bigger than the team. It's the same type of team we set up in 2001.
"For us to bring a player into the system that we know won't have a chance to succeed, we're setting everyone up for failure. We want players who are tough, physical, strong, smart and have a passion for the game. I've known Bill for a long time and I know how demanding he is."
There would be no Pioli without Belichick. Belichick gave Pioli his first job in the NFL, hiring him as the pro personnel assistant of the Cleveland Browns in 1992, and later with the New York Jets and then with the Patriots in 2000.
"There is something about personnel evaluations," Pioli said. "You either know or you don't know. We're looking for football players, and the way you do that is watching tape. But part of this is gut instincts. My job and what I do is not to just simply collect talent. It's to build a team, because teams are going to win championships."
And Pioli has built one in New England that seems destined to be good for a couple more years.
Matchup: New England Patriots (16-2) vs. Carolina Panthers (14-5)
Site: Reliant Stadium, Houston
When: Sunday, 6:25 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Line: Patriots by 7
Patriots: Key signings, new mind-set revamp run defense. Page 6C