Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
A fifth franchise has entered the mix in the AFC West. Welcome the New England Patriots to what was arguably the NFL's weakest division in 2008.
The Patriots are moving out West -- in theory, anyway.
The organization's influence was a huge theme in the massive change in the AFC West this offseason. It is most often referred to as the Patriots' Way. Get used to it. You'll hear it a lot if you follow this division.
While Oakland stayed in-house to fill its head coaching opening, the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs looked outside to reconstruct their respective franchises. Both Denver owner Pat Bowlen and Kansas City owner Clark Hunt looked East for their blueprint.
After his shocking firing of head coach Mike Shanahan after a 14-season run, Bowlen hired New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as his coach. In Kansas City, Hunt ended a month-long general manager search by hiring Scott Pioli as general manager after nearly 20 years of the Carl Peterson era. Pioli, who was New England's top executive, had worked closely with Patriots coach Bill Belichick and was lauded for his acquisitions and approach as the head of the New England front office.
What is the Patriots' Way? It is a combination of spread-it-out football on offense and an aggressive 3-4 scheme on defense. It also extends off the field, where players are employees who must fit into a very tight, strict business plan. At the top of the food chain is a tight, inner circle that gives instructions and expects results, no questions asked.
"It's about making football important," new Chief and former New England linebacker Mike Vrabel explained to reporters in Kansas City shortly after arriving as one of the team's big-ticket pickups early in the offseason. "It's about being prepared, about being accountable and consistent. To be consistent, at least your teammates and coaches know what to expect every week and it's not something that's great one week and kind of [lousy] the next."
The brass of the San Diego Chargers, the only AFC West team to stand pat in its leadership structure this offseason, is prepared for the influx of the Patriots' Way.
"Obviously, the system that Denver is going to run will be very much like what New England did on offense," San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "I think there's some of that influence anyway. [New Chiefs coach Todd] Haley's background is similar to the New England background. He comes from the [Bill] Parcells school, that whole deal."
Added San Diego general manager A.J. Smith: "I have long admired the New England way of doing things. They do things the right way on the field and in the business structure. The New England structure is being implemented in this division, and I believe both Denver and Kansas City will be better for it."
With both Pioli and McDaniels on their own, it is clear the two are sticking to their New England roots in the first stages of their new jobs. There's Patriots DNA all over these two franchises.
What do you expect?
McDaniels doesn't try to hide his Patriots' influence, nor does he apologize for living by it. In fact, he flaunts it.
"I mean, that's what I know," the 32-year-old coach said at the NFL owners' meeting last month. "I know this: The way that Bill and [New England owner] Robert Kraft and that organization have done things, it's been very productive for them. And that's what I've been a part of for eight seasons. I've been privileged to be a part of that. I'm not sure I would want to do something a whole lot different than the way they do things because they've had great success doing it, and that's why we're all here, to try to win."
It was McDaniels' affinity for his New England days that embroiled him in a controversy that no other NFL coach has seen in his first couple of months on the job. McDaniels decided he wanted to begin his Denver tenure with Matt Cassel, who flourished under McDaniels as Tom Brady's injury replacement last season. However, a three-way trade that would have included Denver Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler fell through. Cassel, instead, ended up in Kansas City as Pioli couldn't resist beginning his Kansas City era with a New England flavor.
Of course, the Cassel-Cutler matter became a five-week melodrama in Denver, resulting in Cutler being traded to Chicago and with McDaniels in hot water in the minds of many Denver fans.
Still, McDaniels has stuck to his guns. He has brought in former New England players such as receiver Jabar Gaffney and long-snapper Lonie Paxton. He was given the second-richest contract for a snapper on the first day of free agency despite the fact that Denver had Mike Leach, who was perfect in seven years in Denver. Denver also signed running back LaMont Jordan from New England.
Defensively, McDaniels, who will be using the Patriots' 3-4 defense, brought in several lesser-name players whom he hopes become solid rotation players. It's the same way Belichick built New England early this decade.
Pioli is doing it the same way in Kansas City. Despite a boat load of salary-cap room, Cassel and Vrabel were his only big-name acquisitions. He picked them up for a second-round draft choice from New England. Other than Cassel and Vrabel, it has been a parade of no-names in Kansas City.
The Patriots never have felt pressure to conform and neither will McDaniels and Pioli as the Patriots' Way has been planted in the AFC West.
"Most of what I do, most of my philosophies are going to come from that tree," McDaniels said. "I don't regret that at all because it's been very productive for us."