When you deal with nitroglycerine, there is one fundamental and inescapable rule of thumb: If you want to keep your thumbs -- or, for that matter, retain any other atom of your physical anatomy -- handle with care.
On Sunday morning, the NFL's master chemist, Bill Belichick of New England, decided to add perhaps the most combustible element in the league to a Patriots locker room where the chemistry is one of near-perfect balance. But lest explosive yet enigmatic wide receiver Randy Moss be misled into believing he will mess with the equilibrium created by Belichick, personnel chief Scott Pioli, owner Bob Kraft and the band of veteran leaders they have assembled, the five-time Pro Bowl player should be forewarned.
Belichick doesn't put on the kid gloves for anyone. Not even for a player who possesses the kind of impressive skills, and big-play component, Moss brings to the team.
No matter the résumé of the individual, toxicity is not tolerated by the Patriots, and Moss will find that out quickly, if he doesn't already know it. Team sources said Sunday that Moss is already on notice and on an even shorter leash.
Step out of line one day, you're out of the lineup the next, and are soon sent packing.
If Moss doesn't believe it, well, he'd be wise not to seek empirical, firsthand evidence that Belichick indeed means business with his no-monkey-business decree.
When he was fired by Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell after the 1995 season, after compiling a 37-45 record, Belichick did a lot of soul-searching about what had gone wrong in his first head coaching gig. One of the conclusions he reached after the lengthy self-examination was that if he ever got a second chance to be a head coach, he would treat everyone the same.
The same rules for everyone. No favorites. No exceptions.
The philosophy has worked pretty well, most observers would agree, during Belichick's tenure as a head coach. He inherited a franchise that was a halfway house for malcontents and incorrigibles and transformed it into a team on which everyone is just naturally expected to go all the way, and on every play. Belichick has claimed three Super Bowl titles and, at some point, will earn himself a niche in the Hall of Fame.
For the wayward Moss to get off the detour road he has been traversing the past several years, and get back on course for Canton, a Super Bowl ring would serve as a handy compass. That reality, apparently, has sunk in with Moss, who believes his legacy ultimately will be measured by rings, not receptions. That is part of the reason he made concessions to facilitate the Sunday trade.
And big concessions they were. Scheduled to earn $21 million in base salaries over the next two years, $9.75 million in 2007 and $11.25 million in 2008, Moss signed a new, one-year contract with the Pats that might pay him only in the $3 million-$4 million range. With incentives, it could be worth $5 million. But even if he reaches all the incentives, and collects the full $5 million in 2007, Moss will have sacrificed $16 million in base salaries due him.
But financial givebacks alone by Moss won't satisfy Belichick and the team leaders from whom he elicited support before consummating the trade. In the New England locker room, no one is going to care much how much money Moss is making. More important to the Pats is how much effort is he making and, thus, how many plays he is executing. It is those elements on which Moss will be judged by his new teammates.
And if there is one team where the latest attempt to transform Moss into a selfless player could work, and where he will be compelled to work by the examples set around him, it is the Patriots. Belichick is the equivalent of a human hazmat suit. And the New England locker room, the environment nurtured there, is like a sterile laboratory.
There have been some players in the past who arrived in New England deluded into thinking they could buck the system. But the Patriots have a way of quickly diluting such notions. It's notable that one of the properties of nitroglycerine is that it's colorless. The Pats have been successful, in part, because they exist in a world where there are no ambiguous hues and the only colors are black and white.
For Moss, as for everyone else in the Pats' employ, there is no gray fringe. And so Moss would do well to implant that philosophy into the gray matter between his ears, at least as it applies to when he is between the lines.
There was some question Sunday as to why Belichick would even want to take on as notable a character risk as Moss might be. But it's the same reason and the same agenda with which Belichick always operates. He wants to win, plain and simple. Moss' very obvious flaws aside, Belichick believes the volatile player can enhance an offense already upgraded by the offseason transfusion that took place with the wide receiver corps.
With the brilliant Belichick, whose public life is defined by his football success, there are no hidden agendas. Belichick has long been enamored of Moss' competitiveness, of his desire to get the ball as often as possible, but especially at crunch time. For the Pats, every play is viewed as crunch time, and New England was willing to gamble that that will bring out the best in Moss and help him resuscitate a career that has slumped the past few seasons.
Belichick has never been reluctant or shy about taking on players, such as safety Rodney Harrison or now-departed tailback Corey Dillon, who were perceived by others as having a few warts. There have been occasions, such as the ill-advised trade for former New Orleans first-round defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, when such risks blew up in his face. But for the most part, Belichick has won such gambles, and he clearly thinks he'll win this one.
Inherent in every coach is the belief that there is something good in everyone and that, no matter what has transpired previously with a player, he or she can be the person to unearth that redeeming quality. A lot of coaches have lost their jobs because they were misguided in that belief. Belichick has succeeded because, with few exceptions, he has found a way to emphasize a team concept to even the most self-centered individuals.
More than a chemist, Belichick is an alchemist, it seems. Transforming as poisonous a personality as Moss into gold might be, perhaps, his most daunting challenge. But it is a challenge Belichick and the New England organization agree is worth undertaking.
If they're right, it will make the Patriots an even more formidable team in 2007, and maybe Super Bowl champions for the fourth time.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.