Because he's paid less, New England is able to surround him with winning players.
By DAVE GOLDBERG
Tom Brady threw 28 touchdown passes this season, barely more than half the 49 Peyton Manning threw for the Colts in setting an NFL single-season record.
But the only numbers the New England Patriots care about are these: Brady has two Super Bowl rings, and Manning has never even gotten to the game.
One reason: The total value of Brady's current contract (around $30 million) is less than the signing bonus Manning received from the Colts last summer, giving the Patriots far more salary cap room to pay a supporting cast.
"We're about winning. If I have to take a little less to stay here and win, I will," said defensive end Willie McGinest, who has been in New England for 11 years. "I've been to three Super Bowls and won two. Now I'm going to my fourth. I might have gotten a little more money from other teams, but I wouldn't have the rings."
How long New England stays on top could be dictated by the cap. At some point, Brady will have to get big money and so will defensive lineman Richard Seymour, a Pro Bowler in three of his first four NFL seasons.
Winning is priceless
But McGinest's philosophy reflects the views of many of his teammates, some of whom have taken less money to stay with a winner.
It's a team of finely meshed parts put together by coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli, one that's 33-4 over the past two seasons and has become every NFL executive's idea of a model franchise. And they've done it without any identifiable all-star except Brady.
Brady's notoriety comes from his two Super Bowl MVP awards and his cover-boy good looks. In an era of posturing and strutting, he treats his celebrity with a "Who, me?" personality.
And the key for the Patriots is that he's not paid like a modern superstar.
After New England's first Super Bowl victory in 2002, the Patriots redid a contract that had paid the sixth-round draft choice a six-figure salary -- giving him a deal worth $28 million over four years.
It was redone again to help the Patriots adjust to the salary cap, but Brady remains a bargain. Manning got $34.5 million as a signing bonus alone last summer as part of a seven-year, $98 million deal.
The Colts quarterback justified it by setting an NFL record with those 49 touchdown passes. But his team lost 20-3 to the Patriots in the second round of the playoffs, and still needs to get much better on defense because it spends more than 70 percent of its salary cap money for offense.
No such problem in New England, where the money is spread more evenly.
"I hate the word 'high-priced,' I hate the whole concept," Pioli has said. "You can find good players everywhere. Just because a player has a marquee name or a big price tag doesn't mean that he's a good player."
But these days, money rules. If it dictates what a player wants to do, the Patriots' attitude is "so be it."
Thus, offensive lineman Damien Woody accepted a $31 million package from Detroit last spring, turning down slightly less from New England. Much was made of the release of safety Lawyer Milloy just before the 2003 season, but he was deemed too expensive and past his prime.
The quintessential Patriot is Troy Brown, in his 12th season with the team.
Brown had 198 catches in 2001 and 2002, but just 17 this year as he doubled as a defensive back to help replace the injured Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. He is making $760,000 this season and is the kind of guy who might take a cut from the $2.5 million he'll get next year to help the team.
Unselfish players are part of the profile developed by Belichick and Pioli, who are given total personnel freedom by owner Robert Kraft -- another key to a winning franchise.