The New England Patriots: What It Means to Be a 21st Century Dynasty
Since 2001, the New England Patriots have played in six Super Bowls and won four. They’re back in the AFC Championship Game for the fifth season in a row and tenth time in the past 15 years. If they beat the Denver Broncos on Sunday, they’ll be making their second straight trip to the Super Bowl and seventh in 15 seasons, despite the fact that they were the most injured team of the 2015 season. They haven’t even had a losing season since 2000. Managing all of this in the Salary Cap Era has separated the Patriots from every other team in the NFL.
Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that Sports Illustrated declared the Patriots the NFL’s most hated team and Bill Belichick the most hated coach. Excellence breeds envy. Still, those who feel this way should redirect their anger and spend more time thinking about why the Patriots dominate their competition in a hyper-competitive multi-billion dollar sports industry. Imitation would serve other teams well in this regard. NFL fans throughout the country who want to see their underperforming teams win championships should stop complaining about the Patriots’ ethical conduct and start lobbying for leadership that applies a few basic guidelines that have spelled success for the Patriots organization for quite some time.
While it’s true that many of the topics I’m about to discuss have already been addressed in one way or another by some very capable sportswriters, I’ve tried to structure this conversation in a way that might inspire fans to rethink their relationship with coaches and team owners who continually fail their mission. Fans are the ones who make players, coaches, and owners rich, and no one wants to pay a king’s ransom to watch a group of marginal performers embarrass their community. In other words, maybe those who support dysfunctional teams should lobby for better results with a forceful, unified voice.
For some reason, many overlook the fact that the Patriots don’t really care what anyone else thinks of them despite all the white noise emanating from the media and NFL front office. And why should they? The Patriots define themselves on their own terms. Belichick and his front office choose players who are well-suited to his system. The team approaches each season with one purpose—to win the Super Bowl. Everything else is secondary, and not winning the Super Bowl equals failure. To maximize the team’s prospects, Patriots coaches, management, and ownership work cohesively to select intensely motivated athletes willing to set aside their egos for the sake of mission focus and unity. As a result, the team is composed mostly of players with a burning desire to win and the willingness to sacrifice mind and body to achieve this goal. By default, nearly every player in the system becomes a leader in his own right.
Because of their formidable success, the Patriots have, by necessity, learned how to shut out distractions and maintain focus on the task at hand. In team meetings and on the practice field, coaches and players encourage each other to follow a simple script and never deviate from it. Any interview with a New England player or coach will reflect the following organizational rules: do your job well; speak respectfully of opposing teams and players and never badmouth anyone, especially anyone in the Patriots organization; focus on what you know you can do in the present to maximize future performance; assume responsibility for your own actions and don’t point fingers at others when things don’t go as well as they should; place team goals above your own, and never boast about personal records or the desire to achieve them; avoid anything that doesn’t contribute directly to winning football games.
If all the other NFL teams embedded these principles into their systems, the Patriots wouldn’t be as dominant as they are, yet this is clearly not the case. A coach or owner who allows unruly divas to distract the team from its mission isn’t fully committed to winning the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, a number of NFL teams are infested with unruly divas, to include coaches and owners who seem to be more interested in their own reputations and legacies. In life, not just in the NFL, some of our greatest pleasures come from working through group challenges, inventing ways to overcome problems, succeeding collaboratively, and enjoying the fruits of those labors.
Needless to say, the Patriot Way can exist only with the right players flourishing within a meticulously refined scheme. Of the seven Patriots selected to the 2016 Pro Bowl, Belichick drafted six, and the seventh, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, was signed as an undrafted free agent. In other words, all were homegrown through the Patriots system. As Belichick said, “They all came in as Patriots, spent their whole career here as Patriots, developed as Patriots in different — one way or another, but that’s what they all are. I think there’s something to be said for that.” His ability to see talent has as much to do with his ability to develop it. Julian Edelman was an obscure Kent State quarterback with impressive physical gifts, but few NFL scouts gave him serious attention. Now, without him, the Patriots struggle.
Not only does Belichick put a premium on developing young players, he also brings in relatively unknown but talented middle-class veterans (players who earn somewhere between the minimum and star salaries) who haven’t been used properly, and then he maximizes their performance by allowing them to play to their strengths. Rob Ninkovich, a case in point, described this as creating your own ceiling. He did little with New Orleans and Miami for various reasons, but he’s flourished at multiple positions in New England because the coaching staff takes advantage of his remarkable mixture of intelligence, instinct, aggression, and deceptive strength and speed. He can set the edge against the run, sack the quarterback, and deflect or intercept passes in a combined effort that few NFL players can match.
The list of Belichick’s reclamation projects is long, to include superstars who fell out of favor with previous teams but then thrived with the Patriots, e.g., Randy Moss and Cory Dillon. Players like these know that success breeds success. Moreover, Belichick churns the tail end of the roster all the way through the playoffs if necessary, which several other NFL teams tend not to do as aggressively as they should. All of this adds up to a team that respects hard-working, intelligent, serious athletes, not overpaid superstars. Every player on the roster understands that he’s earned the right to be there and should therefore be ready to perform at an elite level. Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl interception puts a fine point on this.
Naturally, a roster composed largely of middle-class veterans and first-year players proves highly cost-effective. In nearly every respect, the Patriots manage their budget in a shrewd, unsentimental manner. Tom Brady might be the most underpaid player in the NFL. His 2015 salary of $8 million was around a quarter of Phillip Rivers’, a half of Jameis Winston’s, and $11 million less than Drew Brees’s. That extra $10 million he would have earned on some other team was invested in other salaries that kept talented players from leaving for greener financial pastures. Brady doesn’t seem to be too concerned about this, probably because he and his supermodel wife Gisele Bϋndchen share a combined net worth of $480 million.
Meanwhile, the Patriots find ways to convince key players (like Danny Amendola and Jerod Mayo) to restructure their contracts to free up more salary cap space. They also understand player life cycles and will show anyone the door when he’s on the downside of his career and / or too expensive to consistently contribute to a Super Bowl run. Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, and Vince Wilfork are good recent examples of marquee players who needed to move on. Some don’t hold Belichick’s disregard for nostalgia against him. Others do.
Even when an elite player’s contract becomes too prohibitive for whatever reason, the Patriots will unload him, usually to their benefit. For instance, in 2009, they traded the still talented but expensive Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round draft pick, which, due to a ripple effect of trades over the next few years, resulted in the Patriots drafting Nate Solder, Shane Vereen, Chandler Jones, and Donta Hightower, all of whom contributed significantly to their Super Bowl XLIX victory. In an interview with ESPN’s Greg Garber a few years ago, Drew Bledsoe said, “I think it’s just that simply no one player or group of players is bigger than the team or the organization. I was a prime example, maybe Example A of that. . . . I just signed a big, big contract with the Patriots [for a then-record $103 million in 2001] and looked like I was going to finish my career there. All of a sudden I got hurt, and this Brady kid stepped in and next thing you know, I was off to Buffalo.”
Every study of the Patriots dynasty should feature a fair and thoughtful commentary on Bill Belichick. Granted, he’s dour, dismissive, and sarcastic to reporters who ask him questions he doesn’t like. This adds fuel to the fire and explains why so many people hate the Patriots although they should appreciate Belichick for this very reason. He pushes the boundaries of acceptable professional behavior because he probably knows he’s just another shark in an ocean of predators. What else would a sensible person do?
Yet ask him a reasonably bright question about football strategy, player performance, or anything relating to the sport’s history and you’ll peer into the mind of a genius. Every sensible student of the sport knows this. Most NFL coaches arrange their game plans around assumptions relating to team identity. They coach a running team that loves pounding the rock, for instance, or they champion a vertical passing attack that always features the deep ball threat. Maybe a defense focuses on finesse zone coverage or aggressive man-to-man.
High-grade thinkers know better, and age shouldn’t define unconventional thinking. The willingness to innovate speaks to the best in human nature. At 63 years old, Belichick seems to understand the protean nature of existence and applies this awareness to his job. When league rules bend toward quarterback protection and higher-scoring games, throw more and run more two-tight-end sets. Rely heavily on lighting quick receivers ready to catch laser passes within two seconds of the snap. Throw into question receiver eligibility, and then toss the ball to someone your opponent thinks isn’t. When injuries decimate your offensive line, experiment with 13 different configurations until you find one that works, knowing full well that everything changes from week to week.
On the other side of the ball, determine your opponent’s greatest offensive strength and make sure your defense neutralizes it. During rough times, let Edelman play slot corner in a pinch when everyone else is either hurt or playing poorly. In better days, evaluate your opponent’s use of goal-line pick passes, intuit the possibility of this happening in real-time, practice harder than you play, send Malcolm Butler into the game when the time comes, and win the Super Bowl. More than anything else, never give up, and remember that you always have the chance to win or, at least, earn your opponents’ respect by playing with calculated aggression. Put simply, Bill Belichick is responsible for designing, embedding, and maintaining a system that would have brought a smile to Paul Brown’s face.
And then there’s Tom Brady and his indispensable leadership. Informed sports fans respect his living legacy. I’m not sure if the “Greatest of All Time” debate deserves any merit, but if it does, then Brady is a contender for this title. Some even argue that without him, the Patriots legacy wouldn’t exist. This might be true. Still, Brady and Belichick share a synergistic relationship. Brady listens to Belichick and follows his rules while Belichick lets Brady guide the destiny of the team in critical moments when no one else on the planet would be able to lead the Patriots to victory. Dynasties evolve from unforeseen conflations of brilliance. What matters most are the measurables, the ones other NFL teams wish they had earned or hope they might realize in the future. As far as the Patriots are concerned, the job is never done.