Why the New England Patriots Dynasty Stands Alone
On February 5, 2017, the New England Patriots will play in their seventh Super Bowl since 2001. They earned this right by dismantling the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 in the AFC Championship Game, a game they’ve played in for six seasons in a row. Tom Brady threw for 384 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’ll be playing in his seventh Super Bowl, an NFL record. Moreover, a victory in Super Bowl LI would be the Patriots’ fifth in nine attempts. The nine Super Bowl appearances will also be a record. They haven’t had a losing season since 2000. Managing all of this in the Salary Cap Era has separated them from every other team in the NFL. It’s probably fair to say that the Patriots are the world’s most dominant professional sports franchise.
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. Add to this Brady’s and Belichick’s acquaintanceship with Donald Trump, and all that’s left for some fans is a toxic stew of animosity. This isn’t the best way to enjoy football. Patriots haters should spend less time complaining about issues like these and more time lobbying for leadership that applies a few basic guidelines that have spelled success for the Patriots for quite some time. Fans are, after all, the ones who make players, coaches, and owners rich. No one wants to pay a king’s ransom to watch a group of marginal performers embarrass their community.
It’s worth noting 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. Consequently, every player in the system becomes a leader in his own right.
By necessity, the Patriots have 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 mostly 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 Patriots know that only certain players will thrive in their refined offensive and defensive schemes, which means maintaining a meticulous selection and training process. Bill Belichick drafted all five of the offensive linemen who started the AFC Championship Game. Then, long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia molded the linemen into a championship-caliber unit. Likewise, Belichick drafted all four of the Patriots selected to the 2017 Pro Bowl. 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. As Belichick said at the time, “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 traits, but few NFL scouts gave him serious attention. Now he’s the Patriots’ leading receiver.
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. Chris Hogan played just one season of college football at Monmouth. Then, he served a series of brief, unglamorous stints with the 49ers, Giants, Dolphins, and Bills. Belichick snatched Hogan from Buffalo in the off-season, figuring the Patriots would be able to take advantage of his deceptive speed, sure hands, and uncanny ability to get open. Against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game, Hogan caught 9 passes for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns. That 180 yards is the most by any undrafted player in the postseason in NFL history.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch is another example of talent that went unnoticed on other teams until the Patriots figured out how to best apply his skills. He bounced around from the Cardinals to Seahawks to Bills before landing in New England and playing a dominant role in shutting down opposing teams’ running games. He might be the most underrated defensive lineman in the NFL. Rob Ninkovich, another case in point, described this strategy as “creating your own ceiling.” In other words, the Patriots don’t necessarily look for the best athlete. They look for the athlete who can best perform the needs of the given position.
The list of Belichick’s reclamation projects is long, to include stars who fell out of favor with previous teams but then thrived with the Patriots, e.g., LeGarrette Blount, Martellus Bennett, Randy Moss, and Cory Dillon. Players like these know that success breeds success, so they’ll do what’s necessary to win given that winning is usually the best reward. ESPN staff writer Mike Reiss reported that after the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh, Belichick turned to Blount and said, “This is why you came here. It certainly wasn’t about the money.” Later in the locker room, Blount was all smiles as he stood with his son, reveling in the victory and probably thinking about how fleeting life’s most cherished moments can be.
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 smart, hard-working, 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 against Seattle puts a fine point on this.
Naturally, a roster composed largely of middle-class veterans and first- or second-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 2016 salary ranks 12th among active NFL quarterbacks. The Colts’ Andrew Luck will make $4 million more than Brady this season. Those extra millions Brady would have earned on some other team were 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 around $480 million.
Meanwhile, the Patriots find ways to convince key players (like Danny Amendola) to restructure their contracts to free up more salary cap space. They will also show anyone the door when he’s on the downside of his career, overpriced, or too emotionally problematic to consistently contribute to a Super Bowl run. Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, and Vince Wilfork are good recent examples of marquee players who needed to move on. Some understand Belichick’s ruthless disregard for nostalgia. Others don’t. Regardless, it’s a winning formula.
The Patriots usually benefit from unloading players with prohibitive contracts. 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, but who can blame him? He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. This adds fuel to the fire in media circles and partly explains why so many people hate the Patriots. Yet it seems to me that people should appreciate Belichick for this very reason. He pushes the boundaries of acceptable professional behavior because he knows he’s just another shark in a sea of predators. Good tactical minds always proceed with caution in the public domain.
Yet ask Belichick 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. True students of the game realize 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.
Perceptive thinkers know better, and age shouldn’t define unconventional thinking. The willingness to innovate speaks to the best in human nature. At 64 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-and-a-half 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. When Rob Gronkowski goes down with a season-ending injury, spread the ball all over the field to every possible receiving weapon, including Michael Floyd, an Arizona Cardinals castoff with a DUI arrest no one else would take.
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 Paul Brown would have greatly admired.
And then there’s Tom Brady and his indispensable leadership. At this point, even his most virulent detractors acknowledge his living legacy. I’m not really sure if the “Greatest of All Time” debate deserves any merit, but if it does, then Brady is worthy of the title. Some even argue that without him, the Patriots legacy wouldn’t exist. This might be true, but more to the point, Brady and Belichick share a synergistic relationship unparalleled in NFL history. In simple terms, Brady adapts to Belichick’s methodology while Belichick lets Brady lead the team in the locker room and on the field, especially in critical moments when no one else would be able to guide the Patriots to victory. As basic as this sounds, it’s a unique phenomenon given the chemistry the two have developed over the years. 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. It’s on to the next game.