The New England Patriots have clearly established themselves as a true football dynasty. They’ve dominated the NFL for the past two decades, but this hasn’t always been the case. Before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Pats were a laughing stock for years. How did this transformation take place?
Let’s take a look at “The Patriot Way” and learn from the historic formula that has revolutionized how teams at every level build a championship contender.
The Mad Scientist
The first step of the Patriots’ rise to prominence was their hiring of the now legendary coach Belichick.
Belichick was born to be a coach. His father, Steve, was a career assistant college football coach, and his obsession with breaking down football film was passed on to Bill. This proved to be valuable, as there is no better way to learn football than by breaking down film.
He also had the great fortune of learning at the feet of “The Big Tuna,” Bill Parcells. Parcells was one of the most underrated football coaches to ever tote a whistle. He developed a philosophy that not only led to winning football at the highest level, but that others continue to practice in some form to this day. Parcells’ disciples include Belichick, Tom Coughlin and Sean Payton, all Super Bowl-winning head coaches.
The Parcells formula is simple: Play great defense, control the clock, don’t turn the ball over, create turnovers on defense, don’t commit stupid penalties, and play great on special teams. Parcells also wanted “his guys” on the team. No divas, just tough guys who would lay it on the line every Sunday.
Belichick followed this formula and refined it to fit his teams. The first step was to get “his guys.” These players weren’t necessarily the best athletes, but they were the best fit for the “Belichick System.” He looked for offensive guys who wouldn’t turn the ball over and could control the clock, and versatile defensive players who fit his renowned 3-4 Defense.
Perhaps the best example of a player who fit this description is none other than future Hall of Fame quarterback Brady. The sixth-round pick was thrust into action when incumbent starter Drew Bledsoe suffered a gruesome injury. Of course, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Patriots in the long run, but even early on, Brady proved to possess traits Belichick prioritizes.
While former starter Bledsoe was a good QB, he was prone to turnovers, something that plagued Belichick in Cleveland. Brady, on the other hand, did not turn the ball over, while also moving the chains and controlling the clock. Brady’s game management was exactly what the Belichick System required. The perfect fit led to a Super Bowl championship and the start of the Patriots’ dynasty.
A Closer Look at the Belichick System
Building a culture of winning creates a dynasty. Someone once said, “culture beats strategy every time.” So how exactly does one create a “culture of winning”? There’s not exactly a blueprint for it, but a close look at the Patriots’ roster gives some clues as to what Belichick looks for when building his rosters.
1. Strong Work Ethic — none stronger than Brady.
2. Selflessness — look at running back James White, a Super Bowl star a few years ago, but hardly used this year. It’s all about the team.
3. Accept Your Role — James Devlin is exclusively a blocking fullback, but he does a great job.
4. No Divas, Special Teams Reps Matter — Matthew Slater’s specialty is downing punts inside the five-yard line. If you don’t think that’s important, ask Rams head coach Sean McVay how that affected his play calling.
5. Specialists Are Critical — Belichick always has excellent kickers, punters and long snappers. They’re not only important, they are a necessity.
6. Students of the Game — Belichick’s guys play smart football so they don’t beat themselves. They are also poised in pressure situations.
7. Work Hard in the Off-season — self explanatory; playing in the NFL is a full-time job, so treat it as such.
Belichick’s strategy is designed to win, plain and simple. It’s not designed to entertain or to show how clever he is. This philosophy carries over to the defensive side of the ball as well (Belichick’s specialty), where substance takes precedence over sizzle. His goal is to take away what his opponent does best. Teams facing Belichick are going to play left-handed. On third downs, the opponent’s go-to guy is going to be Belichick’s number-one priority.
In addition, his defenses refuse to allow a big play, showcasing outstanding discipline. That discipline is hard enough to counter, but it’s made even harder by the disguises that Belichick regularly employs. Jared Goff was befuddled in the Super Bowl; he never knew where the pressure was coming from. That pressure may not always result in a sack, but it does disrupt the opposing QB.
In that same game, Belichick also demonstrated his preparedness, as his edge defenders contained the Rams’ bootleg game beautifully. All of these elements have helped to create a defensive system that has withstood rule changes, offensive evolution and a wave of transcendent quarterbacks.
But the Patriots have an offense of their own that has allowed them to not only keep up with their competition, but stay well ahead of it. It’s a unit that is designed to control clock, keep the the opponent’s offense on the sideline and score TDs in the red zone. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots executed this game-plan flawlessly.
The Patriots ran the ball to set the pace of the game. The previous year, they lost on the same stage in a shootout, despite Brady throwing for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards. As great as their offense was, it didn’t protect its defense well enough to hold off Nick Foles and the Eagles. So what did Belichick do? He drafted RB Sony Michel in the first round of the following NFL draft and ran the ball down the Rams’ throats.
Another brilliant yet underrated pickup by Belichick was Devlin, a former Brown University defensive end. The fullback was a critical cog in the Patriots’ dynamic rushing attack, and he helped lead the way for Michel and company all season.
Of course, a great rushing game is important, but Brady is the engine that drives the Patriots’ offense. And he’s at his best when the game is on the line. Atlanta, Kansas City, Seattle and practically every team in the league knows firsthand that if Brady gets the ball and there’s still time on the clock, it’s time to panic. There are many things a team can game-plan for. But that type of execution in crunch time is innate.
But for all of Brady’s greatness, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels do their best to make it easy on the six-time Super Bowl champion. With two practically un-coverable weapons in Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, Brady simply has to look to the player who is left in one-on-one coverage. Play zone, and he’ll pick you apart one paper cut at a time. Factor in his lighting-quick release and unmatched ability to throw a catchable ball, and you start to see why nobody has been able to stop him over the years.
And finally, Belichick is a stickler for special teams. Field position was a huge factor in The Pats’ Super Bowl win. They always have a great kicker and punter, along with guys on the roster who excel in kick coverage. Their punting game in the Super Bowl hampered the Rams all night by pinning them deep in their own territory time and time again.
So, why do the Patriots win? It’s a total commitment to excellence in every aspect of the game. It’s a top-to-bottom devotion to details, leaving no stone un-turned. It’s a great model for a coach to learn. Maybe Oregon’s Mario Cristobal is working on instilling a similar culture at the University of Oregon. If it brings the Ducks even half as many titles as it has brought the Patriots, I think Duck fans would gladly take it.
Coach Tony DeMeo
Charleston, West Virginia Top Photo by Asan Awan
Learn more football from Coach DeMeo at his website for coaches and fans.
Spencer Thomas, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, is an attorney for the Social Security Administration in Atlanta, Georgia, and coaches High School Football for Hillgrove HS in Powder Springs, GA.
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