Why the Patriots are awesome.

October 30th, 2007

Just doing some thinking-out-loud here, trying to decide whether I should burden (or bless?) my work blog with even more “business of sports” thoughts today.

I don’t know if you care about football, much less follow the exploits of the New England Patriots — but exploits they are. There was a stew in the first week of the season, when the Patriots were fined for videotaping the defensive signals of their opponent, the New York Jets. (There’s an interpersonal subtext here, because the Jets’ head coach is a protege of the Patriots’ head coach.) For a bit, Patriot-haters crowed about how this discovery of (very mild) cheating “tainted” the Patriots’ three Superbowl victories from the early years of this decade. Which is, you know, total hogwash, but it was a slow week in sports news.

Now the Patriots are 8-0 and headed into the biggest game of the year. They’re traveling this week to Indianapolis to play the Colts, who are a mere 7-0 and who are, pretty clearly, the second-best team in the league. In fact the excellence of these two teams throws the rest of the NFL into pretty stark relief. It stacks up something like this:

  • Patriots
  • (daylight)
  • Colts
  • (more daylight)
  • everybody else

The Colts have been tested a time or two, but the Patriots have been beating up on the rest of the league without ever being put in much of a pickle themselves. They’re scoring 40+ points per game, which is just crazy, and they’re routinely beating opponents by several touchdowns. On Sunday I watched them beat the Redskins, a team that was 4-2 coming into the game — a team that had scored 220 points in its previous six games — a team with legitimate playoff pretensions. The Patriots dismantled them in every phase of the game. I cannot overstate how total the dominance was. And it wasn’t a fluke — that’s just how this Patriots team plays.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Pats are awesome. So what? Well, the so what is that they’re doing it in a league built for parity. NFL teams operate under a salary cap and a revenue-sharing agreement that allows the Packers from teeny, tiny Green Bay to compete eye to eye with the New York Giants or the Miami Dolphins or the Chicago Bears or anybody else. Within the framework of the league, teams can’t get ahead by disparities in spending power. In other words, this isn’t like baseball, where the Yankees or Red Sox can open up the vault to stock their rosters with stars. In the NFL, teams must get ahead through the heroic efforts of individual athletes, or by building a better system, or both. The Patriots have done both, and in fact they have built a system that makes it far more likely for them to get the best from their best athletes.

Without going into exhausting detail, the key individuals in this system are (1) head coach Bill Belichick, who by now is commonly regarded as one of a handful of the most brilliant football coaches in the game’s history, and (2) quarterback Tom Brady, who is the Joe Montana of this era. Without Brady, the Pats would have a much harder time executing their offense, which this year relies primarily on Brady taking his pick from among several outstanding receivers. (The team is on pace to break the single-season NFL record for scoring, and Brady himself is on pace to demolish Peyton Manning’s single-season record for touchdowns.) But without Belichick, the Patriots’ dominance would simply be unimaginable. He is the brain and the beating heart of that organization, and he has stocked the club from top to bottom with players who are happy to take his lead in crushing the opposition.

One key about that corps of players: they are all smart. Troy Aikman, himself a Hall of Fame quarterback who is, if anything, even better as a game commentator, said as much when he was covering the Patriots-Redskins game on Sunday. The first thing that the team looks for when acquiring players is whether they’re smart. The players need to be smart, because part of the beauty of the Patriots’ system is how they mix and match personnel play by play, which allows them to confront their opponents with unusual formations. In the context of the NFL, where copious study of game films is standard practice for every coaching staff, “unusual” means “hard to prepare for”. If you’ve got an average cross-section of NFL athletes on your team, chances are good that some of them won’t be quick enough on the uptake to line up out of position on a given play and then know what to do from there. But the Patriots avoid this problem by stocking their larder with flexible-minded players who can go seemingly anywhere and do just about anything. This leads to spectacles like Brady’s first touchdown pass of Sunday, when he connected with Mike Vrabel, who normally plays linebacker — and who had three sacks from the linebacker position against the Redskins — but who lined up at tight end for that play.

As I’ve touched on before, Belichick has an endless curiosity for the game of football, and so he has studied it as deeply as anyone ever.* That, combined with his desire to win and his suppleness of mind, leads him to experiment with combinations never before seen, as when he offered Peyton Manning the unprecedented sight of two down linemen and nine defenders falling back into pass protection. (Anything more than six pass defenders is a rarity.) Belichick knows all of the orthodoxies of the game — knows them as well as anyone could — but, even better, he has taken the time and the mental energy to pull those orthodoxies apart to get at the truths underlying them. The ones that work, he keeps, and indeed the Patriots are as fundamentally sound in the nuts and bolts of the game as any team could be. But then Belichick is willing to reach far beyond the orthodoxies, to wherever his mind takes him. If that means taking a linebacker with good hands and putting him at tight end, so be it. If it means dropping nine men into pass protection to frustrate a great passer like Manning, so be it. If it means going to a three-four defensive alignment (three down linemen and four linebackers) when the vogue around the league is a four-three alignment, so be it. He knows he has players on hand who are smart enough and disciplined enough to execute even his most imaginative schemes — because he went and acquired those players on purpose. And he has the confidence in himself and in his team to call the most imaginative plays within the flow of the game.

Troy Aikman made another point during the game the other day that’s worth mentioning here. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Eddie DeBartolo built the San Francisco 49ers — these were the Niners of Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, and Jerry Rice — into the league’s most respected franchise. Aikman pointed out that players wanted to play for the Niners in those days. It wasn’t just another team to play for, it was a preferred destination. Over time, that meant that some players were even willing to play for a little less so that the team could maintain its excellence within the league’s salary-cap structure. And the same thing is happening now with the Patriots. They have a very good chance of winning the Superbowl every year. They have one of the greatest coaches in league history. They have a Hall of Fame quarterback leading a roster stocked with pure-gold winners. They have a devoted owner and a fanatical fan base. If you were a smart NFL player who could succeed in the Belichick system, why wouldn’t you want to play in that environment?

Talked about in this abstract way, it all seems so easy: brilliant executive leadership (Belichick), physically and mentally superior field leadership (Brady), smart, capable players all over the field, and a financial model that works for the long haul. Simple, right? Of course it’s not so simple. Belichick didn’t enjoy nearly so much success in his previous head-coaching gigs, because the environment wasn’t right, and he hadn’t quite figured out his own best style of play. Brady was a good, but not a great, college quarterback. Mike Vrabel is hardly Lawrence Taylor. And so on. But the Patriots have done the hard work — for about a decade now — to build a system unlike any other and to stock that system with the right kind of talent. The result isn’t merely that they are quantitatively superior to other teams in statistical terms, but that they are qualitatively different from all other teams. And that’s a competitive advantage that’s very, very hard to beat.

Which is why the Patriots are so awesome.


* This reminds me of something John McEnroe said about Roger Federer during this year’s U.S. Open: he said that the Swiss champion is just fascinated by tennis — continues to be fascinated by every aspect of it even after winning so many titles. This fascination drives him not merely to maintain his game, but to keep improving it.

3 Responses to “Why the Patriots are awesome.”

  1. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Dashing and grinding. Says:

    […] The readiest example to hand of a team like this is this year’s New England Patriots, about which I’ve talked about at length already. But maybe the best example I can think of were the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who followed Michael Jordan’s lead to go an unthinkable 72-10 in the regular season before plowing through all comers in the playoffs (when they went 15-3) to win the title. That team would grind down opponents little by little in the first halves of games — by rebounding better, passing and shooting better, and playing harder on defense. Then, usually in the third quarter, the Bulls would shift into another gear entirely, locking down defensively while executing their offense with remorseless precision. As I remember it, a typical third period for them that year would have them outscoring opponents something like 25 to 6. When you do that, it’s very easy to turn a single-digit halftime lead into a 25-point fourth-quarter lead. Like the current Patriots, those Bulls made many fourth quarters very boring because they had long before put the game out of reach. […]

  2. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Sunday, Sunday. Says:

    […] At 7 p.m. I’m planning to tune in to the Pats-Bills game to see how the Bills try to avoid a savage beating at the hands of the Patriots. They’ve got their work cut out for them. […]

  3. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » A footnote on the Patriots. Says:

    […] Bulletin: they’re still awesome. […]

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