Everyone loves to hate the iconic pinstripes of the New York Yankees. Maybe it’s because of the take-no-prisoners capitalist approach to buying competitive teams, maybe it’s the 40 American League pennants or the 27 World Series Championships, or maybe it’s because of the rambunctious, blowhard Yankee fans that can be found far, far away from the Bronx, but everyone hates those “damn Yankees.” Even if you don’t like baseball, there’s a good chance that you sneer every time you see that unmistakable interlocking “NY” logo.
There’s something fun undeniably American about rooting against the Yankees. Baseball might not be America’s past-time anymore, but hating the Yankees never goes out of style. It’s so much fun to loathe the Yanks that it’s almost done in jest… almost.
However, roughly 200 miles north of Yankee’s Stadium, another team has risen through the ranks of the despised, claiming the top spot in ruthless fashion. It’s funny, because before 2001, the New England Patriots were the ugly duckling of what is now the AFC East. The history of the division revolved around the dominance of the Miami Dolphins, their rivalry with the New York Jets, and the spectacular ineptitude of the Buffalo Bills in the big games.
Fast forward to 2019, and the ugly duckling has skipped “beautiful swan” and become a different beast altogether. Since the infamous 2001 season, the Patriots are 220-68, winning the division 16 times, only missing the playoffs twice, and winning at least nine games every year. They haven’t had fewer than 10 wins since 2002, their season hasn’t ended before the conference championship game since 2010, and they’ve played in nine Super Bowls, winning six.
How did this happen? How did the laughing stock of the AFC East become the most dominant dynasty in the history of professional football? It’s a long story.
The Patriot Way: How Bill Belichick Built the NFL’s Most Dominant Dynasty
Even the way Bill Belichick arrived in New England was bizarre. Belichick had been attached to his teacher, Bill Parcells, since 1985, in one capacity or another. With the exception of his stint as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990’s, Belichick had always been Parcells’ assistant.
Belichick, perhaps sick of playing second fiddle, perhaps prepared to make his own mark, wanted to break away from his mentor. Politically, his reasons for leaving New York are a bit blurry, but this much is true. One day, he was hired to be New York’s head coach, the next? He resigned to go coach in New England. He literally wrote his resignation on a napkin, gave his now-trademark deadpan delivery, and was off to Massachusetts. Robert Kraft gave him full control of the team, and in hindsight, that was a pretty smart move.
Many things have changed in New England since 2001. They went from a run-first defensive powerhouse to a vertical firestorm to a more relaxed spread to whatever you call their modern offense. They’ve mutated defensive fronts, schemes, and coordinators, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is their dominance. Deals with the devil, suspicious camera work, and deflated footballs aside, the secret to New England’s dominance is actually pretty simple.
The only person more attached to Bill Belichick’s success than Bill Parcells is his long-time quarterback, Tom Brady. Considered by many to be the very best quarterback in NFL history, Brady has been Belichick’s starting quarterback in all nine of his Super Bowl appearances as a head coach, and was the starter every year his Patriots made the playoffs.
Brady’s critics have a lot to say, and they say it a lot, but that’s not what this article is about. They’ll claim he’s just a product of the system, even though the offensive scheme constantly changes. They’ll reference a season where Matt Cassell went 11-5, even though his numbers were pretty consistent with what he’d do in Kansas City, albeit not on a roster than went 16-0 the year before. They’ll provide a super-cut of Brady checking down, taking the easy pass, and pretend that’s all he does, ignoring the fact that people like Derek Carr employ a similar strategy with wildly different results.
There’s no questioning Tom Brady’s work ethic. Nearly 20 years after being taken 199th overall, he still has a chip on his shoulder, and his commitment to extending his legendary career is borderline psychotic. Everything from the way he works out to what he eats is carefully calculated, and whether it’s his bank account or stat-sheet that suffers, everything takes a backseat to winning.
It could be argued that Tom Brady’s [relatively] team-friendly contracts are New England’s secret weapon. Maybe it’s because Brady’s wife is worth more than he is, or maybe it’s because winning really is everything, but in an era where his former backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, is making more than he is a season, the Patriots aren’t bogged down by a bloated quarterback contract.
I think the system quarterback label is nonsense, but I will say this, Tom Brady is the perfect quarterback for Bill Belichick. Everything Bill Belichick preaches is echoed and enforced by his quarterback, and it’s the biggest reason the team dominates the AFC every single season.
Do Your Job
The iconic mantra has become a staple of the Brady/Belichick dynasty, and if you ask me, it’s the reason they’re so successful. On any given Sunday, if you watch all of the perpetually bad teams, for instance, my Oakland Raiders, you’ll see they all have the same issues. Silly penalties, missed tackles, and a lack of proper execution. They can dial up trick plays, have the best players, and know every play the other team is going to run before they run it, but they inevitably lose because they fail to focus on the fundamentals of football.
The Patriots don’t lead the NFL in big plays on offense, nor do they claim to lead the league in sacks or turnovers on defense. But the Patriots are clinically efficient offensively, choosing a probable four or five yards over a possible 15, only taking calculated risks when necessary or too good to pass up. This is why Brady’s short passes happen so often, call it cowardice or clever play design, but seemingly always, there’s someone open underneath or over the middle.
Meanwhile, defensively, they’ll give up a ton of yards, but they’re stingy in the redzone. So far this season (three weeks into the 2019 campaign), they have yet to give up a touchdown in the redzone. Admittedly, the defense hasn’t given up any touchdowns, but that doesn’t make my previous statement any less true. As I detailed in my piece about New England’s potential this year (before Antonio Brown proved he truly is a clown), the Patriots are almost always middle of the pack or worse in yards allowed, but among the best when it comes to points given up.
That means they don’t give up huge plays, and they don’t make huge mistakes on offense. They just play smart, clean football in all three phases, waiting on the other team to mess up. If you went position by position with the Cleveland Browns, they might have a better roster than the New England Patriots. But if the two played tomorrow, the Patriots would win in a landslide, because they’re smarter, more versatile, and more fundamentally sound.
And, ya know, better coached. If only the Cleveland Browns had a coach like Bill Belichick. If only.
If you looked through New England’s roster, you’d be hard-pressed to find a recurring theme that really stands out. The Patriots have players from big schools, small schools, great athletes, and, well, Tom. The Patriots have players from all walks of life, but if you look a little closer, there are a few traits that Belichick obviously values.
Firstly, Belichick loves a versatile player. A wide receiver that can play corner? Belichick’s done it twice, once with Troy Brown, once with Julian Edelman. Linebacker Mike Vrabel terrorized quarterbacks on defense, but he’d also make the occasional appearance on offense, catching 10 touchdowns in 10 seasons. If you can produce as your position intends, while adding value on special teams or elsewhere, Belichick will find a spot for you.
Secondly, while 40 times and good interviews go a long way, Belichick has two unique draft qualifiers, especially in the earlier rounds. Belichick loves players that were team captains in college, and he loves players that graduated. Many of the best prospects in any given draft these days are juniors, so it’s rare that a team has so many seniors, let alone players that have completed their collegiate education.
Belichick wanted to build a team full of smart, committed players that love football, and he’s succeeded. He doesn’t buy into the flashier free agents unless he thinks they can help his team win, and win now. Every now and then, he’ll make a splash, usually on a fundamentally sound veteran, like Michael Bennett this year, but he likes to coach up the pieces he has instead of sacrificing valuable cap space or a roster spot on a “fix-it quick” solution like many other teams do.
The Patriot Way
Simply put, the New England Patriots are the smartest team in the NFL. They play smart, safe, and they don’t make mistakes. They’re not going to reinvent the wheel or throw anything revolutionary at you, but they’re not going to make it easy on you. Trying to outscore them in a shootout is like playing Russian Roulette but only their gun has bullets.
Historically, the only way to beat New England is by besting them at their own game. In nearly all of New England’s defeats from the last decade or so, the other team was consistently hitting Tom Brady and winning time of possession. You have to throw off Brady’s timing, chew clock, and make sure drives end in six, not three. Otherwise, no matter how much time is left, no matter how big the lead is, the best coached team in the history of professional football will come back and beat you with fundamentals and versatility.