FOXBOROUGH — When the many books are written about the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era of the National Football League — and it’s much larger than just Patriots history — Saturday night’s 35-14 drubbing of the Titans will be but a mere footnote, not even worth a regular sentence.
We knew the Titans, who need to clean house if they want to make anything of Marcus Mariota’s vast talents, weren’t a worthy opponent. The Patriots knew it as well. And you got the feeling watching a listless Tennessee sideline once New England woke up from its early first-quarter nap, they knew it as well.
And here’s hoping the Steelers dispatch the Jaguars Sunday to set up a true title game against the two best teams in the conference. Because, selfishly, after watching the Ghost of Derek Carr, Matt Moore, Tyrod Taylor (twice), Nathan Peterman, Jay Cutler, Bryce Petty and a hobbled Mariota (Mike Mularkey said after the game his quarterback suffered a quad early and it affected everything — believe what you will), the sight of Blake Bortles standing opposite Brady might bring me to tears.
But before we get to all that and before the worst could happen (a loss, I know, the horror), every football fan (even those with Belichick voodoo dolls, and others in the midst of writing about pro-Patriots officiating conspiracies on the interwebs — I’m looking at you, Yinzers) should take a moment to tip a cap toward Foxborough at what this quarterback-coach duo has achieved.
The Patriots are going to their seventh-straight AFC Championship Game, which extends their own league record.
They’re going for the 12th time overall in the last 17 seasons.
That is amazing.
Trust me, I know.
Growing up as a Dolphins fan — hey, what can you do, as a kid the team kind of picks you — I saw Miami lose two Super Bowls and go to another conference championship game in the span of four seasons from 1982-85. I thought that’s how it would always be.
They’ve been to one since.
Think about it. New England schoolchildren in the seventh grade, and some older, only know the Patriots being in the NFL’s Final Four.
When I covered the Dolphins from 2000-07, they went to the playoffs twice and won one game.
When I covered the Packers from 2007-10, I saw an NFC Championship loss, a 6-10 season and then a wild-card loss before Green Bay won a Super Bowl.
The Patriots get to the Final Four virtually every year.
The question is, why are the Patriots so remarkably consistent? Sure, it’s easy to point at who they play, or to talk about tomato cans, or say that everyone else is terrible. But that’s not the reason. The Patriots, by virtue of their consistently successful regular seasons, earn the right to play host to the lowest remaining seed. It shouldn’t be knock on them; they should be praised for it.
So what are the secrets to the Patriots’ success? Having covered the league for 17 years and seen all kinds of teams and players, this is what stands out to me:
Belichick’s consistency: Whether it’s how he deals with the media, controversies, player evaluations, in-game decisions, personnel and schemes, Belichick is the same way every year and every day. This is vital. Everyone in the building knows what to expect every day in every situation. Nothing surprises them. It’s always business as usual.
The consistency of the staff: Belichick has developed a pipeline as far as his staff goes, which is why even a “mass exodus” of assistants — like Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels — is way overrated among the public and the media. With a few exceptions (Dante Scarnecchia, Ivan Fears, Chad O’Shea, Brendan Daly on the current staff), future assistants come to the Patriots for their first-ever jobs in the NFL — some in scouting, some in coaching. This allows Belichick to get a feel if the person is cut out for the Patriots life (long hours, low pay, not a ton of praise). It also allows Belichick to train the potential coach in the franchise methods — they don’t come with a lot of outside ideas. Since those potential coaches are relative unknowns around the league, they're less likely to get poached early in their coaching career, and wind up staying until they at least have several years as a coordinator. And that’s after probably coaching different units on both sides of the ball. That’s a lot of in-house talent sticking around for a long time, and a lot of consistency. Even if McDaniels and Patricia leave, the Patriots can absorb the loss because of the system, and Belichick being there to do as much as needed.
The consistency of the playbooks: I didn’t understand this until I covered Nick Saban with the Dolphins. After his first season, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan left to coaching the Vikings and Mularkey (wouldn’t you know it) became the offensive coordinator. But the Dolphins didn’t switch playbooks; Saban said the offense would continue to use the “Miami Dolphins Playbook.” That was what Linehan installed. Saban said he learned about this through Belichick. Most teams in the NFL hire new coordinators and they bring their own playbook with them. That means the entire unit has to start over, and often learn an entirely new terminology. Not only could the players be a poor fit for the new system, but the time wasted on installation would take away the players actually improving at their craft. The Patriots have had several coordinators (Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, Bill O’Brien, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Dean Pees, Matt Patricia) but the playbooks for both the offense and defense have remained largely the same. The terminology is the exact same as it was in 2000, just with more volume. This allows remarkable consistency from one year to the next. This is a critical yet vastly underrated reason for the Patriots’ success. One other important aspect of the playbooks: on both sides of the ball, the scheme is multiple and adaptable both to personnel and to specific opponents. The Patriots are never a team that just “does what it does” on either side of the ball.
It’s about the right 53, not the best 53: Can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard some general manager say something to the effect of “We’re in the talent acquisition business.” No, you are in the team-building business. Every prospect, whether in the draft or free agency, is evaluated only in the context of the Patriots’ system. It doesn’t matter how a player would be evaluated by the other 31 teams; it only matters how and where that player would perform in New England. Belichick also doesn’t want to hear all about what a player can’t do—tell him what the player can do well for the Patriots.
Improving never stops: As soon as one season ends, the Patriots’ coaching staff evaluates the team for weaknesses and looks for ways to get better. They figure out how teams are likely to change to attack them, and figure out counters. Assistant coaches are tasked with off-season study projects and then asked to recommend changes to Belichick. A need to get back to running the ball and to move Brady from shotgun to under center led the Patriots back to the two tight-end system and the drafting of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010. After not being able to run the ball against the Broncos’ subpackages in the AFC Championship Game in 2015, the Patriots lured Scarnecchia out of retirement, and inserted two new starters on the line (center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney). When the Patriots dropped to 12th last season in chunk plays, they went out and traded a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks despite coming off a Super Bowl title. Cooks ended the regular season seventh in the league with 16.6 yards per reception. They are always looking for ways to get better.
Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.: There isn’t much that hasn’t been said about the quarterback, but there is one headline for me after being around him, and other greats (Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers) over the years. We’re all having a little fun with Brady over his upcoming Tom vs. Time documentary with the Warrior Spirit and all that stuff. But he wasn’t just talking when he said, “If you're going to compete against me, you better be willing to give up your life, because I'm giving up mine." That’s not his opinion, that is a fact. For 365 days a year, Brady is in football mode. Everything else takes a back seat to his preparation for the season or the next season. Bill O’Brien once told me a story about how it was March, when most players are on a beach getting a little fat and recuperating from the season. O’Brien got a call from an international area code, which he didn’t know. It was Brady from Costa Rica. He wanted to change the practice script for one of the offseason practices to work on one specific skill. I mean, who else does that? Do you think Ben Roethlisberger is doing that? Heck no. Maybe Rodgers and Andrew Luck, but that’s about it and not to the extent that Brady does it.
There are many more things that are part of the Patriots’ remarkable success — Belichick’s vast knowledge of everything, including game situations; how he plays the percentages in everything from stockpiling draft picks to rarely blitzing; always having options in personnel going into the draft and free agency; not having a constantly meddling owner — but those are the key reasons: the remarkable and unrelenting consistency and excellence of Belichick and Brady.
The NFL has never seen anything like it, and probably won’t ever again.