FOXBOROUGH TO ORLANDO – The Patriots’ run of success over the last two decades has had a far-reaching impact, and one area that interests me is how those coming up the ranks can learn some valuable lessons from it.
It struck me one day earlier this month when I was at lunch with my 9-year-old daughter. Somehow, the discussion of Tom Brady being the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft came up, and it was an opportunity for me as a dad to explain about things like perseverance, not letting a number define you, and how much hard work it takes to go from 199 to 1.
It’s a story that is extremely familiar to many, but for her, it was new. She seemed to be listening to what I said. Her eyes were wide.
Yet I truly have no idea how the message was received.
That conversation sparked a thought in the days before we were heading to Orlando for a highly-anticipated family vacation this past week: Put together a list of things I saw, heard or perceived from the 2018 Patriots that could highlight a similar type of message I was relaying to my daughter. They are the type of things that can contribute to a championship season.
So with no regular Sunday quick-hit notes/thoughts column on ESPN.com this week, and with a dual-based thought of wanting to have something for Twitter followers on Sunday morning while also thinking of how those involved in various levels of team sports can potentially learn from the Patriots, here’s what came together:
Belief in times of adversity. Things weren’t looking good for the Patriots after back-to-back losses in December. They had dropped to 9-5, were in jeopardy of losing a first-round playoff bye, and it was hard to find too many positive things being said about them. The Monday after a 17-10 loss to the Steelers, Tom Brady stopped to chat with me and Tom E. Curran of NBC Boston on his way out of the locker room, and one of the things Tom Curran wanted to talk to him about was if Brady was bailing out too early on throws. I wanted to gauge Brady’s view of the team’s resolve. What I remember most about his response was how his belief in the team never wavered. He said the Patriots weren’t scared of anyone. He talked about how each of the five road losses could be explained in a way that didn’t mean they couldn’t win on the road if that’s what they would have to do. He was right, of course. The best teams, and best leaders, never stop believing.
Always keep it in perspective. Even in what seems like the worst of times, such as losing a heartbreaker by giving up a 69-yard touchdown on the final play of a meltdown in Miami, a team’s coach can help set an important tone. No one felt good about the way that game ended. But when Bill Belichick was asked on sports radio WEEI how he ensures players don’t view it as the world coming to an end, Belichick provided the quote of the season: “Look, it’s the National Football League. Nobody died.” My takeaway there: Resisting the temptation to overreact to one result, as bad as it seems.
But always need accountability. The Patriots didn’t have the right defensive personnel on the field for the final play in Miami, and one thing that came across in speaking with players in the ensuing days was how much they respected defensive play-caller Brian Flores stepping up in front of them to acknowledge the error as his own. Captain Devin McCourty said players didn’t let Flores take the hit, as it was more of a team error. Nonetheless, part of the team moving on was the willingness of those involved to be accountable.
Light moments along the journey. In a demanding, hard-grinding environment and sport, it helps when there are players with unique personalities to keep things light at times. Rob Gronkowski is one of them, and a presence like that can resonate throughout the locker room. In late January, veteran cornerback Jason McCourty told a story. “I remember it was probably OTAs or training camp, him and Kenny Britt were in the locker room dancing to the point where there was sweat pouring off of them. I just think that’s his personality and that’s the energy he brings each and every day, no matter whether it’s after a win, after a loss, whatever’s going on. You’re going to get a big smile from him and he’s going to bring a ton of energy to the building. I think sometimes you need that. Sometimes things aren’t going to go your way. You’re going to be down as a team and you need those guys that pick everybody up and seems as though nothing phases them.”
Spread the love. The moment on the field after the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, in which Belichick and Brady spoke of their love for one another, was reflective of a group of coaches and players who had banded together. Creating that culture can be challenging, but that’s been a common thread from the most recent Patriots championship teams: They have fostered an environment in which they don’t want to let each other down. Brady, in particular, had arrived at 2018 training camp intent on remaining relentlessly positive after a challenging ending the year before.
Every year is a blank slate. One of the things Belichick often says is that every year means a re-set, and what a player did in the past doesn’t necessarily mean anything. He’ll also mention how draft-pick status doesn’t mean anything, and then often backs up his words with the way he puts the team together. Along those lines, when spring practices began, undrafted cornerback J.C. Jackson wore No. 65 and was projected as a longshot to make the team. But he was given a fair shot to show what he could do, and not only did he make the roster, he became a key contributor (with a new jersey number, too). The lesson: Don’t accept labels as a player, and for those putting together a team, make decisions based on performance and not what the player was perceived to be.
The details matter. Every little thing counts, and one could say that attention to detail is what helped the Patriots produce their lone touchdown of Super Bowl LIII. It has now been well documented that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ switch to ’22 personnel’ (one receiver, two backs, two tight ends) for the first time, and then going to an empty formation, was the change to spark things. But the key detail within that, which ensured the Rams would match the personnel with their base defense, was that Rex Burkhead had to be the second running back. If it was “passing back” James White, the Rams very well might have stayed in their nickel defense, potentially negating the effectiveness of what McDaniels was trying to do. That attention to detail, from this viewpoint, is a big part of the Patriots program under Belichick.
Every role counts. Backup quarterback Brian Hoyer played 27 offensive snaps in the regular season, always at the end of games in which the outcome had been decided, but defenders viewed him as one of the most important players on the team because of the way he prepared them in practice. Hoyer’s work as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, in particular, was lauded by cornerback Stephon Gilmore and others prior to the AFC Championship Game win. There are different ways to contribute to a team, and some don’t always show up for everyone to see on game day. But being part of a team means you do whatever it takes for the greater good of the larger group. Hoyer is one of several Patriots players who fall into that category from 2018.