“The basic tenets of their team-building approach remain just as true as they were in January 2000,” concludes Christopher Price’s examination of the New England Patriots’ success in his book The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower. “Always value the team above the individual. Consider the short term, but always remember that real success is gained when you consider the big picture. And remember that it’s not about collecting talent, it’s about assembling a team.”
And, since the arrival of Belichick in Foxboro, it’s about rehabilitating a franchise that has never failed to be a disappointment. Every time the franchise got a taste of success it squandered its gains and quickly returned to the pack. There’s the 1976 playoffs, when a legit Super Bowl contender lost on a bad call, and soon fired its coach in a petty dispute, wrecking the team’s chemistry. When the Pats finally did make the Super Bowl in 1985, they lost a 46-10 laugher to the Chicago Bears — then the widest margin of defeat in Super Bowl history — and, adding insult to injury, the Boston media revealed the next day that six Patriots had tested positive for steroids. And most famously, there’s the 1996 season, when tensions between owner Robert Kraft and Coach Bill Parcells caused the premature breakup of a Super Bowl participant, setting the franchise that had come so far back by years.
Then, there’s the flat-out camp that made the Patriots the NFL’s lovable losers. This is the team that played the first decade of its existence without a home field, playing at Fenway, then Boston College, and even Harvard at one point (and since Harvard only allowed the Patriots the use of one locker-room, the team had to get dressed in their hotels and shuttle over in full garb). This is the team whose first coach, Clive Rush, almost electrocuted himself in his opening press conference, and ran the infamous one-and-done Black Power Defense. Writes Price on Rush’s odd scheme:
“[Rush] told his team he’ll be the first coach in the history of the NFL to put eleven black players on the field at the same time. However, Rush failed to see the error in his logic—he didn’t have eleven black players on defense at the time. As a result, he was forced to convert a handful of offensive players to defense. After Houston quarterback Don Trull was sacked midway through the first half, forcing the Oilers into a third-and-long situation, the Black Power Defense made its one appearance on the field—and Trull fired a pass down the middle for an easy first down.”
I had read about four books on the New England Patriots prior to Blueprint and none of them explore the franchise’s humble roots the way Price’s volume does.
It is fitting that the last word of Christopher Price’s examination of the New England Patriots’ blueprint for success is team, because from the start of Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach in 2000, he has always stressed the team concept, the idea that “the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
Belichick’s mentality has its genesis in Cleveland, when in his third year he famously cut local legend Bernie Kosar in favor of the younger Vinny Testaverde, justifying the decision with a shrug of the shoulders and a phrase that’s become the Belichick Manifesto: Just doing what’s best for the team.
Some have called Belichick’s approach hard-hearted, as it often means parting ways with fan favorites and popular players in the locker-room, but no one can deny its results. Considering that only 10 of the 53 players on the Super Bowl 36 roster were with the Patriots during their “pursuit of perfection” that ended two minutes too soon, the logic behind Belichick’s oft-unpopular decisions is clear: no one player (outside of QB Tom Brady) is worth selling the farm for.
That said, two tests will emerge over the next year that will prove challenging for Belichick’s championship blueprint.
First: What personnel moves will Belichick consider “best for the team?” With WR Randy Moss coming up on free agency — though he could be franchised for one year if the two sides are unable to strike a more long-term deal — and CB Asante Samuel free to sign with any team he likes, there’s a chance that New England will only be able (read: willing to pay) to keep one of them. That will most likely be Moss, who alters the game plans of every defense the Patriots face, and was brought into town to combat the offensive firepower of the Indianapolis Colts, who before their 20-24 loss to the Patriots in Week 9, had beaten Belichick’s crew three times in three tries — twice in Foxborough.
On defense, Belichick will have to upgrade a linebacking corps that has failed to make stops when they’ve needed two the last two postseasons, one in 30-year-old Adalius Thomas is the most junior member — though with the release of Miami Dolphins LB Zack Thomas, a division rival Belichick respects greatly, if the Pats sign him their linebackers will get better, if not younger. And Belichick prefers experienced ‘backers.
There’s also the issue of CB Ellis Hobbs, who gave up the last-minute, go-ahead touchdown to Plaxico Burress in Super Bowl XLII, and according to football scientist KC Joyner gave up 9+ yards per attempt in 2007. If Hobbs is cut and Samuel takes big free agency dollars elsewhere, Belichick and VP of player personnel Scott Pioli will have their work cut out for them in retooling a defense that hasn’t made the stops they’ve needed to the last two postseasons.
Second: Will the Patriots be able to avoid the hangover that grips most Super Bowl losers? Over the last 10 seasons, only two teams, the 2000 Tennessee Titans and the 2006 Seattle Seahawks, made the playoffs the year after losing a Super Bowl. Only the New York Giants have won — or returned to — the Super Bowl since losing it, and that was eight years later, with only two of the same players and a different general manager and head coach.
But the odds are better that New England’s super setback will only make everyone hungrier, not hungover. The Patriots’ infrastructure, both at the macro organizational level and at the micro locker-room level, is simply too strong to allow any slack in the line.
Despite on-field disappointments that would cause others to panic, and the defection of coaches and players lured away by power and riches, New England remains a perennial contender for the game’s highest glory. Contrast this with teams like the post-2000 Baltimore Ravens and the post-2003 Tennessee Titans, who burned bright for a time then suffered years of mediocrity due to salary cap purges — which were only necessary because of poor future planning — and it comes into focus just how special the Patriots’ reign since 2001 has been.
The Belichick-led Patriots “beat the system,” Price makes clear, by heeding the Socratic maxim to “know thyself.” They know what type of players they want, they have the coaches to teach the system, and they have supportive ownership that, in Pioli’s words, “asks questions without questioning us.”
That is the blueprint of a champion.