ATLANTA — The New England Patriots franchise is a snarling, unkillable monster where explanations go to die. Try to define how this singular club has made nine Super Bowls in 19 years, and you wind up trapped in a lot of bland, meaningless generalities about “efficiency” and “execution” that don’t come close to capturing their precision-blade offensive excellence, or their hand-in-the-dirt defensive violence, or their pure greed for winning. Every NFL team preaches execution. So how come nobody can imitate the Patriots’ standard of it?
The most knowledgeable NFL observers struggle to analyze the sheer sustenance of their record, by what method they have maintained such a perfection-crazed level over two decades when cycles of roster turnover, burnout and strategic evolution deteriorate every other team.
“We all want to know it, because everybody would like to replicate it if they knew,” said Trent Dilfer, the ex-quarterback turned NFL Network analyst who won the 2000 Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. “I’ve studied it and tried to understand it, but I’d be lying to say I totally did.”
Every NFL club is a complex organism with assets in different departments, but the Patriots more than any team in history are able to resolve all facets into performance on the field in crucial moments. Take those plays in overtime of their AFC championship victory over Kansas City to reach the Super Bowl: Everyone in the stadium, and the world, knew quarterback Tom Brady would look at Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on third and 10; they got open anyway.
“They’re always on point,” said Los Angeles Rams defensive back Aqib Talib, who played for the Patriots from 2012-2013 and won a Super Bowl with Denver in 2015. “They throw the ball so fast, but they’re always on point. That’s so tough to do.”
The Patriots’ methods to a large extent remain in a lockbox, thanks to coach Bill Belichick’s secretive nature: He refused to practice outdoors this week because the field was surrounded by “20-story skyscrapers” that he said offered too good a view. But some things can be gathered from former Patriots or favored broadcasters who have been inside the operation. What emerges is a portrait of a team that simply practices at a more extreme cadence than others, and is zealous at even the most minor-seeming tasks. They personify an old quote from former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, who once was asked, “Why don’t you overlook a little mistake?”
Shula answered, “What’s a little mistake?”
The Rams’ 33-year-old coach, Sean McVay, got a brief look at the Patriots in 2014 during a joint training camp workout when he was still an assistant with the Washington Redskins. McVay noticed, first of all, that there was not a single rote or apathetic moment: If a player wasn’t on the field, he was running in an individual drill with a position coach.
“If you knew nothing about football — not a thing — and you just watched them, you’d say, ‘There’s something different about that team,’” McVay told NBC’s Peter King last week.
McVay left the practice with one thought: “That’s what it looks like when it’s done right.”
The great Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie Wayne spent 11 days with the Patriots in 2015 as a free agent at the end of his career before deciding to retire. Wayne was a champion worker in his own right, part of the 2007 Super Bowl team under coach Tony Dungy. But in his few days with the Patriots he was struck by the absoluteness of their concentration and absorption with details that might become critical inflection points in big games. In one 45-minute meeting on “situational football,” they reviewed not only the two-minute offense, but exactly how players should give the ball to the referee between plays.