By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (CBS) — The New England Patriots will be playing in their third Super Bowl in four seasons when they take the field on Sunday. It’ll be their fifth appearance since 2007. During that same span, four teams in the NFL have made two appearances, and no team has made three or more. Nine teams have made one Super Bowl appearance, and 18 of the NFL’s 32 teams have not made it to the Super Bowl.
This is not supposed to happen. The NFL is built on parity, and sustaining success for 10-plus years is something that not one other NFL franchise has been able to even come close to replicating.
It’s a run that truly defies explanation. But if you ask the Patriots about it, they make it seem like a cinch.
“I think Mr. Kraft runs this organization in a certain way that it kind of breeds success and allows for people to really take care of their business in a way, and holds everyone accountable for what they have to do,” said Pro Bowl fullback James Develin, who joined the Patriots as a practice squad member with zero NFL games played and will now suit up for his third Super Bowl. “And obviously it trickles down to Bill [Belichick] and the way that he holds us all accountable and the respect that he has for every player on the team, and he gets the best out of everybody.”
Safety Devin McCourty was drafted by the Patriots in 2010. That year, the Patriots lost in the divisional round. Since then, they’ve either made the Super Bowl or the conference championship every single year. As a captain, McCourty plays a significant role in maintaining a sense of normalcy from one year to the next.
“In this league, there’s a lot of times that teams don’t come back. You don’t get that same team next year,” McCourty said. “You get some guys. So it’s not always a connection from you won last year so you gotta win [again]. You get a bunch of great new guys in here, you want to win with those guys, that team that you have for that year. So for me I kind of take it as one year, brand new team, let’s go try to win it.”
What’s made it stand out even more has been the Patriots’ ability to power through the dreaded D-word which NFL teams fear tremendously: distractions.
In 2007, they came under a microscope after getting caught filming signals from the sidelines in Week 1 against the Jets (just as the Jets were caught committing the same offense a year prior), and the whole world began calling them cheaters. All they did was complete the first-ever 16-0 regular season, and they came a helmet catch short of going down as the greatest team of all time.
In January of 2015, the cheating accusations came roaring back over the strangest of issues when the NFL accused the Patriots of deflating footballs. The mess that followed took more than two years and resulted in massive penalties and a four-game suspension for the biggest star in the sport. Since the “scandal” broke, the Patriots have won two Super Bowls, Tom Brady has played the best football of his life, and they’re right back in the NFL’s biggest game this weekend.
Even this year, ESPN The Magazine released a story detailing a major rift that was dividing Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady. The end is nigh, the story warned. The Patriots then went out and steamrolled the Titans and completed a humdrum 10-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Jaguars in the AFC title game before boarding their flight to Minneapolis.
So often, NFL teams make decisions to avoid creating a “distraction.” Meanwhile the Patriots go out and sign James Harrison in the final week of the season, and then trust him to make some critical plays in the playoffs. Then Brady hurts his hand at practice, and the national media descends upon Foxboro and devotes endless attention to the right hand of the Patriots’ quarterback. He then went 26-for-38 for 290 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the championship game, with the offense not skipping a beat.
How do they do it?
“I just think you gotta decide what’s important. If playing in the game and winning the game is important, then it’s simple. If it doesn’t include that, you don’t worry about it,” McCourty said. “A couple of weeks ago we’re talking about Tom Brady’s hand. So I’m talking about Tom Brady’s looks. None of that really matters. I think we just try to focus on what matters in our game plan, how to win, how to be prepared, and I think that helps us no matter what everyone else talks about. Just be ready to go on Sunday.”
Ultimately, it all comes down to Belichick. The coach pores over every last detail, from minor rule changes, to intricacies of special teams, to painstaking film study. It’s something that should come with the job, but doesn’t usually apply to many NFL head coaches.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater, who’s been on the team since 2008, has certainly noticed how unique Belichick is in that regard.
“A lot of times in the NFL, you have coaches that say ‘all three phases of the game are important,’ but their actions would tell you otherwise. Who they keep on their roster, the time that they allot for, the meetings for the kicking game, all would tell you that [they believe] it’s really not that important,” Slater said. “With [Belichick], that’s not the case. From my first meeting here in New England, we’ve gone over kicking game situations in the team meeting, to start the meeting. With Tom sitting in there, Rob [Gronkowski] sitting in there, he’s going over kicking game situations with everyone in there.”
It’s obviously much more than special teams, though, and Slater explained how Belichick can repeat the same tiny thing 100 times before it ever comes up once. When it does come up though, the players are prepared.
“I’ve played for a number of football coaches in my lifetime. But the smallest things that you would think, ‘Well is that really gonna come up? Is that really gonna make a difference in the game?’ He’s covering them. And he’s not just covering them once. He’s covering them week after week, time after time, meeting after meeting,” Slater said. “And then the one time it comes up, it’s like, man, did he have a crystal ball on that? Did he know? But I think it speaks to how driven he is, how focused he is, how detail-oriented he is. And that’s a gift. Everybody’s not able to do that. And we’re fortunate to have a coach like that.”
A perfect example of this came at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Once the Seahawks broke their huddle, the Patriots knew which play they’d be running. They had practiced it during the week. That’s why Malcolm Butler’s interception was not the luckiest play in sports history. It was the result of planning and execution.
Even after that, the Patriots possessed the football at their own 1-yard line. They couldn’t just take a knee; they needed to advance the ball forward in order to keep the clock running and avoid taking a safety and giving the ball back to Seattle, in a scenario where a Seahawks field goal would have won the game.
But the Patriots went with a hard count, Michael Bennett bit, and the Patriots were gifted five free yards by the team that was not prepared for that moment. The Patriots? Well you can look back to one of their Super Bowl DVDs from the early 2000s, which opens with Belichick explaining to an defensive lineman at training camp that there’s really no risk for the offense to go with a hard count when they’re backed up to their own goal line. If they jump early? It’s a 1-foot penalty. If the defense jumps? The offense is out of trouble. It’s imperative, then, for the defense to expect the hard count and not jump early, so as not to bail out an offense in trouble.
It’s a simple matter that Belichick has been preaching for decades. And in the final seconds of a Super Bowl, it helped his team win a championship.
“I think what you have to do as a coach is you have to prepare your team for what to do in those situations. Doesn’t really make any difference if I know what to do or if the quarterback knows what to do or if the defensive signal-caller knows what to do. If everybody else doesn’t know what to do, there’s not enough time to communicate that to everybody,” Belichick said. “And those situations, usually they happen fast, a lot of them are at the end of the game, a lot of times they’re with the clock running and there’s not even a huddle situation. So, the team needs to know what to do in those situations. When everybody knows what to do, that’s when you’re well-prepared. If everybody doesn’t know what to do, then chances are you’re going to break down in those situations.”
It makes sense. It just begs the question of why other teams have had so much trouble replicating the strategy. Yes, having Tom Brady helps keep the ship afloat year after year, but many teams throughout history have had great quarterbacks under center every year, and none have maintained this level of success for nearly 20 years in a salary-cap league.
Clearly, the Patriots who have been around for a while don’t think it’s strange at all for the team to be in the championship game or Super Bowl every year. It’s standard operating procedure. And perhaps that is what speaks most to how Belichick’s team has remained at the top of the league for so long.
We always say and hear the word “culture” when talking about football teams, but it’s often just an empty phrase. With the Patriots, winning is the norm, as is putting in the work and preparation every single week to get the job done. If you can’t dedicate yourself to that, you often just don’t last in Foxboro.