Sunday, February 3, 2019

Why the Patriots Are Champions

The Patriotsʼ secret is focusing on the details. Every. Last. Detail.

Sally Jenkins ATLANTA —

Patriots quarterbacks Brian Hoyer, left, and Tom Brady stand with Coach Bill Belichick during a practice in January. (Steven Senne/AP) 

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 18 seasons, and you wind up trapped in a lot of bland, 

meaningless generalities about “efficiency” and “execution” that donʼt 

come close to capturing its precision-blade offensive excellence or its 

hand-in-the-dirt defensive violence or its pure greed for winning. Every NFL 

team preaches execution. So how come nobody can imitate the Patriotsʼ 

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,” says Trent Dilfer, the ex-quarterback turned NFL Network analyst 

who won the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in the 2000 season. 

“Iʼve studied it and tried to understand it, but Iʼd 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 game victory over the Kansas City 

Chiefs 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.

“Theyʼre always on point,” says Los Angeles Rams defensive back Aqib 

Talib, who played for the Patriots in 2012 and 2013 and won a Super Bowl 

with Denver in the 2015 season. “They throw the ball so fast, but theyʼre 

always on point. Thatʼs so tough to do.”

The Patriotsʼ methods to a large extent remain in a lockbox, thanks to 

Coach Bill Belichickʼs 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. 

The Patriots personify an old quote from former Miami Dolphins coach Don 

Shula, who once was asked, “Why donʼt you overlook a little mistake?” 

Shula answered, “Whatʼs a little mistake?” 

The Ramsʼ 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 wasnʼt 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, youʼd say, ‘Thereʼs something different about that team,ʼ ” McVay told 

NBCʼs Peter King last week. 

McVay left the practice with one thought: “Thatʼs what it looks like when itʼs 

done right.”

The great Indianapolis Colts wide 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 a Super 

Bowl team under Coach Tony Dungy in the 2006 season. 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. 

“Lot of guys, you see them toss the ball to the ref,” Wayne says. Not the 

Patriots. “You donʼt know if the ref can catch or not, so if they drop that ball 

and itʼs bouncing around, thatʼs time running off the clock.” The Patriots 

were drilled to sprint to the ref and hand it to him, to get a quicker spot and 

save a second. They would “go over and over and over it,” Wayne said, and 

didnʼt seem to resent the monotony.

The conservation of time begins the moment they walk in the building.

“Look, if you show up one minute late, they just tell you to go home for the 

day,” says former New York Giants Super Bowl quarterback and CBS analyst 

Phil Simms, a Belichick confidante. The Patriots “set more alarms” than 

other teams, Talib says, all in the name of “habits.” The time sacrifice 

requires such cooperation from spouses that safety Devin McCourty said 

his wife tells him: “Go watch film. I want to go to the Super Bowl. Iʼve got the 

kids.” Brady remarked this week that he has spent more time with Belichick 

in his life “than with my parents.”

Thatʼs confirmed by Willie McGinest, defensive cornerstone of the Patriotsʼ 

2001, 2003 and 2004 Super Bowl-winning teams. He used to try to beat 

Belichick to the office. “I would get there at 5 in the morning,” McGinest 

says. “Once he heard I was coming in, he would be there at 4i30.” The 

sense of urgency permeates the building, he says, down to the laundry 

staff. “If the uniform guy donʼt have the uniforms straight and ready to go, 

somebodyʼs on his ass,” McGinest says.

The same is true on the practice field, 

where staccato-shouting coaches 

continually clean up slippage in the 

technique of the most blooded 


“You go to their practices, theyʼre 

always setting something straight,” 

CBS analyst Boomer Esiason says. 

“Bill will walk over and say, ‘How many 

times do we got to tell you, stay on the 

outside, stay on the outside.ʼ ”

When there is a mental mistake, there 

is no happy talk about it from 

Belichick says, ‘I donʼt believe in lying to a 

player.ʼ Itʼs not a franchise for high- 

priced egos that need flattery.

“If they do, probably the New England Patriots is not the place for them,” 

Belichick says before pausing. “Look, I think itʼs just about being honest. I 

donʼt think you tell somebody they did a good job when they didnʼt do a 

good job. I think if they do a good job, you tell them they did a good job. If 

they didnʼt do a good job, I think you tell them, ‘Hereʼs what you need to do 

better.ʼ I donʼt believe in lying to a player.”

By all accounts, the Patriotsʼ ticktock urgency is coupled with an intense 

physicality in practice few other teams are willing to risk. Simms says of 

Belichick, “If he could, their ass would be in pads every week.” McGinest 

recalls that frequently defensive starters would act as the scout team 

against Bradyʼs offense, mimicking the opponent “because we wanted them 

to see what it was really going to look like in a game. We would give them 

their first look — and we would give them a full-speed look.”

Simms witnessed a practice two years ago, as the Patriots were readying to 

play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2016 AFC championship game. Simms 

was “shocked at the pace,” given that it was the postseason, and at the 

fierceness with which they went at each other. On one play, Brady threw a 

pass out to Edelman, his close friend and favorite target. It was a bad throw 

that tailed into the dirt. Edelmen dived down to get it, caught his cleats in 

the grass and face-planted in the turf. He got up with a clod of dirt in his 

face mask and began cursing Brady for lousy execution.

“What did you say?!” Brady snapped at him, and the two men went helmet 

to helmet and began screaming at each other.

“Thatʼs just how they are,” Simms says. “Then I heard Bill ran ʼem a lot after 


They beat the Steelers, 36-17. 

Belichick sets the basic template and schedule, but somewhere along the 

line the Patriots players adopt it as theirs, and pride in execution becomes a 

partnership that has won at least 10 games every season since 2003.

“Itʼs certainly not the easiest place to play,” special teams captain Matthew 

Slater says, “but it works for us because of the buy-in. Guys are willing to 

check their egos at the door and say, ‘Hey, Iʼm in this for the greater good,ʼ 

and the guys who arenʼt willing to do that usually donʼt last long here. . . . So 

I think itʼs a perfect match. Bill has the formula, and he gets the right guys 

to come in and do it the way he wants it done.” 

The Patriots long have been accused of practicing dark arts, but there is no 

swallowable pill or spying or ball deflation ploy that is a shortcut to their 

substance. Their success is the result of manifold parts: scouting, an 

economistʼs grasp of salary management, the discipline not to be seduced 

by talent and to bring in only the most intelligent players preloaded with 

work ethic, Belichickʼs deep strategic background, and a quarterback for the ages who has played into his 40s. These are all crucial. But theyʼre 

ultimately just piecemeal factors that lead up to the collective on-field 

performance by players who take an incalculable pride in craft and learn to 

enjoy winning more than any leisure.

“When I go and spend time with them at practice, I always walk away going, 

‘Well, I know why they win,ʼ ” Simms says. “When I go to another team, I go, 

‘Uh, thatʼs why they are where they are, looking for another coach every 

third year and never winning a lot of games.ʼ ”

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