The New England Patriots have achieved an astounding level of consistency, reaching 11 AFC championship games since the 2001 season. Sunday’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the Pats’ sixth consecutive conference title bout. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, the Kraft family, and the guys who cosplay in the end zone have been there for the whole run, but the rest of the core cast in Foxborough has rotated. New England has kept winning thanks not to just one person, but rather to myriad little things that have combined to create the best team of the millennium by a wide margin. We know they have a future Hall of Fame coach and quarterback, but from that quarterback’s secret speed to that coach’s disdain for "SnapFace," here are the less obvious factors that have kept the Pats on the path to the fifth Super Bowl title of the Brady-Belichick era:
Belichick Coaches Every Position
We all know that Belichick is a massive football nerd. Lots of coaches are. What sets him apart is that he’s a nerd about everything on the field. Though his most notable stint as an assistant came when he served as the Giants defensive coordinator in the 1980s, he’s also worked as an assistant special teams coach, a receivers coach, and a linebackers coach in his career. He doesn’t seem to favor one side of the ball. In 2005 and 2009, when Belichick lost respected offensive coordinators Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels, respectively, he didn’t fill the position, instead opting to take on more responsibility himself. In 2010, he made a similar decision with the defensive coordinator role. The Patriots didn’t win the Super Bowl in those seasons, and Belichick has coordinators in place during this highly successful campaign, so the merits of that particular tactic are up for debate, but Belichick’s commitment to all facets of the roster has undeniably shaped the franchise.
Louis Riddick, a former NFL defensive back who played for Belichick when he coached the Browns, says that Belichick’s team-wide expertise forces players to remain focused. "There aren’t many [head] coaches, if any, who can talk about a tight end’s footwork when he’s blocking the defensive end then [walk] over to the safety and say, ‘Your eyes are all wrong,’ and he’s going over to another guy and he’s saying, ‘Get your ass over here, this is where your feet should be at the snap,’ and you’ll just be like, ‘Holy shit, I better get this right,’" says Riddick, now an ESPN analyst. "There are two fields during training camp so you’re sitting there saying, ‘He’s not paying attention to me because this isn’t really his area.’ Wrong. You cannot slack. He sees everything, any position."
Belichick’s diverse background may be rare among head coaches, but it’s common among his assistants. He gravitates toward staff members who possess similar flexibility, whether it comes from working with the offense and defense alike or from working in different parts of the organization. Current defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, for instance, was the team’s assistant offensive line coach in 2005 before becoming the linebackers coach a year later. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio was the team’s wide receivers coach. Linebackers coach Brian Flores used to be a Patriots scout. League-wide, it’s uncommon for coaches and scouts to switch career paths like that once they’re at the NFL level, but in Belichick’s house, it’s routine.
Possessing expertise across the organization doesn’t just make coaches and execs smarter; it helps earn players’ trust. "He’s done everything, so when he’s talking about anything you have to listen," New England pass rusher Rob Ninkovich says of Belichick. "Offensive coach, defensive coordinator, special teams, it’s unbelievable. He can know anything."
The Pats Invest in Special Teams
The Patriots have finished in the top seven in special teams DVOA in every season since 2011, and that’s no coincidence: They’re obsessed with that phase of the game. Belichick talks breathlessly about its intricacies, and that passion has translated into field position: This season, their opponents’ average drive began on the 26-yard line, best in the league, while their own average drive started at the 31, third best in the league.
Committing to special teams excellence is a conscious choice: The Patriots paid Matthew Slater, the special teams ace tasked with flying down the field to make the tackle on punts and kickoffs, more than $2 million this season, an extremely uncommon expenditure in a league in which teams are loathe to spend more than the minimum on special teams players. They spent a fourth-round pick on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who’s been with the team since 2006, and a fifth-round pick on long snapper Joe Cardona despite only four exclusive long snappers ever being drafted. They didn’t draft punter Ryan Allen, but that won’t stop Belichick, who believes the spin Allen generates makes the ball harder to catch, from gushing about the left-footer.
Every team knows that there are three phases to the game, but few care more about the third one than the Patriots.
Brady Is Faster Than He Looks
Brady famously ran a 5.28-second 40-yard dash during the 2000 combine, and video of the event is a tribute to a seemingly total lack of athleticism:
The T-shirt-and-shorts-wearing QB in that video does not appear to move like an NFL athlete, but don’t be fooled. When Brady is highly motivated, something odd happens: He gets fast. "I’d be embarrassed if he beat me in a regular footrace," says Patriots tackle Nate Solder. "But there are plenty of times I’m lead blocking for him and I can’t catch him and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’"
A number of Patriots backup quarterbacks say they’ve suggested Brady was slow only to suffer the consequences. "We questioned his speed last year," says backup Jimmy Garoppolo. And so Brady challenged him to a foot race in camp. "It’s besides the point who won," Garoppolo says with a laugh, suggesting the four-time Super Bowl winner was the victor. "He’s quick." Former Patriots draftee Zac Robinson remembers another former Pats QB, Brian Hoyer, making a similar statement to Brady in training camp in 2010. Hoyer quickly learned that when someone attacks Brady’s speed, the starter takes it personally. "There will be an argument and all of the sudden Tom is setting up a short-shuttle race," Robinson says. "You would just see the competitiveness — when Tom wants to compete, he’s quick and agile."
Brady is one of seven active quarterbacks who’s been sacked on less than 5 percent of his dropbacks over his career. That certainly has something to do with his ability to get the ball out quickly and with the Patriots’ offensive line, but it’s also fueled by the fact that a competitive Tom Brady is a fast one. The burst he finds in practice often appears in games, and Brady’s ability to run when he needs to confounds defenders. "He does a great job of evading pressure — he’s got a real good sense of what’s going on in the pocket and no one in the game can sense it better," says Rams defensive lineman William Hayes. "It may not seem like it, but he moves really, really well."
No One’s Putting Speeches on Facebook Live
Steelers superstar Antonio Brown created controversy Sunday night when he put head coach Mike Tomlin’s postgame speech on Facebook Live. Tomlin called the Pats "assholes," and Belichick responded with his well-worn "SnapFace" line. Current NFL Network analyst and former Patriot Heath Evans says that Belichick has been butchering the names of social media platforms since at least 2005, when he’d parody Myspace (Myface) and Facebook (Spacebook).
But it’s more than just a bit: The notoriously secretive Patriots would likely never have the kind of controversy the Steelers are dealing with now, because, as Brady told WEEI, putting anything considered private on social media is against team policy and wouldn’t go over well with Belichick. Just as notable as the Patriots’ absence of similar occurrences: their reaction to this one. They truly don’t seem to care what the Steelers did or said. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower rhetorically asked WEEI if Tomlin’s words were supposed to hurt his feelings.
In case you’re wondering: Brady has a Facebook page and an Instagram account. No word on SnapFace.
They Think Everyone Is Great — or at Least Pretend To
Last season, Belichick had "high praise" for Blake Bortles. This season, he had it for Darrelle Revis and Ryan Fitzpatrick and made sure to say that he felt the then-1–8 San Francisco 49ers were getting better every week (they weren’t). Defensive end Chris Long, who called the Niners’ players "really good," isn’t the only Belichick disciple dishing out shocking praise: Alabama coach Nick Saban, Belichick’s former assistant, wants you to know he’s not sleeping on Western Kentucky.
They Overcome Setbacks
I was in Foxborough the day star tight end Rob Gronkowski was ruled out for the season with a back injury. The mood was gloomy everywhere in New England except the stadium, where Belichick was giving a master class to the assembled media on moving on. He refused to even acknowledge that Gronk, one of the most dominant players of the past five years, was good. His take? "We appreciate all of our players." Those players apparently appreciated the support, because the team hasn’t lost since:
And Find Value in Surprising Places
Part of being able to recover from losing a player like Gronkowski is being able to find value elsewhere. Gronkowski was replaced at his position by the combination of Martellus Bennett and Matt Lengel, who combined for four touchdowns in the last four games of the regular season, but also by running backs like Dion Lewis, who’ve helped the offense click. That unconventional approach has paid off:
Belichick Wins Every Argument
Ninkovich says that players rarely challenge Belichick, but that in the rare instances when they do, the coach has a ready-made response: "His line is: ‘I’ve forgotten more about football than you’ll ever know,’" Ninkovich says. "His general knowledge of the game is just unbelievable." Once Belichick drops the line, Ninkovich confirms, the discussion is over.
Belichick thinks about everything, including the difference between defending in lacrosse or hockey compared with football. (It’s defending a goal versus defending a line, which changes the entire scheme.) He once talked about timeouts for 971 uninterrupted words. He knows a lot about football — and a lot about the little things.