James Harrison admits that he doesn’t know the entire Patriots defensive playbook. Of course, he maintains that he doesn’t need to.
Cut loose by the Steelers on December 23, the four-time All-Pro signed in New England with one week left in the 2017 regular season. After spending 14 of his 15 NFL seasons with Pittsburgh and winning a pair of Super Bowls, Harrison is now a member of the team that Steelers fans consider one of their biggest rivals. (Patriots fans do not consider the Steelers one of their biggest rivals.) But his job isn’t to be the nonstop, do-everything menace he was when he won the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. Being a Patriot is about Doing Your Job, and Harrison has only one. “I’m not on every defense,” Harrison says. “They gave me the defenses that were going to be my role, and we went over them, learned them, and that’s what it is.”
Harrison is one of five veterans cut by another team after the midway point of this season who made the decision to sign with the Patriots. He is joined by defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, who was cut by the Packers after Week 8; quarterback Brian Hoyer, cut by the 49ers after Week 8; receiver Kenny Britt, cut by the Browns after Week 13; and tight end Martellus Bennett, cut by the Packers after Week 9. The three offensive players are unlikely to play: Hoyer is Tom Brady’s backup, so barring a catastrophic injury there’s no chance he sees the field; Bennett is on injured reserve; Britt is healthy but hasn’t played a snap in either of New England’s playoff games. On defense, though, both Jean-Francois and Harrison have turned into key contributors. Harrison played almost as many snaps in the AFC championship game (39) as he did all season with Pittsburgh (40).
It seems odd that the Patriots would be a team that brings in the NFL’s castoffs. These are players who do not follow the Patriot Way, who are unfamiliar with New England’s mythically brilliant and famously complex playbook, and who have not been blessed by the superior wisdom of the Pats’ coaches. They don’t know Brady’s signals or even what foods he prefers to eat. The Patriots are the NFL’s premier organization, and yet they’ve developed a reputation for harvesting the dregs of inferior teams. How could these players survive in New England’s culture?
And yet, any time a big-name veteran gets cut, there always seems to be a high likelihood that he’ll come to New England. There is a reason that even before Harrison signed with the Pats, it felt predetermined that he would. The Patriots have found a niche assigning limited roles to talented veterans who want to chase a championship. They’re the ideal team for mercenaries.
If you’ve been around Minneapolis this week, odds are good that you’ve heard Kenny Britt say “Dilly dilly.” He is not being paid by Bud Light. It’s just his go-to phrase when he is invariably asked about his tenure with the Browns, a time that he feels he’s already spoken about enough.
Cleveland signed Britt to a four-year, $32.5 million contract in March, a deal that turned out to be possibly the worst signing of the offseason. In nine games with the Browns, Britt made just 18 catches for 233 yards. After Week 1, head coach Hue Jackson publicly criticized Britt for dropping a pass; in Week 6, Britt was sent back to Cleveland ahead of a road game in Houston for missing curfew. In December, new Browns general manager John Dorsey made releasing Britt his first move upon taking the job, telling the press that Britt “may have a higher opinion of himself than I have of him,” and saying that Britt didn’t fit within the culture he was trying to build.
Remember, this wasn’t just any team that cut Britt and said he wasn’t a cultural fit. This was the 2017 Cleveland Browns, the worst team in the history of the NFL. Then the league’s best team reached out and picked him up. The wide receiver says he had offers from several teams, but picking New England was an easy choice. “You’re a wide receiver. Where would you go?” Britt says. “You go play with the GOAT.”
It makes sense that these veterans listened to the Patriots’ call. Getting an offer from New England is like earning an invitation to a secret society. The Pats are the best, they want the best, and they’ve deemed these guys worthy of entry. After a player is told he’s not good enough by one organization, it must be a tremendous boost to hear that he’s wanted by not just any team, but the Patriots. Jean-Francois said he was “surprised” by the Patriots’ call, and that he couldn’t turn the opportunity down.
But why would New England reach out to other teams’ castoffs? Britt is not the only Pats player whose departure from their previous team was acrimonious. The Steelers trashed Harrison on his way out the door, saying he snored loudly in meetings or else skipped them entirely. Linebacker Bud Dupree said Harrison “did a lot of stuff that really wasn’t Steeler-like.” Center Maurkice Pouncey said Harrison “erased his own legacy” with the team. Meanwhile, Bennett—who inked a three-year, $21 million contract with Green Bay in the offseason—also had an awkward exit: He claimed that a Packers doctor mistreated him. Packers players subsequently rallied around their staff in a way that implied Bennett’s claims were bogus.
The Patriots were already a great team when 2017 training camp started, but they weren’t a finished product. Take their run defense, for example. They finished tied for 30th out of the 32 NFL teams in opposing yards per carry (4.7) this season, and ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA. It makes sense that they’d be interested in Jean-Francois, a noted run stopper. And while Harrison was once known as a dominant pass rusher, his primary role in New England is setting the edge against the rush, with Bill Belichick describing his work against the pass as a bonus.
These veterans are used to spending entire offseasons and training camps getting integrated into a system. After being signed in November or December by a team hoping to win a championship in February, they had no time for that. “We try to find a specific role for that guy so that they can focus on something initially,” New England defensive line coach Brendan Daly says. “If we give them everything at once and say, ‘Here’s the playbook, learn it!’ there’s a diminishing return there.”
While it’s fun to imagine that playing for the Patriots requires soullessness and devotion to the Patriot Way, the truth is that someone doesn’t have to be a joyless football obsessive to succeed in New England. Britt is loud and gregarious; Bennett makes animated movies; it seems as if Jean-Francois was partially motivated to sign with New England because he is a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee and New England is “Dunkin’ Donuts heaven.” Think about Harrison’s workout videos, and then think about Brady’s approach to health. I doubt they were fast friends. Honestly, Brady and Belichick might not even be friends.
But none of that matters, so long as the Patriots are able to do their job. That’s why these New England signees are able to prosper on short notice: They’re asked to focus on doing one thing and doing it well.