Why do the Patriots always win? Great question. If you ask 10 people in the NFL—and I’ve asked many more than that—you might get different answers from each. One general manager told me a few months ago that nothing mattered except head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. Hmm. Others point to a much bigger picture in New England: roster management and ruthless long-term planning. Some executives or coaches point to the team’s game-planning and the flexibility to change how it plays from week to week.
It’s hard to replicate everything the Patriots do to be successful because no one can agree precisely on what it is they are doing to win. The answer is that all of the above things are correct: The Patriots win because they have Belichick and Brady, they excel at roster management, they play the draft well, and game-plan better than everyone. They find tiny edges in nearly every facet of the game and then stack those edges on top of one another to gain a considerable advantage. There are hundreds of reasons one can point to, but teams haven’t replicated these edges because they don’t seem to know where to begin. The Patriots don’t have a system—the one thing they’re extremely good at is being the Patriots. They are, in short, really smart. The “Patriot Way” doesn’t actually exist—but smart teams do.
The Patriots have been among the best teams in football—or the very best—in every season for nearly two decades. The last time they had a losing record was during the Clinton administration. In a sport where teams tend to peter out after four- to five-year cycles, the Patriots have never done so. In a sport where front offices are increasingly interested in maximizing windows, theirs seems to be open forever.
I asked a simple question during my training camp tour last month: Why don’t more teams act like the Patriots? The answer is as nuanced as anything else with this organization. Some teams simply don’t have time to play the long game in the same way the Patriots play it; others want to do things a different way. Some teams might be desperate. Others might have a more rigid system.
To better understand it, I put the question to NFL decision-makers who have previously worked for the Patriots. Their answers were instructive: They say there are many things to learn from the Patriots, but trying to be Belichick is a bad idea.
“Bill is the greatest football coach ever. There’s only one of him,” said Titans general manager Jon Robinson, who was in the New England front office from 2002 to 2013 and hired former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel as head coach. “I certainly want to take all the things I learned from him—foundationally, philosophically—and integrate that into our program and put my own spin on it, put Mike’s own spin on it, make it about the Titans, and do what’s best for our teams. A lot of those core principles are deeply rooted in New England, but we’re not trying to be Bill, because nobody can be.” Robinson said one of the things he learned from his time with the Patriots is to put an emphasis on detail-oriented, team-first guys who have toughness and a work ethic.
It is hard to paint Belichick’s disciples with a broad brush because they are all vastly different. Several have had success away from New England: The Titans reached the playoffs under Robinson’s direction, and Vrabel had a winning record in his first season in 2018. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, a former Patriots scout, has built six playoff teams in Atlanta, including an NFC champion two years ago. Bob Quinn was a Patriots staffer for 15 years before becoming general manager in Detroit. Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia, a former Belichick assistant, have had little success thus far. The Buccaneers have not made the playoffs in five years under general manager Jason Licht, a former Patriots executive.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, the team’s de facto general manager, is, uh, not following the Patriots’ playbook. The former Belichick assistant traded defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle over the weekend and sent two first-round picks and one second-rounder to Miami for tackle Laremy Tunsil.
I asked Dimitroff, despite his success in Atlanta, why he thinks the Patriots are irreplicable.
“No one can do what Bill does. Categorically, I believe that. Unbelievably intelligent, unbelievably direct, unbelievably creative—the right people around him. I think the people have learned from the people who have tried to be like Bill, and they struggled, because it wasn’t as natural,” he said. “When I left in 2008, I looked at what [former VP of player personnel Scott] Pioli and Bill did in New England, and we could never do that as a budding team. The people who leave New England have learned some amazing lessons about building a foundation, but they’ve also learned that they are going to have to be different.”
It is not useful to look at the past 20 years and extrapolate every edge the Patriots have gained. But I was curious about the ones they still have for the team they’ve built in 2019. These are the lessons that, for whatever reason, other NFL teams have not learned.
“When people say, ‘The Patriot Way,’ they think of the ‘Do Your Job’ thing, but when I think about it, it’s getting rid of a player too early than too late,” said Joel Corry, a salary cap expert and former agent. “Whether it’s because of salary, age, or performance. It’s extremely clinical.”
There’s a long list of players the Patriots have let leave, but notable examples this decade include star pass rusher Chandler Jones, who was offloaded for a second-round pick in 2016 before he hit free agency. Jamie Collins was shipped off to Cleveland for a third-rounder in the middle of the 2016 season before he got expensive (Collins has since returned to the Patriots on a cheap deal). Corry said the Texans trade is a perfect example: Belichick would have acted decisively before being put in the situation Houston faced with Clowney—a valuable player unhappy without a long-term deal.
“Bill O’Brien didn’t do what Belichick did,” Corry said. “O’Brien didn’t say, ‘OK, we’ll get what we can.’ Belichick got a second for Chandler Jones, never had to worry about the franchise tag or those negotiations.”
Part of this, Corry explains, is simple: “Extreme job security,” he said. “A lot of coaches trading a star would face a fan revolt. Coaches and GMs are thinking short term and not long term to keep their jobs. Belichick doesn’t have to think like that.” He points out that two Belichick disciples were in the bidding for Patriots star pass rusher Trey Flowers this offseason. Detroit, led by Quinn and Patricia, outbid former New England assistant and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores with a five-year, $90 million contract.
The Patriots lost Flowers because they usually let pricey free agents walk if they won’t sign a below-market deal. Corry thinks New England guard Shaq Mason could have been the highest-paid player at his position, but he signed a five-year, $50 million extension last August. To bolster their front seven after the loss of Flowers, the Patriots mined the trade market and acquired veteran pass rusher Michael Bennett in a pick swap with Philadelphia; Michael’s brother, Martellus Bennett, was brought in with a similar trade in 2016.
These types of trades are almost always more favorable to the team getting the player. The player’s original team pays out the prorated bonus money, and the team that receives the player is on the hook for his base salary. Again, the Patriots aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary—the Chiefs, Eagles, and other smart teams use the trade market to bring in cost-controlled veterans—but all of these things put together mean the Patriots almost always have a favorable cap situation. They don’t pay pricey veterans, and they replace the holes left by their departures with a low-risk trade. Belichick was literally on a boat during the first wave of free agency this year.
This personnel management is reflected in the team’s balanced roster breakdown: After a pay bump, Brady now makes 10.7 percent of the team’s salary cap. No one else on the team accounts for more than 7 percent. Even Stephon Gilmore, the team’s big-ticket free-agency item from two years ago, is making 4.6 percent of the cap, despite being one of the top defensive backs in the game. That Brady perpetually takes less is an important part—the Lions and Falcons both have quarterbacks on megadeals—but there are other ways to save money on players.
J.I. Halsell, a former Redskins salary cap analyst and current agent, said the Patriots knew more about the rules of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement than anyone else. He points to a strange 2017 episode in which the Patriots used a seldom-used tender on LaGarrette Blount, which meant his rights would revert back to the Patriots if he hadn’t signed with a new team by July. “They are more researched and know that stuff better than anyone,” Halsell said.
I was reminded of conversations I had with NFL referees over the years, who said the Patriots knew the rules and penalties better than anyone in the league. These are examples of the kinds of edges the Patriots still have, and it doesn’t make sense that other teams haven’t replicated them.
The draft is important too. The Patriots are not particularly good at drafting. It is one place they are positively mortal. Belichick has his blind spots—the list of defensive backs he’s taken in the first two rounds is not exactly thrilling. But the Patriots do a few things very well—and they get the players they need to, er, get to the Super Bowl every year. They accumulate as many draft picks as possible, something very few teams have caught on to, and they draft and develop players who fit exactly what they want to do.
There are, Jim Nagy tells me, two things the Patriots look for in players: intelligence and positional flexibility. Nagy, a former Patriots scout and current executive director of the Senior Bowl, mentioned Patriots undrafted sleeper Jakobi Meyers as an example of their typical value pickup: “I thought he was going to be a fourth-round pick when we invited him [to the Senior Bowl]. I was shocked he didn’t get picked,” Nagy said. “But he’s so crafty. He finds the angles. He moves through traffic really well. The Patriots love players who are good at adjusting routes, and really savvy football players like that.”
Nagy said the Patriots’ open-mindedness helps them in the draft process. He said both New England and Seattle, where he also worked, excel at looking at a player’s entire background to see what roles he might be able to play. “In a lot of [draft] rooms, there’s some tunnel vision. But the Patriots and Seattle are good at saying, ‘Hey, this guy is a wideout, but he had 20 interceptions in high school and can tackle on special teams.’” This, again, can apply to a laundry list of current and former Patriots: Meyers is a former quarterback who switched to receiver at North Carolina State. Julian Edelman is a former college quarterback who stars at wide receiver, has thrown touchdown passes, and played defensive back. Patriots legends Troy Brown and Vrabel have made cameos on both sides of the ball. The team changes its system if there’s value to be found in a new one. Playing different positions on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield is a priority.
Scouting for intelligence, Nagy said, ensures that the Patriots can continue their elite game-planning, in which they can come up with an entirely new plan each week because their smart players can adjust to it. We saw this most recently in the last meaningful game the team played: the Super Bowl win over the Rams. Intelligence is harder to identify in the scouting process than positional flexibility, which often depends on athleticism and background. It’s more about information-gathering on the team side. “I think Bill Belichick helps,” Nagy said. “Bill’s status is so high that if you’re a college coach and Bill calls you, a lot of guys are in awe, and they’ll give up the goods.” He also thinks technology has helped, as teams can now watch film anywhere on iPads and can delve deep into film review with prospects, as opposed to the old days (of say, 2013) when teams simply drew plays on a whiteboard with prospects.
Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout who founded the Scouting Academy, said the Patriots are one of the rare teams who do not subscribe to one of the two scouting services that pool information about prospects for NFL teams. This means, typically, that the Patriots are scouting much earlier than other teams to get all the information they need, which, he said, allows them to more quickly get a handle on what the next year’s class will look like. “It allows them to play the market better, and they do play the draft like a market,” Hatman said. “They find an edge in everything because they set the market. They don’t react to it. If you focused on the Patriots one year and said, ‘We’re going to run 11 personnel,’ or ‘We’re going to run 12 personnel,’ or, power-run, everyone will catch up to that, and the Patriots will go somewhere else. It’s a cat-and-mouse game. They set the terms of the game, and everyone else starts playing by those terms.”
So the Patriots’ edge will remain. They will probably have some schematic innovation that other teams will chase in 2019. Twelve years ago, it was the slot receiver; seven years ago, it was the athletic tight end; this season, it might be how they use their running backs. Teams will view the Patriots with envy but, as we know, they won’t learn how to be the Patriots. No one, apparently, can.