The New England Patriots have been one of the top teams in the NFL for so long that fans may not remember their dark days. But before their current era of success, they were once a doormat in professional football.
From their inception as the Boston Patriots in 1960 through the mid 1990’s, the Patriots were mostly a really bad team. They did have one Super Bowl appearance tossed in for good measure in 1986, but they were steamrolled by the Chicago Bears in a 46-10 embarrassment. They did get back to a level of respectability under head coach Bill Parcells in the mid-90’s, but they lost Super Bowl XXXI to the Green Bay Packers in 1996.
After Pete Carroll was dismissed as head coach following the 1999 season, the team had one more bad year under new head coach Bill Belichick, but it’s been all gravy since then. Starting in 2001, the Patriots went on to rack up three Super Bowl titles, were blessed with one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history in the form of Tom Brady, and have become a model that other teams aspire to mimic when they’re building their own franchises.
Some of the team’s success can be attributed to luck (getting Brady in the sixth round of the NFL Draft, for example), but when you look at successful franchises, smart drafting is about more than just luck. It’s about finding players who fit the vision that a coach has for a team, and guys like Brady in New England are perfect examples of why every draft pick is important.
In addition to smart drafting, there has to be a commitment to make the tough decisions when the need arises. In some cases, those decisions are made for you, as it was when Drew Bledsoe went down with injury and Brady was forced to start in his place. In other instances, the choices teams make are not forced upon them, but rather represent difficult obstacles that must be overcome.
When Robert Kraft opted to hire Belichick before the 2000 season, it’s not like he was bringing in a proven record with a history of success. In a five year stint with the Cleveland Browns, Belichick had a 36-44 record, one playoff victory, and managed to go five years without being signed on by another team.
Recognizing the potential of a coach is one thing, but there were no blatantly obvious signs that Belichick was about to become arguably the best coach in the league. Kraft and his team saw that potential despite it not being obvious, and the results speak for themselves.
Being a successful team also means being able to take on cast-offs from other teams and mold them into the type of players a team needs. The Patriots are exceptionally good at this, taking on players like Randy Moss who have been problem-players elsewhere and turning them into exceptional talents driven to win and achieve big things.
This season is no exception for the Patriots, as they not only were willing to bring aboard a player who bombed out elsewhere, but also demoted a player who wasn’t pulling his weight. Earlier in the season, Jonas Gray made the cover of Sports Illustrated as he took the field by storm, but the Patriots weren’t swayed by one great performance. Instead, they went out and signed LeGarrette Blount, who had just been released by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and they rode him all the way to the Super Bowl.
Benching a player who becomes a national sensation can’t be an easy thing to do, but Belichick did it quickly and ruthlessly. He saw another player become available that could help his football team, and he went out and acquired him.
That, perhaps more than any other factor, is what makes Belichick and the Patriots so worthy of emulation. They don’t get caught up in the emotion of the moment. They don’t let trends dictate what they do with their personnel decisions and their coaching hires. They do the right thing that falls in step with their philosophies, and they have a case full of Super Bowl trophies to prove how effective their model has been.