It turns out reports of the death of the Patriots Way were greatly exaggerated.
You remember the idea of the Patriots Way of Doing Things, right? It’s something we used to talk about seriously -- with straight faces -- back about seven years ago. It was this notion that if you built a football team out of a bunch of hard-working, overachieving, high-character guys and got them to trust their coaches, trust each other and above all put the team first, you could beat teams with more talent and better combine numbers.
Of course, not everyone bought into it. Even when February meant Super Bowl rings falling from the sky like snowflakes around here, the Boston sports media for the most part scoffed at the idea. The media said that the Pats were winning not because they bought into the team unity thing or they outworked everyone else or they were the best coached, but because they had the best athletes. As Dr. Evil himself, Ron Borges, is fond of saying, “It’s not the X's and O's, it’s the Johns and Joes.”
And that was the media consensus when the Pats were actually winning championships. Back then it was simple skepticism. Then a year ago they got bounced out of the playoffs and the cynics went from dismissing the idea to outright ridicule. After the Patriots were one and done last January, suggesting there was still a Patriots Way of Doing Things was nothing more than an easy way of denting your credibility.
The reason was the New York Jets, who came to Foxboro and beat New England with an approach and an attitude that’s about as opposite the PWoDTs as you can get.
Whereas Bill Belichick drills into his guys’ heads, “When you win, say nothing and when you lose, say even less,” Rex Ryan talks win or lose and invites his guys to do the same. Where Belichick discourages saying anything that could be used for bulletin board material, Ryan likes “swagger.” Where the Hoodie demands conformity, the Footsie encourages individuality.
And though it pains me to say it, Ryan’s approach worked. The Jets rolled into Foxboro, talked a good game and backed it up, no two ways about it. They not only beat the Patriots physically and schematically on the scoreboard and on the chalkboard, but they blew them out of the stadium in terms of emotion and enthusiasm. You could see it from the opening kick. The Jets were more fired up than the Pats in that game. They taunted. They pounded their chests. They preened and end zone danced and choreographed and excessively celebrated and they acted with all the emotion the NFL is trying to discourage but the Jets encourage.
And it worked to a 'T.' It was like that part in Lord of the Rings when they say, “The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come.”
Everyone saw it that way. The Jets had out-enthusiasmed the Pats. Belichick had his troops so careful, so controlled that they couldn’t play the world’s most emotional game. Wes Welker held a goofy, hilarious press conference where he made fun of Shrex’ bizarre foot fetish and Belichick sat him out the first series to serve as an example. The conventional wisdom said that if he could do that to the heart and soul of his offense, how can he expect the rest of the players to come in fired up and ready for what New York would throw at them?
Meanwhile, the Jets came in woofing and yapping from the time they got off the plane to the coin flip and through to the postgame. Welker’s “Put our best foot forward” got him benched and his team was bounced. Bart Scott’s “Feel great! Can’t wait!” got him a viral YouTube video and a trip to the AFC championship game. And it felt like cause and effect. At least everyone said it was.
Funny what a difference a year can make. The powers that be in Foxboro stuck with to their guns, and they’re sitting on 13-3 with home field throughout the playoffs. The Jets kept doing what they do, and they went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. The Pats overcame massive roster turnover and an injury pandemic and kept battling. The Jets blew their last three games and imploded into chaos and turmoil. And it feels like cause and effect. Or the Patriots Way. At least I say it is.
I mean, just look at what’s been going on in New York since New Year’s Day. (Lord knows I have.) Santonio Holmes, who I’ll argue has more natural athletic talent than anyone on the Patriots roster and is in the prime of his career, is tearing his team apart from within. He was brought to New York and paid a ton of money to give the offense the “playmaker” it needed, and Ryan unilaterally made him a captain. So with a playoff spot on the line Sunday in Miami, Holmes pouted, ignored calls in the huddle, fought with his teammates, got yanked by his offensive coordinator and didn’t catch a pass all game.
That’s pretty ironic, because at the exact same moment 1,500 miles up Interstate 95, the Patriots had two guys who were brought in and paid a ton of money to give the offense the “playmaker” they needed (Note: In the Kingdom of Jerryland, that word will be banned forever). And neither Deion Branch nor Chad Ochocinco caught a pass. But rather than piss and moan, bellyache and cause a riot, they played hard on every down and helped the team score 49 unanswered points.
In fact, Ocho threw a key block on a screen pass that sprung BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a 53-yard gain that turned the game around. He and Holmes both had reputations for diva-ishness when they were in the AFC North. Both came to the AFC East and have underachieved. But one has kept his mouth shut, bought into the program and is on a winner. The other is counting his catches, causing screaming matches in the huddle and humiliating his bosses. Swagger, my ass. I’ll take the Patriots Way.
And I’ll take the Patriots Way because it’s real. It’s proven. This idea of putting the team first works. If you can get guys to buy into it. Corey Dillon did for a time. Randy Moss did for three years and change before he couldn’t keep a lid on his inner crazy anymore. Adalius “George Jetson” Thomas never did. Obviously, neither did Albert Haynesworth.
But a key part of this Patriots Way thing is that the "team first" door swings both ways. You don’t ask a roster full of guys who give themselves up for the greater good to put up with someone who won’t just because he’s a superior athlete. You cut that guy, and the club gets stronger for it. That’s why you replace Moss with the less-gifted-but-way-more-stable Branch and your offense gets better. It’s how you can cut a coveted free agent like Thomas and no one else picks him up. And it’s how you can cut Fat Albert and go 8-0 without him, then he gets picked up by the Buccaneers and they go 0-8 with him.
Is there any better proof that the Patriots Way is real than Tom Brady? The 199th pick of the draft who outworked everyone to strip-sack the starting QB’s job out of the hands of the franchise No. 1 pick?
Take the example of Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien in a purple-faced rage screaming at each other on the sidelines in Washington. In any other city with a superstar quarterback and an unproven assistant coach, that one episode would’ve been made into a season-long epic miniseries (and some media guys around here tried). But with the Patriots, it blew over in an instant. Two strong-willed, competitive guys, putting the team first and winning over all else.
Meanwhile, in Indy they’re reading reports that Peyton Manning got the owner to fire the GM for the crime of doing his due diligence by scouting Andrew Luck to possibly take Peyton’s job. That must be the Colts Way.
If you haven’t figured this out by now, I’m not a journalist. I’m a shameless Patriots pajama-wearing fanboy. And from a fan’s perspective, there’s nothing at all wrong with an organization and a fan base celebrating that their team chooses to build a winner through the high road.
The fact is that some teams are easier to root for than others. I don’t want to shell out 175 bucks to watch Cub Scout Pack 39 play football. But I don’t want a collection of mouthy, chest-thumping, self-absorbed problem children either. There’s nothing at all wrong with believing in an organization that builds around guys who’d rather keep their mouths shut and work hard -- an organization in which individuals put the team ahead of themselves. Scoff all you want, but the 2011 season proves this Patriots Way of Doing Things is legit.