They're not a group of superstars, but Patriots earn distinction by sacrificing individual goals
FOXBOROUGH -- In March, when his free agency tour stopped here, five-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch got a glimpse of the formula that has the New England Patriots poised to establish an NFL record for consecutive victories and become just the second team to win three Super Bowls in four years.
Lynch ultimately signed a few days later with Denver, but unfortunately for the Broncos, they won't benefit from Lynch's impressions. The Patriots' secret to success isn't tangible; chemistry never is. For as much as the term "genius" is used in association with coach Bill Belichick, his elaborate playbook isn't what has his team favored to repeat as champion. The true brilliance of the Patriots is simply that everyone, from the owner to the coaches to the players to the interns, is on the same page.
Lynch learned that in less than a day.
"It's really clear as to why this organization is so successful," Lynch said after his visit. "A lot of times, when you talk to different people in an organization, they're on different pages, but when you talk to a lot of people in this organization, it's clear they're all on the same page and know what they stand for. I heard the same thing from Mr. [Robert] Kraft as I heard from [defensive backs coach] Eric Mangini as I heard from the scout who drove me from the airport. Either they really rehearsed it or they truly believe it, and I think it's the latter."
A few months on the job, first-year linebackers coach Dean Pees saw the Patriots' team concept manifest itself during a play in practice.
"I can remember one time in one of the first passing camps where it just really hit me," Pees said. "One of the players [who was rushing the passer] went out of his way to hit a running back who was going out for a pass to help the other linebacker cover him. It wasn't like anybody had to tell him to do it. He did it because he knew it would help the guy behind him. That's helping your buddy, not thinking about just you. That epitomized to me what this team is about.
"From what I've seen since I've been here, it starts at the top. What's been ingrained into everybody is that everybody will reach his individual goals if you help the next guy to reach his goals. And we'll all get what we want if the next guy gets what he wants."
There are 32 teams in the NFL, yet so many manage to belie the definition of team because all of its members don't work together. Meanwhile, all of the Patriots' efforts are concentrated toward one simple goal -- winning -- and they are willing, in spite of their desires, to play their parts and make almost whatever sacrifice is necessary. When success is achieved, they defer the credit to one another.
The closest thing to the face of the franchise, Belichick, would just as soon be a face in the crowd; you can't imagine the lengths he has gone to ensure that he does not appear to be above or apart from the team. Belichick's underrated assistant coaches toil in relative obscurity, along with members of the management and scouting staffs.
The players? Many receive less recognition than they deserve. Some play more than they'd prefer, others less than they'd like, others in foreign positions. Most play special teams. A few have taken less money to come or to stay here. They do it because they know the ultimate reward awaits.
"You get a bunch of guys who are all in it for the right reasons, who can see what the possibilities are and see what the rewards can be, and they buy into the philosophy," said Christian Fauria, who joined the Patriots before the 2002 season. "They buy into the aspect of team. Anyone who's won a championship, it's just a certain bond that you have amongst the guys who are on the team. It's like you know something everybody else doesn't know. When people come into it, you don't necessarily tell them, they just kind of see how it is, and it becomes a domino effect."
Simply, the Patriots are a team of "we" guys, not "me" guys. "The Patriots are a team that appears to be extremely unified in its goals," said former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, whose Cowboys won three titles from 1993 to 1996. "Bill Belichick deserves much of the credit for molding the team, but the players are to be applauded for adhering to the team philosophy. That's a common thread among all championship teams."
Said Kraft, "Part of the strength of this team is that we have people who understand that they're really part of a team. The culture we're in likes to stress individualism and stars, but I think they've seen the record of what's happened and they really believe in it. Our mission statement is to win games, to have a shot at making the playoffs every year, and you can only do that if you're working together as a team."
It helps that the team is made up mostly of men who aren't just good at their jobs but are good people, too. In the locker room, the players generally enjoy one another. Rodney Harrison called the Patriots, "The closest team I've been around.
"I think everyone has a mutual respect for everyone. I don't see jealousy about guys' salaries and stuff like that. You see it around the league, but here you don't see the bitterness about one guy getting paid this and the other guy getting paid that. They really don't care. Guys go out there and they play football.
"We have a lot of Christian guys in this locker room that are helping guys with broken relationships, marriages and stuff like that. Those are things people don't see behind the scenes that are going on in this locker room. Guys support one another. We have a lot of fun, but there are a lot of positive things going on."
There's something of a family atmosphere in Foxborough, but every family has its internal issues, and the Patriots are no exception.
This offseason, the agent for offensive coordinator Charlie Weis disclosed that Weis would not return to the team after this season because he could not come to terms on a contract extension, causing friction between Belichick and Weis. But that was nothing compared to the beef star cornerback Ty Law had with Belichick when the two became embroiled in what became a public contract dispute, Law wanting an extension beyond the expiration of his current deal next year.
Players take offense to the notion that they are a group of overachievers who are put in position to win by their coach. And who can blame them, especially when one considers that Tom Brady, Tedy Bruschi, Harrison, Richard Seymour, and Law all arguably are among the top players at their respective positions. Yet Bruschi and Harrison were snubbed for the Pro Bowl last season despite career seasons, no doubt in part because of the no-stars stigma.
"I've never seen a coach go out there and make interceptions or get a sack," Seymour said. "It takes players to go out and do that. You have to give them [coaches] credit for putting us in the right position to make some plays and having a team with a certain mind-set, but that's their job. It's our job to go out and execute. I just think when you say no stars, it depends on the eye that's looking at them.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword. On that football field, if Mike Vrabel has two guys on him and I may be free to go make the play, if that's what it takes to win, then that's what he's willing to do and vice versa. If I've got two guys on me and [Willie] McGinest is able to come free, I have no problem with that as long as we're winning. It's for the better good of the football team. In order to have a good team, you're going to have to make sacrifices like that.
"When it's time for a player's compensation, all that has to be taken into consideration. A player on this team, a D-lineman or whatever, may not have the numbers that another guy does, but everything has to be taken into consideration, what he really brings to the football team. It has to be a balance."
It isn't easy, said Kraft, to satisfy one and all. "This team concept is the real deal, it's not just something that's spoken about. It's very hard, because when you have ownership, administration, coaching, players -- you have a lot of individuals and a lot of strong-willed people. And making sure everybody's in the corral at all levels, while still allowing for those individual qualities, that's the touch and feel."
Concessions worth it
The Patriots manage not to let minor problems become distractions because they long to touch and feel the Vince Lombardi Trophy, given to the Super Bowl champion every year.
"The bottom line is I'd rather hold the trophy up every year and say I'm champion" than be regarded as the league's best defensive lineman, Seymour said.
The sacrifice "isn't always easy," said Ted Johnson, who walked out of camp before the 2002 season opener because of a disagreement with Belichick. "Each person individually has to take inventory on his situation and decide what they want to do. The guys are such good guys and high-quality guys that it's easier to make concessions for the greater good."
A pervasive take-one-for-the-team attitude has taken New England to the top of the NFL heap. The Patriots could be considered America's team -- not in a 1970s Dallas Cowboys sort of way, but in a "united we stand" sense.
"We've tried to create something that reflected what New England sports fans are about, their values," Kraft said. "I think they like to see results rather than braggadocio. That's the culture of New England, the team concept. The revolution started here. There's both a style and a work ethic here, and there's also a sense of understatement, letting your actions speak louder than your words.
"I really believe that the public, both in this region and in the country, is tired of any athlete or performer who exudes selfishness. So we've tried to be the antithesis of that. Things will happen and we can't control everything, but I think by and large, people will know that our mantra is to try to have people who can subsume their egos for what's good for the whole."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.