ATLANTA — There was a time, Willie McGinest recalls, when the New England Patriots were not immune from the Super Bowl hangover.
The Patriots had just won their first Lombardi Trophy by beating “The Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams of Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt to conclude the 2001 season. Players started feeling a little too good about themselves, according to McGinest, the former Patriots linebacker. The following season, the Patriots had a record of 9-7 — unthinkably bad for them, in retrospect — and missed the playoffs entirely.
“We got complacent,” McGinest said. “We started feeling ourselves. We started saying, ‘This is easy. We’re going to get back every year.’ And then we end up not even making the playoffs. The feeling from the guys, not even the coaches but from the guys, was [that was] the worst thing ever.”
That was the end of that. The Patriots won the next two Super Bowls. They next missed the playoffs in 2008, when they went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback after Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener. But that was it for missed postseasons. They’ve played in the last eight AFC title games. They’re about to play in their third straight Super Bowl and fourth in five seasons. They’re playing in their ninth Super Bowl with Bill Belichick as their coach and Brady as their quarterback and are seeking their sixth title.
Other teams reach a Super Bowl, fail to return and bemoan the Super Bowl hangover: It’s tough to deal with success. The offseason is shorter. There’s less recovery time for players. Free agency and the NFL draft are upon coaches and the front office before they know it. Opponents are oh-so-ready. The law of averages kicks in. The NFL is all about regression to the mean, anyway.
That’s for the other 31 NFL franchises. Belichick has made the Patriots immune.
“You’ve got to really understand it,” McGinest said this week. “To go to the playoffs is great. . . . That’s what we’re supposed to do. To win a division, that’s what we’re supposed to do. Don’t get surprised and don’t get happy with that. Our expectation is to be the best that we can be. But we never talk about it. We never come into training camp [saying]: ‘Hey, you guys are all ready . . . for the Super Bowl?’ No. [It’s]: ‘Who do we got Week 1?’ ”
When other teams cite these difficulties, it sounds like excuse-making. With the Patriots, the issues are real. Their offseasons really are shorter than everyone else’s, given that they play at least into late January every year. Brady is about to make his 40th postseason start. That means he has played what amounts to an additional 2½ seasons over the course of his career, just in the playoffs.
“The shortened offseason is an issue in terms of recovery and: When do you crank it up again?” former NFL coach Steve Mariucci said. “Is your body ready to do that? Keeping mentally fresh. This is a day and age when the league tries to create parity as best we can with the draft and with the schedule and with [the order of] claiming guys off of waivers and whatever that is. So for somebody to get to the Super Bowl half the time, 50 percent of the time, is probably not what the league intended to do or to have. But the Patriots are defying all odds.”
There was a mini-uproar last spring when Brady missed the voluntary portion of offseason practices known as organized team activities, or OTAs, to the point that owner Robert Kraft felt the need to offer public support in May for Brady’s absence, which reportedly was to spend time with his family. Tight end Rob Gronkowski mulled retirement last offseason and also missed voluntary OTAs.
Some who know Belichick say that the Patriots have cut back their offseason program as much as Belichick feels is possible while still getting the necessary work done. The result may be a bit less precision early in the season. What is gained is that veteran players are spared some wear and tear.
The condensed offseason for the Patriots means that their coaches and front office executives face a time crunch readying for free agency and the draft. But, in truth, the Patriots have their hits and misses in player evaluation, just as other teams do. For them, it’s not so much about outmaneuvering other teams annually in roster construction. What matters more is the willingness of those players who are added to fit into the Patriots’ collective and how well they’re coached after they arrive.
“A lot of it has to do with the people he brings in,” said Bill Cowher, the former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “When you think about the people that are there and the people he’s moved on from, he gives people a chance. But if you don’t adhere to his way and what his culture is up there, you’re not going to be around there very long.
"People understand what you’re coming into. People say, ‘Oh, it’s not fun.’ You know what’s fun? Winning. Winning is fun. . . . That’s the culture he’s built. That’s why he’s sustained it. He’s got a lot of selfless people in their building and on their team.”
Brady and Belichick are cut from the same cloth: ruthless competitors who are never satisfied, no matter how many victories have piled up. They set the tone. Complacency is not allowed to set in, at least not since the “lost” season after the first Super Bowl triumph described by McGinest. The Patriots know they start completely over each season, with no further savoring of past accomplishments and nothing guaranteed moving forward. Each season is its own narrative.
“No journey is the same,” former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson said. “It’s not like they have every player healthy for every single season. Just think about this season. People want to say, ‘I’m tired of this story line.’ But the story line’s different. Now, their result might be the same. But at the beginning of the year [it was], ‘Tom Brady’s old as hell. He’s not going to be able to do it. Julian Edelman is out four games [via suspension]. Gronk is falling apart, literally, shrapnel falling off his elbow. The defense is inconsistent. [Offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels almost left for a coaching job. Is he going to be there next year? They’re falling apart, the relationship between Belichick and Brady.’
“There’s all these different story lines. Yet they’re still able to maintain and stay like this. That’s why I can appreciate the greatness of this dynasty.”
It is, indeed, a modern marvel of sustained pro-football prosperity.
“It’s a joy to watch it,” Burleson said, “because 15, 20 years from now, I’ll be able to tell my kids and when they have kids: ‘I remember the Patriots dynasty. It was something to be seen.’ ”