In 2000, the Patriots’ fortunes started turning, with the hiring of Coach Bill Belichick. The following season, Belichick elevated backup Tom Brady to starting quarterback, launching the golden era in which New England has won four Super Bowls.
The Washington Redskins, in the same 15-year span, have managed just three winning seasons — 2005, 2007 and 2012 — without ever sniffing an NFC title.
Sunday’s game at Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium, in which the Redskins are 14-point underdogs, is likely to highlight the teams’ divergent fortunes and underscore what Coach Jay Gruden conceded this past week: The Patriots’ sustained success represents what the Redskins — and every other NFL team, for that matter — aspire to.
“Everybody is trying to emulate the success that they have. There’s no question about it,” Gruden said of the Patriots, 7-0 and leading the NFL in scoring at 35.6 points per game. “They’ve been consistently good, and that’s obviously the goal of this franchise here: to get back to being consistent — being relevant consistently — year in and year out. It’s easier said than done.”
So where to start, given that the Redskins can’t clone Brady and owner Daniel Snyder could drain his bank account and still not manage to coax Belichick from New England?
For all the focus on the three-time Super Bowl MVP and Hall of Fame-bound coach — either pro football’s smartest or least scrupulous man, depending on whom is asked — the Patriots’ dominance is the result of more than Brady, Belichick and the mind meld they have forged over the years.
New England’s approach to building and maintaining its roster — an approach that flouts conventional wisdom in several respects — is at the heart of the unflagging competitiveness. With a victory Sunday, the Patriots will be assured of finishing .500 or better for the 15th consecutive year. Every other NFL team has had at least one losing season since 2001. The Redskins, at 3-4, are on track for their 10th losing campaign in the past 15 years.
As the chief architect of the Patriots’ roster, with final say in acquiring and culling players, Belichick bucks traditional NFL thinking in multiple ways. Most notably:
●While other NFL coaches clamor for bigger, faster, stronger athletes to plug into a scheme they’re determined to run, Belichick covets smarts. Then he tailors his offense and defense around those players’ best attributes.
“What the Patriots do is they look for smart, intelligent football players because they’re always fluid with their football philosophy in terms of game-planning,” explained Tedy Bruschi, who spent his entire 13-year NFL career in New England and is now an NFL analyst for ESPN.
“There is a lot of stubbornness out there in the NFL, especially in the coach profession,” Bruschi continued. “Coaches have beliefs they were taught at a very young age, or they came from a specific system. ‘This is what we run!’ they’ll say. ‘If a player can’t do it, we’ve got to go find new players.’
“But with New England, if there’s something better they can do with the talent they have, they’ll do it.”
●In an era of specialized skills, the Patriots prize versatility. That’s why they rarely miss a beat when a starter is injured; others on the roster have been schooled, drilled and expected to step in or switch roles as need arises.
That’s what stands out to retired Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, whose four-decade career has been devoted to dissecting the machinations of NBA, Major League Baseball and NFL front offices and players.
“The ability to play more than one position, to be used in more than one scheme, is a big bonus for a player with Belichick,” Ryan said. “He has continually rotated linemen, rotated defensive backs. He values flexibility, versatility.”
This season’s shuffling along the offensive line is a case in point, with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer taking over at left tackle once Nate Solder’s season ended with a torn biceps in Week 4.
“If you can only do one thing, that won’t be a long career in New England,” noted Bruschi, who was drafted as a defensive lineman, tasked with special teams and converted to a linebacker who played both outside and inside as a Patriot.
●Rather than making cap-busting pushes for rosters built to win championships, the Patriots continually restock with a long-term view. That forestalls a cycle of peaks and valleys; they don’t reach the crisis point of a total roster overhaul but instead position themselves to contend every season.
Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall pointed to the Patriots’ ability to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Wes Welker after the wide receiver couldn’t come to contract terms in 2013.
“You’re like, man! That dude caught a lot of balls!” Hall recalled. “But they go out and find [a Danny] Amendola.”
It’s much the same with New England’s tight ends. Having largely pioneered the two-tight-end scheme with the now incarcerated Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski several years ago, the offense is back with that same look after the offseason pickup of 6-foot-7 former Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler, a capable runner, receiver and blocker, to complement Gronkowski.
●In culling the roster, Belichick isn’t swayed by sentimentality or outside judgments. A veteran with a litany of past heroics, Pro Bowl credentials and superstar status is let go without apology if a younger player can do the job better and more economically.
That ability to coach in the moment yet build a roster for the long haul is a departure from the NFL adage that says coaches base their decisions on winning now while general managers make decisions with a long-term view.
It’s among the qualities former Patriots Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison, now a “Football Night in America” analyst, respects most in Belichick.
“For years, Washington paid guys past their prime: Bruce Smith, Deion [Sanders],” Harrison said in a telephone interview. “The Patriots will never be a rest haven where old guys can come and get rich. You’re not gonna have that.
“Belichick will tell you as a veteran player: ‘I’m gonna pay you fairly, but I expect you to be a leader. And we’re gonna win a lot of games. If you want to make a little more money, go!’ That’s why you never see him over the cap. They’re always preparing for the future.”
All of this is part of an approach Belichick has fine-tuned over decades, from his apprenticeship under Bill Parcels and his first head coaching job in Cleveland.
At 63, Belichick spans two distinct eras in pro football — the pre-free agency 1970s and 1980s, when NFL players didn’t move from team to team and coaches developed the draft picks they brought in; and the 1990s onward, when Plan B and free agency introduced more liberal player movement and the college draft was reduced from 12 rounds to seven.
“In Cleveland, prior to free agency, you were able to keep players,” Belichick noted on a conference call this past week, “so a lot of time your team pretty much stayed the same from year to year. Trades were infrequent. It was just developing the players you brought in.”
The past 25 years have put more emphasis on NFL teams’ ability to shop and spend wisely on free agents, bringing in veterans who fit their system but don’t bankrupt them in the process or sour a winning culture with diva-like attitudes. Operating as de facto coach and general manager, Belichick has excelled at that, signing stalwarts such as Harrison in 2003, Welker in 2007 and, more recently, Amendola and running backs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis.
The flip side of the strategic acquisition of players, of course, is the timely parting with veterans. The Patriots have done so consistently — often to the objection of their own fans — releasing or trading beloved players who appear to be in their prime.
“Nobody plays forever,” noted Belichick, who has parted with several key Super Bowl contributors over the years, such as Lawyer Milloy and defensive lineman Richard Seymour. “You always have to restock your team with talent. Plus you have the NFL system that’s set up in such a way that you can’t keep everybody.”
Driving all these moves is whatever Belichick deems the long-term health of the franchise — not popular opinion or prevailing wisdom.
“It helps when you have Tom Brady,” Harrison conceded. But he added that Brady may never have gotten a chance at a Hall of Fame career had Belichick not benched incumbent Drew Bledsoe, despite the $103 million contract he had recently signed, after Brady shined when Bledsoe was sidelined by injury.
“Who does that?” Harrison asked. “Who has the heart to do something like that? Bledsoe was beloved in New England! But everything is about long-term success.”