The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Patriots’ secret is focusing on the details. Every. Last. Detail.

Patriots quarterbacks Brian Hoyer, left, and Tom Brady stand with Coach Bill Belichick during a practice in January. (Steven Senne/AP)

ATLANTA — The New England Patriots franchise is a snarling, unkillable monster where explanations go to die. Try to define how this singular club has made nine Super Bowls in 18 seasons, and you wind up trapped in a lot of bland, meaningless generalities about “efficiency” and “execution” that don’t come close to capturing its precision-blade offensive excellence or its hand-in-the-dirt defensive violence or its pure greed for winning. Every NFL team preaches execution. So how come nobody can imitate the Patriots’ standard of it?

The most knowledgeable NFL observers struggle to analyze the sheer sustenance of their record, by what method they have maintained such a perfection-crazed level over two decades when cycles of roster turnover, burnout and strategic evolution deteriorate every other team.

“We all want to know it because everybody would like to replicate it if they knew,” says Trent Dilfer, the ex-quarterback turned NFL Network analyst who won the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in the 2000 season. “I’ve studied it and tried to understand it, but I’d be lying to say I totally did.”

Every NFL club is a complex organism with assets in different departments, but the Patriots more than any team in history are able to resolve all facets into performance on the field in crucial moments. Take those plays in overtime of their AFC championship game victory over the Kansas City Chiefs to reach the Super Bowl: Everyone in the stadium — and the world — knew quarterback Tom Brady would look at Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on third and 10; they got open anyway.

“They’re always on point,” says Los Angeles Rams defensive back Aqib Talib, who played for the Patriots in 2012 and 2013 and won a Super Bowl with Denver in the 2015 season. “They throw the ball so fast, but they’re always on point. That’s so tough to do.”

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The Patriots’ methods to a large extent remain in a lockbox, thanks to Coach Bill Belichick’s secretive nature: He refused to practice outdoors this week because the field was surrounded by “20-story skyscrapers” that he said offered too good a view. But some things can be gathered from former Patriots or favored broadcasters who have been inside the operation. What emerges is a portrait of a team that simply practices at a more extreme cadence than others and is zealous at even the most minor-seeming tasks. The Patriots personify an old quote from former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, who once was asked, “Why don’t you overlook a little mistake?”

Shula answered, “What’s a little mistake?”

The Rams’ 33-year-old coach, Sean McVay, got a brief look at the Patriots in 2014 during a joint training camp workout when he was still an assistant with the Washington Redskins. McVay noticed, first of all, that there was not a single rote or apathetic moment: If a player wasn’t on the field, he was running in an individual drill with a position coach.

“If you knew nothing about football — not a thing — and you just watched them, you’d say, ‘There’s something different about that team,’ ” McVay told NBC’s Peter King last week.

McVay left the practice with one thought: “That’s what it looks like when it’s done right.”

The great Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne spent 11 days with the Patriots in 2015 as a free agent at the end of his career before deciding to retire. Wayne was a champion worker in his own right, part of a Super Bowl team under Coach Tony Dungy in the 2006 season. But in his few days with the Patriots he was struck by the absoluteness of their concentration and absorption with details that might become critical inflection points in big games. In one 45-minute meeting on “situational football,” they reviewed not only the two-minute offense but exactly how players should give the ball to the referee between plays.

“Lot of guys, you see them toss the ball to the ref,” Wayne says. Not the Patriots. “You don’t know if the ref can catch or not, so if they drop that ball and it’s bouncing around, that’s time running off the clock.” The Patriots were drilled to sprint to the ref and hand it to him, to get a quicker spot and save a second. They would “go over and over and over it,” Wayne said, and didn’t seem to resent the monotony.

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The conservation of time begins the moment they walk in the building.

“Look, if you show up one minute late, they just tell you to go home for the day,” says former New York Giants Super Bowl quarterback and CBS analyst Phil Simms, a Belichick confidante. The Patriots “set more alarms” than other teams, Talib says, all in the name of “habits.” The time sacrifice requires such cooperation from spouses that safety Devin McCourty said his wife tells him: “Go watch film. I want to go to the Super Bowl. I’ve got the kids.” Brady remarked this week that he has spent more time with Belichick in his life “than with my parents.”

That’s confirmed by Willie McGinest, defensive cornerstone of the Patriots’ 2001, 2003 and 2004 Super Bowl-winning teams. He used to try to beat Belichick to the office. “I would get there at 5 in the morning,” McGinest says. “Once he heard I was coming in, he would be there at 4:30.” The sense of urgency permeates the building, he says, down to the laundry staff. “If the uniform guy don’t have the uniforms straight and ready to go, somebody’s on his ass,” McGinest says.

The same is true on the practice field, where staccato-shouting coaches continually clean up slippage in the technique of the most blooded veterans.

“You go to their practices, they’re always setting something straight,” CBS analyst Boomer Esiason says. “Bill will walk over and say, ‘How many times do we got to tell you, stay on the outside, stay on the outside.’ ”

When there is a mental mistake, there is no happy talk about it from Belichick. It’s not a franchise for high-priced egos that need flattery.

“If they do, probably the New England Patriots is not the place for them,” Belichick says before pausing. “Look, I think it’s just about being honest. I don’t think you tell somebody they did a good job when they didn’t do a good job. I think if they do a good job, you tell them they did a good job. If they didn’t do a good job, I think you tell them, ‘Here’s what you need to do better.’ I don’t believe in lying to a player.”

By all accounts, the Patriots’ ticktock urgency is coupled with an intense physicality in practice few other teams are willing to risk. Simms says of Belichick, “If he could, their ass would be in pads every week.” McGinest recalls that frequently defensive starters would act as the scout team against Brady’s offense, mimicking the opponent “because we wanted them to see what it was really going to look like in a game. We would give them their first look — and we would give them a full-speed look.”

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Simms witnessed a practice two years ago, as the Patriots were readying to play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2016 AFC championship game. Simms was “shocked at the pace,” given that it was the postseason, and at the fierceness with which they went at each other. On one play, Brady threw a pass out to Edelman, his close friend and favorite target. It was a bad throw that tailed into the dirt. Edelmen dived down to get it, caught his cleats in the grass and face-planted in the turf. He got up with a clod of dirt in his face mask and began cursing Brady for lousy execution.

“What did you say?!” Brady snapped at him, and the two men went helmet to helmet and began screaming at each other.

“That’s just how they are,” Simms says. “Then I heard Bill ran ’em a lot after practice.”

They beat the Steelers, 36-17.

Belichick sets the basic template and schedule, but somewhere along the line the Patriots players adopt it as theirs, and pride in execution becomes a partnership that has won at least 10 games every season since 2003.

“It’s certainly not the easiest place to play,” special teams captain Matthew Slater says, “but it works for us because of the buy-in. Guys are willing to check their egos at the door and say, ‘Hey, I’m in this for the greater good,’ and the guys who aren’t willing to do that usually don’t last long here. . . . So I think it’s a perfect match. Bill has the formula, and he gets the right guys to come in and do it the way he wants it done.”

The Patriots long have been accused of practicing dark arts, but there is no swallowable pill or spying or ball deflation ploy that is a shortcut to their substance. Their success is the result of manifold parts: scouting, an economist’s grasp of salary management, the discipline not to be seduced by talent and to bring in only the most intelligent players preloaded with work ethic, Belichick’s deep strategic background, and a quarterback for the ages who has played into his 40s. These are all crucial. But they’re ultimately just piecemeal factors that lead up to the collective on-field performance by players who take an incalculable pride in craft and learn to enjoy winning more than any leisure.

“When I go and spend time with them at practice, I always walk away going, ‘Well, I know why they win,’ ” Simms says. “When I go to another team, I go, ‘Uh, that’s why they are where they are, looking for another coach every third year and never winning a lot of games.’ ”