The stage is set for Super Bowl LI as the Patriots return to Houston to take on relative newcomers — the Atlanta Falcons. While ESPN, NBC and other news outlets that cater to the lowest common denominator reserve the spotlight for superstars, the Patriots have played the entire second half of the season with only one player who would qualify as such: Tom Brady. Though the Patriots’ mantra “do your job” has now become cliche, the players, with small salaries and small egos, have shown an uncanny ability to embody this slogan.
Bill Belichick set the tone for this team in the offseason when he traded Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals. Jones had achieved star status during his four-year tenure with the Patriots by becoming a force at linebacker with an innate ability to rush the quarterback and cause turnovers. Belichick saw more value in what Jones was worth in return and traded him for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick. The Patriots then proceeded to trade that pick for third- and fourth-round picks, materializing in the form of lineman Joe Thuney and receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Thuney has been a constant on the line during his rookie season, playing 1,259 of 1,264 possible snaps, while Mitchell has become a reliable target for Brady, catching 26 passes for four touchdowns in the last eight games of the season. In Jones’ absence, the Patriots’ defense remained stout and surrendered the fewest points in the NFL this season.
The franchise’s 2000 era teams are often compared to the Yankees teams from 1995 to 2009 because of their extended dominance in their division. The key difference between the Patriots and Yankees is how their teams are composed. The Yankees, especially in the 2000s, were known for having the highest payroll in baseball and used their cash to sign a slew of stars, such as David Wells, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez. The Patriots have taken the opposite approach, as is necessary in the salary-capped NFL. The coaching staff, led by Belichick, finds players who do not demand money or fame in order to keep each week’s focus on the team’s success rather than on a sideshow created by mouthy players or contract negotiations.
For the Patriots, players like Matt Lengel, Shea McClellin and James Develin ’10 play just as important a role as the stars of the team. The lesser-known but hard-working and multifaceted players are invaluable to the schemes and looks that the Patriots use to torment their opponents. They leave open the option of receiving a pass or forcing a turnover, while distracting the opponent’s attention from the most important factors of the play. For example, in Week 15 against the Denver Broncos, the Patriots often used Develin as a decoy when Von Miller, one of Denver’s best defensive players, dropped back into coverage, forcing Miller to cover Develin and leave another Patriot open. In a play in the same game, the Patriots positioned Lengel and LeGarrette Blount out wide. This matched the two against Denver’s dangerous safeties, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, while Julian Edelman lined up in the slot against a linebacker and caught an easy pass for a first down. These under-recognized Patriots are indispensable to the team because they are able to execute in a variety of situations, keeping New England’s opponents on their heels, second guessing their every move.
The Patriots’ coaching staff has a great strength when it comes to valuing players and have had success signing cast-offs other teams had given up on. Signing these players instead of overpaid crybabies like Terrell Owens and Odell Beckham Jr. (both of whom have actually cried on camera) prevents outrageous media distractions and keeps focus on the entire team. Just as Chris Hogan emerged as a key player in the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, look out for other behind-the-scenes Patriots to be instrumental in the Super Bowl against Atlanta.
Charlie Blasberg ’18 can be reached at email@example.com.