A column written by a Patriots fan before the weekend of the team’s eighth Super Bowl appearance in the past two decades will seem quite unnecessary. I struggle to imagine what straw arguments Patriots doubters could be desperately grasping for, with Tom Brady skipping the Pro Bowl for the third time in four years.
But for all that you’ve likely heard about the quarterbacking greatness of Brady — his social media presence tells you enough — and the football genius of Bill Belichick, there’s more to the story of the Patriots. Year after year, the entire NFL is seemingly upended, with new challengers arising and contenders falling from grace. While the NFC has sent 12 different teams to the Super Bowl since 2001, New England has been to the AFC championship as many times in that period. That’s a stat that goes beyond Brady, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft, the three mainstays of the organization. For the countless Patriots detractors that will point to “cheating” as a foundation for the team’s success, here are the real reasons New England continues to win, year after year.
First of all: Tom Brady. I know, I said I would discuss not-so-obvious reasons; however, this has nothing to do with Brady’s exceptional quarterbacking. It’s his contract: Brady is the 15th highest-paid quarterback in the league, earning slightly more than below-par counterparts Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler and Sam Bradford. Beyond his continuous MVP-caliber production is the fact that he allows the Patriots to spend so much money elsewhere while every other NFL team scrambles to pay significantly more just to secure average QBs.
Last year’s Super Bowl matchup was a contest between the 15th and 14th highest-paid QBs, and this year’s opponents, the Eagles, are still reaping the benefits of Carson Wentz’ paltry rookie contract. Getting good quarterback play for cheap in the NFL is borderline impossible, and Brady could easily force the Patriots to pay more for him. But his goals include the team’s success, so he is able to take a pay cut and allow the Patriots to spend more money on weapons on both sides of the ball.
The Patriots’ salary construction brings me to my second point: Bill Belichick is a genius. Again, this is not old news; but it’s Bill Belichick the general manager, not the coach, that is instrumental in New England’s perpetual greatness. He’s traded for one-year contracts like that of Brandin Cooks — whose $1.56 million cap hit makes him the fifth highest-paid wide receiver on the team — and Kyle Van Noy, two players who have been crucial to the team’s success this year. Players like Cooks, Malcolm Brown and Malcolm Butler are all on contracts that are valued around $10 million fewer per year than estimated market value.
The cost of Belichick’s entire defensive line — built entirely through the draft and via free-agent signings — is 29th in the NFL, but the Patriots accrued the seventh-most sacks in the league this year. The money spent on the offense represents the 11th most in the NFL, but the Patriots were top-two in passing yards and top-10 in rushing. Competitors to the Patriots include teams like the Steelers, which spend top dollar on offense and relatively little on defense, and the Jaguars, which do the opposite. But Belichick’s offensive and defensive spending are usually very even — especially in the years that the Patriots win the Super Bowl.
Belichick saves all the money for special teams — on which the Patriots spend the fourth-most in the league. Though the Patriots punt the least in the league, New England is one of the better teams at downing punts inside the 20-yard line and limiting return yardage. Stephen Gostkowski has been a rock-solid kicker for several years. Pro Bowler and future Hall-of-Famer special teamer Matthew Slater makes more than a 1,000-yard wide receiver in Cooks. Belichick knows that playing all three facets of the game well is key, and the performance of New England combined with its well-balanced salary construction is conducive to long-term success.
And, lastly, someone who gets relatively zero credit for the Patriots’ impressive record is offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Scarnecchia, who was hired by Belichick in 2000, is a former assistant head coach for the Patriots. His presence was never more obvious than when he retired in 2014, and the line play of the Patriots suffered miserably. 2014 was the year that the Patriots started 2-2 after getting steamrolled by the Chiefs, and Scarnecchia shortly returned to host workouts with players before returning to the sideline in 2016. His offensive line in 2016 gave up the third-least sacks in the NFL, and 2017’s version — even with an injury to right tackle Marcus Cannon — is performing in the top half of the NFL. Any doubts left with Tom Brady likely revolve around his inability to deal with constant pressure, and Scarnecchia’s offensive lines have allowed a 40-year-old quarterback to play the best years of his career.
Infamous as the secret, evil dictators of the NFL, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have executed the simplest of blueprints for NFL success: Buy low, increase performance, sell high. In between those market simplicities are the true football genius of Brady and Belichick, but the team’s approach to building a championship-caliber roster — year after year — is decipherable, if any NFL GM is truly paying attention. Implementing it has been another story, however.
Despite that, it’s no secret that proximity to the Patriots dynasty has made former coaches and players extremely valuable across the NFL, as three former coordinators and a former linebacker will coach four different teams in the league next year. Whether you like it or not, your favorite team would give up anything for the chance to have any small part of New England’s success come its way. Sooner or later, it might just be 31 Belichick disciples and a 100-year-old, immortal Bill Belichick competing for the Belichick Cup.
My money would still be on the Patriots.
Matt Brownsword ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this column to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.