Typically, an NFL team coming off of a 7-9 season does not come to training camp the next year jammed with optimism. Even less so after watching their former leader, Tom Brady, win a Super Bowl with another team.
The Patriots have sustained so much success that they are not used to losing seasons. In fact, they have only had one losing season in the past 21 years. But the thing with losing too much, or losing a player like Brady in free agency, who was the face of the franchise, is, that it tends to take the shine off an organization. It us usually harder to attract players to play for you if you don't have a chance to win.
So how did the Patriots turn things around so quickly?
The short answer? Winning culture.
It all starts with Bill Belichick. He does a great job getting his players to buy into the process.
How many times have we heard Belichick talk about the importance of playing good football? …eliminating dumb mistakes, playing well in all three phases of the game, believing the team mentality that what’s best for the team is not always best for you, and of course, as he famously told the world, the weekly "we're on to Cincinnati" approach.
After yesterday's 50-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Patriots, now at 10-6, clinched a playoff spot. After the game was over, a handful of players spoke to the media.
Running back Damien Harris articulated the energy that is currently surrounding his team.
"This is a special team and a special group. I think that you guys can see how much we all appreciate each other, everybody's effort, and everybody's commitment to this organization when we're out there playing."
Yes, Harris is in the middle of a career year statistically, with 14 rushing touchdowns on the season, but his optimism appears to be genuine.
While last year’s 7-9 outing was nothing to brag about, the 2020 Patriots showed plenty to inspire belief that there are good days ahead. The roster was not nearly as talented as it is this year. In reality, they fielded an extremely young team.
On the bright side, there was a group of next generation players that emerged that included running back Damien Harris, cornerback J.C. Jackson, and safety Kyle Dugger. These raw and talented youngsters complemented the continued development of proven talent like safety Devin McCourty, and 10-time pro bowler Matthew Slater. Safety Adrian Phillips also signed a free agent deal with New England and played really well in 2020.
Speaking of Phillips, he also took to the podium after beating the Jaguars. He was asked if he agrees with Damien Harris that this is a special team.
"One hundred percent. Just seeing how far we grew with the guys we had even last year, how tough it was for us and coming back and wanting to get this thing turned around, and kind of starting off the season with a little hiccup then really buckling down and going on a winning streak. You can see the group of guys that we have. Everyone really cares about football and one another. They are not just out there to do a job so to speak, they are out there playing for one another and you can just feel the difference."
The Patriots' way of doing business has received it's fair share of criticism over the years. As a matter of fact, there have been some comments that would contradict both statements from Harris and Phillips.
For example, remember when former ESPN analyst, Tom Jackson, made his infamous "they hate their coach" comment?
How about when Eagles lineman Lane Johnson proclaimed that it was not fun to play for New England?
Even some former players were rather critical once they left town.
Bears outside linebacker Cassius Marsh, who spent just nine games with the Patriots in 2017, wasn't a fan of the way things are done in Foxborough.
Marsh claimed that he didn't enjoy his time with the Patriots. He even went as far to say that he considered quitting football because of his time in New England.
Of course, winning is the name of the game in the NFL. It was important for Belichick to get back to his winnings ways for his players to buy back in to his culture.
Just ask Phillips, who just signed an extension to stay in New England. He was asked why he chose to sign and extension here.
“Just the culture, you get to play for Coach Belichick. He’s the greatest coach in the game. This is where I wanted to be, it’s a city built on football. It was easy for me to stay here.”
It remains to be seen just how special this Patriots team really is. They have one more regular season game against the Miami Dolphins next Sunday before they begin to prepare for a playoff run.