If there was an easy decryption key to the Patriots’ success, someone would have found it long ago. Instead, their secret has been locked in Foxboro for more than a decade, through 15 AFC East championships in the last 16 years, eight straight appearances in the AFC championship game, nine Super Bowl appearances since 2001, and five championships so far.
In a copycat league, they are the anomaly that no one has been able to duplicate, even though everyone has tried.
Still, there are lessons to be learned for every team trying to build a franchise in the shadow of the Patriots, including the Jets and the Giants. Here are some of those lessons as the New York teams begin to rebuild their program from the ashes in the hopes of someday giving the Patriots a fight as the next dynasty in the league.
Stability in the most important places matter
OK, the obvious key to the Patriots’ success is Bill Belichick and Tom Brady (and never mind that the Jets had or could’ve had them both). And this is easy to say because they’re both future Hall-of-Famers, but it helps that they’ve had one man in both the coach and quarterback spot for the last 18 years.
But there’s been stability elsewhere too, like in the front office and among the scouts and other people that play Belichick’s supporting cast. Their offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, has been with the organization for all but three years since 2001. Their defacto defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, joined the Pats right out of college as a scouting assistant in 2004, and never left.
The players all around Brady have changed through the years, because age and injuries make roster stability impossible. But everywhere else, the Patriots look mostly the same. Meanwhile, the Jets have ridden the coach, coordinator and quarterback carousels for far too long. And the Giants have been on it since the end of the Tom Coughlin era.
The Giants should remember that they almost fired Coughlin after the 2006 season, but they showed patience and it paid off quickly. Programs need a chance to build. Coaches need chances to lead. It will help both teams immensely if the people in key positions now are still there in 2023.
Add players that fit the coach’s system, not the GM’s plan
The best general managers know what types of players their coaches want, and they go get them. Sure, Belichick controls player personnel in New England and the front office works for him. That’s not the way it will be with the Jets or Giants. But the lesson should be the same.
Maccagnan may have players he wants, but what good will that do if Adam Gase doesn’t want them? A great example of that is quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the Jets’ second-round pick in 2016. He was Mike Maccagnan’s guy. Former Jets head coach Todd Bowles reportedly didn’t want him, and that became clear when he never got him into a game. It was the very definition of a wasted pick. So what was the point of force-feeding a player instead of picking someone that would’ve fit what the coach was trying to do?
That can be tough for a GM, but it’s necessary. By all accounts, Pat Shurmur and GM Dave Gettleman are in sync with the Giants, but that definitely wasn’t the case at the end of Coughlin’s tenure with him and then-GM Jerry Reese. That caused problems for Coughlin. The coach runs the team and the locker room and knows best what they need and what fits.
Be flexible in every way
For all the consistency in some parts of the Patriots organization, there really hasn’t been a lot of consistency in their overall plan the last 18 years. There have been years when they loaded up on offensive skill players, other years when they prioritized the pass rush, and some when they seemed more interested in adding to their secondary. They’ve won with good offensive lines and bad ones. They’ve been a running team and a dominant, pass-heavy one.
What Belichick is a master at is changing his approach. He gets most of the credit for in-game adjustments, but his season-to-season adjustments are amazing, too. Just look at this year’s team, which suddenly revolves around its running backs, after years of being a pass-first team. Belichick saw two things: A way to buck the NFL trend, and a way to do something that fit his personnel.
That’s a good lesson for the Giants and the Jets. They don’t have to try to copy anyone else. They just need to survey the landscape and choose a direction. Look at what they have after free agency and the draft and do what works best for that personnel. Don’t force a player like, say, defensive end Leonard Williams into a role that doesn’t suit him. Find out what he does best and turn him loose. If the Jets’ best targets are Quincy Enunwa and tight end Chris Herndon, tailor the offense to that. If they add a game-breaking receiver, then adjust.
The Giants, by the way, did this midseason when Shurmur realized Saquon Barkley was his best hope for success and made sure the offense ran through him.
Don’t be afraid to cut your losses
This is the core of the Patriots’ strategy over the last two decades and it includes several parts. They’ve dumped nearly as many of their own draft picks as the Jets, so it’s not that their drafting has been stellar. But Belichick is not afraid to acknowledge a mistake and move on (Maccagnan probably should get some credit for that too). It’s so much better than sticking with a player who clearly isn’t good enough just to prove a point.
That also impacts his philosophies with taking a chance on players that others don’t want, or who some think are too much trouble. They’ve ranged from Randy Moss to Chad Ochocinco to LeGarrette Blount to Darrelle Revis to Josh Gordon, to countless others. Belichick brings them in on low-risk deals and isn’t afraid to get rid of them if they don’t work out for any reason. Most of the time he ends up with an underrated star.
He also has displayed a knack for being willing to get rid of players, or to let them go by not meeting their price, maybe a year too early — which is always better than a year too late. That can lead to some mistakes (defensive end Chandler Jones might be the biggest example), but more often than not his decision has proven right.
There’s no reason to stick with a player that doesn’t fit or isn’t producing enough to warrant his salary. The Jets need to ponder that when they figure out what to do with Williams. The Giants made some decisions like that already — see guard Patrick Omameh — and have decisions like that to make with Olivier Vernon and Janoris Jenkins. Maybe quarterback Eli Manning too.
Culture and environment matter
This is enormous and hard to define. Belichick runs one of the tightest ships in the league, and players that have left there acknowledge it’s difficult, sometimes painful and includes some rules they may find hard to accept. But players want to go there because they know it works and they know they’ll have a chance to win the ring.
Belichick built that culture by winning, most importantly, but by also always making sure he had “his guys” in the room. There have always been veteran leaders who can keep the rest of the room in line by reminding them that Belichick’s plan is a sound one. The Jets, over the last few years, haven’t had that. Their locker room has been an undisciplined mess and some of their leaders didn’t even buy in.
The Giants are on their way towards that, cleaning out players they felt were trouble, like Jason Pierre-Paul, Damon Harrison, Eli Apple and Ereck Flowers. The result has been a better locker room and a group that acts like a team. Gase needs to get any remaining players who aren’t buying in to the Jets’ program out, no matter how talented they are. Then he needs to work to win over the leaders he has left in the room, particularly Sam Darnold and safety Jamal Adams.
If the leaders buy in and the winning starts, everything else will be easier. And that winning culture is something that can be built pretty fast.