Thursday, February 2, 2012
Patriots: Fit in or get out
By James Walker
Former Patriot Albert Haynesworth, left, and starter Deion Branch exemplify the "Patriot Way."
INDIANAPOLIS -- As displayed in his video documentary "A Football Life," New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick enjoys fishing in his free time. It's fitting, because in football Belichick is not afraid to cut bait.
Many players have come and gone in New England. Some have worked out better than others. But the culture of winning remains the same.
There are only seven players remaining from the Patriots' last Super Bowl team in 2007. In four years, nearly the entire roster has been remade into a championship contender.
Big-name players like Randy Moss, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison all left New England for various reasons. Some were released, retired, or traded and wound up on television.
You also have recent malcontent situations this past season such as former Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather and former Pro Bowl defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. Meriweather had off-the-field issues last season and surprisingly didn't make the 53-man roster. He landed with the Chicago Bears. Haynesworth was acquired in a big trade this summer and released about midway through the season.
Football is a cruel business. But it's particularly cruel in New England if you're underperforming and not buying into the program. You can multiply that by 10 if you're a malcontent.
"Most head coaches and GMs, they're never really willing to swallow their pride and admit that they made a mistake," former Patriots fullback and NFL Network analyst Heath Evans explained. "Bill just says 'Well, I thought we could fix [Haynesworth]. We couldn't. So bye-bye.' Most guys will sit there and hurt their team by allowing a cancer to infiltrate the system, the mindset, how you get something done. But Bill never hesitated.
"He saw enough. He gave [Haynesworth] enough chances and, boom, he's gone. That's an aspect of the structure and discipline. Bill doesn't care how it makes him look or what he's doing. He's going to do what's best for the team."
Haynesworth and Meriweather were cut because they no longer fit. Moss, Seymour and Vrabel were traded while the value was still high enough to get something for them. Belichick is always thinking about the next move.
The former Super Bowl MVP held out for more money during New England's training camp and the preseason in 2006, and was eventually traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a first-round pick. Branch got the money he wanted. Seattle signed him to a $39 million extension. But Branch never had the same success in Seattle and was traded back to New England for a fourth-round pick in 2010.
Branch was a good teammate, but the holdout with New England left a bad stench. The Patriots showed they were willing to forgive, and now Branch is one of the veteran leaders of this year's team.
"I was very honored," Branch said. "Not many have the opportunity to come back to the same team that drafted you. Guys don't get the opportunity to go through that phase. I was just very thankful."
New England receiver Chad Ochocinco is an interesting case. He's caused issues in the past with the Cincinnati Bengals. But he's quickly -- and wisely -- bought into the "Patriot way."
Ochocinco only has 15 receptions, but fellow Patriots have described him as the model teammate. He accepted his role in New England, no matter how small it is, for the greater goal of trying to win a championship. Moss also caused problems elsewhere and quickly changed his stripes when coming to New England. The talkative Ochocinco received advice from Moss this season on how to handle the transition.
"I learned to shut the [expletive] up," Ochocinco said this week.
Why doesn't this work everywhere? Why isn't every NFL team selfless and without internal issues?
"I think it doesn't work everywhere, because everyone has to buy in. I mean coaches, players, front office and owner," said former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, who once worked with Belichick. "With the Patriots, everybody buys in from the top all the way through. It's a way of life in New England. It's not just a daily job."
According to veteran guard Brian Waters, star quarterback Tom Brady plays a major role with team chemistry. Brady is an extension of Belichick in the locker room. No one is more competitive and works harder than the team's highest-paid player.
"Everybody's got egos, everybody's got their own way of doing things or what they think is the best way of doing things," Waters said. "But to have a coach set the tone and a player follow the tone as good as Tom, it's hard for any player on your team to even think about having a different thought process. If the best player on your football team is buying in 100 percent, then who are you to be any different? That’s something you have an appreciation for."
Evans, who played with the Patriots from 2005-08, went on to tell a great story involving future Hall of Famer Junior Seau. He was a 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker who joined the Patriots late in his career in 2006.
"Junior Seau, when he first got there, I don't think Junior had ever been yelled at a day in his life, or maybe even coached," Evans recalled. "Junior was over the center, trying to time the snap count, and he must have jumped offsides three times in our first practice. So Bill had it all teed up -- 'the lowlight film' is what he called it. Everyday we had a lowlight reel, and you do not want to be on that lowlight reel, because 52 other players are watching your bad mistake.
"So Junior is there jumping offsides and Bill just goes into his rant. Junior is like, 'Is he really doing this to me?' It was to the point where Junior stood up and said 'Buddy' ... He couldn't believe Bill was giving him the business like that."
No one player is bigger than the team in New England. The Patriots have done a great job of consistently sending that message and getting rid of players who don't understand. It's resulted in another Super Bowl appearance Sunday against the New York Giants.
The 2011-12 Patriots are particularly close-knit. Owner Robert Kraft says it's arguably his favorite group since owning the team, and they are one game away from capping a special season.
"One thing I've learned is that many games are lost and won in the locker room before the game starts," Kraft said this week. "Now, they have to go out and execute [against New York]."