Gridiron editor Matthew Sherry was on hand to witness the New England Patriots making history in Houston. With the help of some key protagonists, he breaks down why the Patriots are the greatest team in NFL history.
Ludicrous. Amazing. Flabbergasting. They might just have to rewrite the dictionary for this one.
The greatest Super Bowl in the NFL’s 51-year history and the crown in the jewel of its greatest quarterback, head coach and dynasty.
It was so good that even the New England Patriots’ locker room was celebratory.
The scenes afterwards told their own story. The robotic, media- trained-to-within-an-inch-of-their- lives Patriots resembled gushing schoolchildren who’d just been told Santa Claus was coming for a private visit. Cheap champagne, bought by defensive end Chris Long from Walgreen’s earlier in the week, filled the air; players hollered and cheered with victory cigars handed out by owner Robert Kraft hanging from their mouths. Right tackle Marcus Cannon summed it up best in conversation with Gridiron. “Is that a recorder there? Because what Marcus says right now is going to get Marcus in trouble.”
Such a release was a stark contrast from two years ago, when New England won their fourth Super Bowl in similarly remarkable fashion. Then, they called it the greatest Big Dance in NFL history, won on the last play when unknown Malcolm Butler picked off Russell Wilson to begin the hyperbole. Except the locker-room was more like a library as the Patriots remained in character for the media portion of proceedings.
Not this time, and it was understandable following a magical night in Space City that eclipsed the drama of Phoenix two years ago.
Whatever the adjectives were last time, they need putting on drugs to describe this. Not only did Brady and Belichick become the most prolific quarterback and coach in the game’s history with their fifth rings, they left another slew of records in their wake.
It was a result, and performance, that not even the most ardently delusional Patriots foresaw. A couple near the press table had to take their two children home midway through the third quarter. One of their kids was inconsolable having seen his hero, Brady – battered and bruised by an unexpectedly game Atlanta defense – fail on the biggest stage.
The game, by that point, was over. At 28-3 Falcons with just over a quarter and a half remaining, New England had a 0.2% chance of winning. But when everyone else was writing the Patriots’ obituary, their players – led by the superstar under centre – knew there was still a glimmer of hope. Cornerback Logan Ryan tells Gridiron: “Things don’t always go as planned in life. We had faith. While other guys would have packed it in and thought about how embarrassing the loss might have been, we kept on fighting.”
From that point on, Brady was 26-of- 34 for 284 yards and two touchdowns, orchestrating five successive scoring drives to write another thrilling chapter in his remarkable story. His feats, combined with three touchdowns for running back James White and key plays by defensive stars Trey Flowers and Dont’a Hightower, made the impossible possible.
By the time the first overtime in Super Bowl history had begun, New England had wiped out a 25-point deficit in just over a quarter, completing a pair of two-point conversions to boot. The Falcons were out on their feet, beaten from the moment the coin landed on heads and the Patriots took the ball. Just eight plays and 3:58, White crossed the plain for the fourth time and the ticker tape fell. The greatest comeback in NFL, maybe sporting, history was complete. The previous biggest margin a team had overturned in this game was 10 points, and the architect was Brady. “He’s the greatest quarterback of all-time, no question,” tight end Matt Lengel enthused to Gridiron.
The sentiment was shared by everyone but the man himself. When former Pats linebacker Willie McGinest, following a long embrace with the teammate he won three titles alongside, urged the media to ‘make way for the GOAT’, Brady – for whom the emotion was amplified by the presence of his cancer-suffering mother for the first time this season – responded as expected: “Willie, man. You can’t be saying that.” But plenty will, and have. Super Bowls are where careers are made and the 39-year-old now has more rings than any other signal-caller, including Joe Montana – who Brady spent his childhood idolising from the bleachers of Candlestick Park.
“I was blessed to grow up in the Bay Area, and we went to a lot of 49ers games over the years,” he said. “Joe Montana and Steve Young were, and still are, my idols. Every time I get around them, I get excited. For me to be a part of five championship teams is a great feeling; they’ve all been different in their own way and it’s so hard to win. We’ve been blessed to be part of a great organisation.”
That this latest addition to the jewellery collection came in a season where he was absent for the opening four games due to a widely-derided four-game suspension for his alleged involvement in a Deflategate scandal that was never proven only added to the mystique. As did his receiving of the MVP trophy from Roger Goodell the following morning. It was a script fit for Hollywood, only a little farfetched.
“We’re working on it right now.”
Bill Belichick’s boat needs a new name. Entering Sunday, it was known as ‘VI Rings’, representing the titles he had won as an NFL coach (both assistant and head). Like Brady, he deflected questions regarding his own legacy – ‘it’s a players’ game’ is a favourite motto – but there are plenty of others happy to fill in the blanks.
“Bill is guaranteed to go down as the greatest head coach in the history of the game,” said Brian Billick, himself a Super Bowl-winning head coach, in conversation with Gridiron pre-game. “The numbers support that. Whether you like or don’t like him, he’s the best.” Those sentiments were backed up by former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson, whose collection stands at two rings.
The magic of Belichick, though, is he is so much more than a coach. While the hot-button topic in league circles this offseason has been finding the right match between coach and general manager, New England need not worry. Their main man is both the personnel and coaching guru, mixing two incredibly tough jobs with better results than even the league’s best coach-GM duos.
Belichick’s genius creates an autonomy. The team is built in the image he demands because he builds it; they’re coached in the manner of his choosing because he’s the one coaching it. New England, since Belichick walked through the door, have had an offensive system and defensive one which, barring tweaks here and there, has remained the same. What’s more, they almost never give top coaching jobs to anybody outside the inner circle; Belichick mentors lackeys into coordinators and continuity remains.
“His work ethic is unbelievable, as is his passion and teaching,” wide receiver coach Scott O’Brien tells Gridiron. “There’s very little he hasn’t seen or done in his career. He holds us all to a very high standard and it’s a great opportunity to come to work every day. He’s so educated in all phases of the game, and he brings all us young coaches along with him. We have amazing continuity and it’s hugely beneficial. To go into every year with that foundation in place – we’re always looking to improve, but the core is the same. It’s invaluable.”
There is also more to the man than the nasal snorts and condescending monotone you see in press conferences. His gift for connecting with players is clear, and those in the building see a different guy to outsiders. “He’s a great boss,” adds running backs coach Ivan Fears. “He’s a great person, and there’s another side to him. He’s dedicated to his work, but he’s hilarious. You guys don’t see the real guy.”
Belichick’s overall mix is close to perfect, and it would be a surprise if the switch the ‘VII Rings’ is the final name- change his boat undergoes.
Ask any New England player about Foxborough High and you’ll likely see a wry smile. After all, the local high-school has produced multiple quarterbacks capable of eclipsing the immortal Brady since 2001. That’s at least the yarn Belichick spins in his infamous Monday-morning film breakdown sessions that leave Patriots players feeling like a 40-0 victory was a 40-0 defeat. His favourite trick is to troll the star quarterback, Brady routinely being told that the head coach could find a passer capable of completing a pass he has missed in the school ranks.
Former Patriots wideout Dante Stallworth recalls one occasion that occurred at the beginning of the 2007 season. “I was sitting next to Randy Moss. Bill talked about the prior AFC Championship Game, where they had a 21-6 lead at halftime, and how they blew it. Then, he started to go by players and position groups. The first person he had up was Brady. He didn’t introduce what he was doing. He just started showing plays [from the previous season]. He showed this pass that was probably the worst pass I’ve ever seen Brady throw. The ball just completely missed the wide receiver and ended up skipping to the ground and falling out of bounds. Bill was saying, ‘What kind of throw is this? I can get Johnny Foxborough from down the street to make a better throw than this’. He had some expletives in there. Randy and I looked at each other and sat up in our seats. There was nothing said between us, but it was understood: If Brady is getting it, no one is safe.”
Their relationship is not the one of mollycoddled superstar and worshipping head coach that often exists in sports. Belichick is tough on Brady, and that’s just the way he likes it. Such moments are good for the team; what better way to convince a younger player to buy-in than to see the arguably greatest player in NFL history treated like a practice-squad member?
The stars have aligned in New England, Belichick meeting his playing equivalent in Brady: two men willing to put winning above anything else, who feed off each other. It’s why Belichick continues to make a fool of his quarterback in those film sessions, and why Brady is getting paid like a mid-tier NFL signal-caller when he continues to sit at the game’s summit.
At halftime of the game that will ultimately define this dynasty as football’s greatest, Brady told New England’s players to do their job. Entering the fourth quarter, he urged them to ‘trust the process’. Sound familiar?
This was another season where the Belichick and Brady combo did its thing for New England. The Patriots boasted the league’s best record (14-2) despite the quarterback missing the opening games yet, come honours evening, both were unrewarded. Belichick missed out on the Coach of the Year gong he’s won just three times (but may well end up bearing his name) to Jason Garrett, while Brady was pipped for a third MVP title by the quarterback he outduelled in Super Bowl LI, Matt Ryan, despite throwing 28 touchdowns to a remarkable two interceptions.
In most organisations, the snub would have been felt. Not in Patriot Place. They only ever had eyes for one title. The one they won on a remarkable night in Space City, when the stars aligned one more time.
“This is going to be the greatest comeback in NFL history.”
With the sounds of Lady Gaga’s spectacular halftime show cascading through the locker room, unheralded safety Duron Harmon sat on an exercise bike rallying his teammates. The Patriots were down 21-3, but he hadn’t given up. And neither had anybody else inside those four walls. They came out inspired, and the
Patriots-majority crowd was right with them. An Atlanta three-and-out lifted the roof off the stadium, and it looked like it might hit the Milky Way like many of the rockets taking off from these parts when a Julian Edelman punt return gave New England the ball at midfield. Lift-off, everybody thought. Except it never materialised. Brady and Co. went three-and-out and, in the blink of an eye, Tevin Coleman was streaking into the end zone.
Atlanta were faster, stronger and ready for their moment: 28-3. Game over.
Quite why everybody, including Gridiron, thought that is anybody’s guess. New England have spent the last 15 years proving their way, The Patriot Way, almost always prevails. Yet even amid that history, this seemed a step too far. Cornerback Ryan adds: “The Falcons got up on Green Bay and Seattle, and the game was over. They got up on us, but it was never over. We aren’t Green Bay and we aren’t Seattle.”
What came next embodied the slogan that encapsulates this team. The coaches’ halftime adjustments shut down Ryan et al, while New England’s offense was put into the hands of its leader. The players ‘did their job’, ‘trusted the process’ and played football.
By the end of the game, noneof the uncharacteristic miscues – LeGarrette Blount’s fumble, Brady’s pick-six, Stephen Gostkowski’s missed P.A.T. and the fluffed onside kick attempt – mattered. New England have Belichick, Brady and an unrivalled programme that has full buy-in all the way down from owner Kraft to the quality-control staff. “Look at us now, we’re the champs,” concludes Ryan.
The knowledge of their unique system is known around the league. Long, a veteran defensive end, signeda way-below-market, one-year, $2million deal with the Patriots this offseason specifically targeting a Super Bowl run. “I bet right! I made a gamble, and we both bet right.”
He isn’t the only guy who exemplifies why players want to sign for New England. Their history of taking other teams’ trash and finding treasure is unmatched. Shea McClellin was a first-round bust entering last offseason; now he’s an important cog in a Super Bowl roster. “You know you have a chance to succeed, individually and collectively. It’s well known that the Patriots find a way to utilise your skills, and find a role for you.”
Most players the Patriots sign immerse themselves into a philosophy that was on display in full on February 5. Where most teams throw in the towel, they rally and find a way. Regardless of circumstances.
“This is a good, tough football team,” said Belichick. “I have so much respect for the way they brought it and competed every single day. It wasn’t always perfect, but there was always that will to improve. Coach [Bill] Parcells always used to say to me the great champions are the ones who get up off the mat, and it felt like that’s what we did last night. We thought they competed for 60 minutes, but it took more.”
Of course, the work extends beyond four quarters and overtime. Belichick spent some of his media address the following morning light-heartedly bemoaning the fact their success had already left New England behind the eight-ball in their preparations for the upcoming free-agency period and draft. “As great as today is, in all honesty, we’re five weeks behind 30 teams in the league in preparing for the 2017 season.”
While the media laughed hysterically, Belichick was stony-faced, his message pretty clear: delivering the greatest comeback in NFL history and going where nobody else has ever dared isn’t enough. There’s always another year. That’s the true Patriot Way.