After last season’s come-from-behind Super Bowl win, there’s no doubting that the New England Patriots are the NFL’s model franchise. Yes, it feels awkward to say that given the number of “-gates” they’ve been involved in, but the results don’t allow us to see it any other way.
They’ve won two of the last three Super Bowls. They’ve won five Super Bowls over the last 16 years and appeared in two others. No other NFL franchise over this span of time has won even three titles. The only team that’s won two — the New York Giants — have a large part of their current identity tied up in being the thorn in New England’s side.
But what lessons can we learn from New England’s dominance on a broader analytical scale? There are a couple that are pretty obvious, and there are some that are maybe a little more subtle.
1. Having an established star quarterback is the easiest path to contention in the NFL
Let’s start with the easy one. There are a lot of ways a team can actually win a Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos won with a dominating defense and essentially no passing game. The Baltimore Ravens won with a downfield passing attack that clicked at the right time. As long as your team is good enough to make the playoffs, the natural variance of football means that there are matchups to win. Win enough of them in any given game, and an inferior team can pull an upset. The important thing is simply making the dance in the first place.
But there is no easier path to year-to-year relevance in the current, pass-happy NFL than having a star quarterback. Tom Brady, New England’s future Hall of Famer, developed from good to great over the first few years of his career. Since then, the cogs around him have changed. Whether the offense is running through Deion Branch, Corey Dillon, Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman, the one constant is Brady.
You see similar lessons from Brady’s best quarterback contemporaries. Peyton Manning in the AFC South was essentially a cheat code to 10-plus wins and the playoffs. When Ben Roethlisberger has started for the Steelers, they’re 69 games over .500. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are 48 games over .500. Having Drew Brees is an annual reason that the Saints are on the fringes of the playoffs despite fielding perhaps the worst defense in the NFL over the last five years. Russell Wilson and a good defense have made Seattle one of the surest bets for 10 wins in the NFL today despite the worst offensive line in the league.
NFL teams can win without a great quarterback. Great quarterbacks can falter in a one-game sample. But over a long period of time, nothing is a better barometer of consistent winning than having one.
2. Trade down in the draft
The classic problem an NFL team has is believing they are one player away from a championship. One draft pick can swing a whole franchise, but the odds of that happening over the long haul are pretty rare. Atlanta trading up for Julio Jones in the draft, for instance, was an exception rather than a likely outcome.
While some teams — such as San Francisco in the Jim Harbaugh era — have emulated Bill Belichick’s aggressive strategy of trading down in the draft, nobody is as good at it as the master. One Grantland article in 2015 noted that Belichick had made 48 trades in his New England tenure solely involving draft picks. One way to determine the value of draft picks is a chart from pro-football-reference.com that measures the average “AV,” or approximate value, the pick has over five seasons. By that measure — as the Grantland story notes — Belichick added 80.6 points in AV to the Patriots with those trades, a number that is equivalent to the first overall pick, second overall pick, and nineteenth overall pick put together.
And over the last two drafts, the trend continued. Belichick found a fourth-rounder in the 2017 draft by giving away a fifth-rounder in 2016. In 2015, the Pats added fourth-, fifth- and seventh-rounders from the Browns for a third and a seventh. By taking advantage of over-confident bets from other teams, the Patriots come out ahead.
3. Rehabilitating players for the compensation picks
As of 2016, New England has made 31 compensatory picks under Belichick. To explain compensation picks briefly: They are part of a competitive balance measure to compensate teams that lose free agents with picks. They are awarded based on a complicated formula that the NFL hasn’t made public, but they mostly involve players leaving during free agency and the dollar amounts that they get. That creates an interesting cycle for New England.
The Patriots lost some free agents in the 2015 offseason. Darrelle Revis left, as did long-time Patriots Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Vince Wilfork. But the Pats also made a couple of pick-for-player and pick trades during the 2014 season. One of those was for linebacker Jonathan Casillas, and another was for linebacker Akeem Ayers. The Pats got four sacks out of Ayers after the Titans had left him for dead, then immediately let him walk as a free agent. Ayers’ redemption season cost the Pats almost nothing, and he was part of the exodus that allowed New England four extra picks in the 2016 draft.
The Patriots often take on these sorts of rehab projects based on pure athleticism and see what happens. They acquired a pair of former second-round picks last season — linebacker Kyle Van Noy and corner Eric Rowe — for basically nothing. If the Pats only get sub-standard play, well, compensation picks make it a win-win chance for them. If they happen to run into a breakout star while giving the former hot prospects a chance — something like what happened with Dion Lewis in 2015 — all the better.
4. Excellence on special teams
Football Outsiders uses a statistic called DVOA — Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average — that basically offers a schedule-adjusted measurement of how far above average a unit is. DVOA splits into three sections: offense, defense and special teams. Under Belichick, the Patriots have finished in the top 10 in special teams DVOA in every season since 2010. They’ve been above average at special teams in every single year of Belichick’s tenure.
While special teams are largely overlooked by football fans because of the relative lack of impact the kicking game has compared to offense and defense, they absolutely matter. On kickoffs and in punt coverage, the Patriots made up so many points off of field position in 2016 that it didn’t even matter that they endured the worst season of Stephen Gostkowski’s career on field goals and extra point attempts. The unit as a whole was making the difference in close games on a weekly basis, giving the Pats just another little edge on the competition.
5. Taking advantage of the win-now window
And, finally, one edge the Patriots have over every other team in the league is that they are the only team in the NFL that seems to both a) have a win-now mindset that appeals to veterans and b) still embraces the talent so much that it’s willing to integrate a few eccentric personalities. Simply put, the Patriots are where players go when they’re sick of their careers being about pointless stat accumulation and want to get serious about winning. That is the brand that the Patriots have built over the years.
The best example of this is probably Randy Moss, a future Hall of Famer whom New England acquired for a fourth-round pick after he wore out his welcome in Oakland. Moss helped the New England offense set records and brought his play up to the level he was always capable of after a few lackadaisical years with the Raiders.
Last year’s example was Martellus Bennett, the former Bears star tight end who can both catch and block. Acquiring him gave the Patriots the same kind of dynamic two-tight-end set they had in the early 2010s, before we all learned who Aaron Hernandez really was. Bennett had a decent season for the Patriots on paper, reeling in 55 catches for 701 yards and seven scores. But he was limited by a bum ankle and had problems blocking and pushing off all year.
Bennett, of course, was perceived as an “attitude problem” by the no-nonsense Bears staff. The Patriots acquired him by swapping the 127th overall pick for the 204th overall pick. Even though it didn’t work out as ideally as it appeared on paper, the Pats covered for another devastating Rob Gronkowski injury, and Bennett caught five balls in the Super Bowl.
To be clear, sometimes this doesn’t work out, and the Patriots wind up with Chad Ochocinco, but that doesn’t stop them from taking a small risk that could potentially improve the team. The worst-case scenario is that they are out a lower-round draft pick.
Revis, Dillon, Rodney Harrison, Junior Seau, Chris Long, LeGarrette Blount — the names could roll on. Teams that are this good often get very arrogant about their evaluations. They don’t want to mess up team chemistry, and they assume that available players are unwanted for a good reason. The Patriots didn’t care about Bennett’s or Moss’ potential for sulking, or about Harrison’s and Seau’s advanced age. They simply saw opportunities to pick up the kind of player normally unavailable to them and pounced all over them before anyone else did.