COMMENTARY | Do your job.
That's been the mantra of the New England Patriots for more than a decade, and it's served them well. Three Super Bowl championships, two more appearances, and 10 division titles in the last 12 years.
It's also why Bill Belichick is confident he won't be facing a bullying scandal, similar to what has embroiled the division-rival Miami Dolphins.
The Patriots' organization is not perfect. One of its best, young, former players is currently awaiting trial on murder charges. The fall of Aaron Hernandez demonstrates how even the best-run organizations can make major misjudgments of character. Belichick and his staff either didn't see, or ignored Hernandez' spiral into an alleged lifestyle of violence. But that spiral took place outside the walls of Patriots Place in Foxboro. You could argue, and probably successfully, that New England's oversight was even more egregious than Miami's. If Hernandez is guilty, at least one man lost his life, and maybe more. But there's only so far an employer can be held responsible for the actions of their employees outside the workplace. In the NFL, the workplace is the locker room. And that's where the Patriots' issues have been few and far between since Belichick took over.
Inside the walls of the locker room, Belichick has developed a culture of player equality, one that treats future Hall of Famer Tom Brady exactly the same as a rookie free agent like Kenbrell Thompkins.
"He treats me like a rookie. You want to say 'Go screw yourself' but you can't because he's your coach and you say 'You know what, he's right,'" Brady said in 2012 before the Super Bowl (via ESPNBoston.com).
There's no hating on rookies, because everyone is treated like a rookie. No player is made to feel superior in the eyes of Belichick, so conversely, no player is made to feel inferior.
Do your job. If you live by those words, there's a place for you in the Patriots locker room. If you don't, nobody is sent to "toughen you up." You're cut. Or traded. Either way, you're gone.
The Patriots are not perfect. The multitude of references to "Spygate" that are sure to populate the comments section below this column will attest to that. But one thing critics can never accuse Patriots' management of is lack of control inside the locker room.
The New England Patriots begin and end with Bill Belichick. Period. And Belichick addressed how he lays down the rules of the locker room each season on Boston sports radio station WEEI:
"I state certain guidelines, and as things come up during the year that I think need to be addressed as an entire team -- and I'm not saying talking to the players, I'm saying the coaches, myself, we're talking all of us: 'Here's how we're going to do things' or 'Here's something that has come up, and here's how we're going to address it' if it's 'We're not going to have any more of this' or 'This is OK, or in the best interests of the team.'
Now, a lot of times those conversations also come up with the captains, whether they bring them up first or I bring them up first. We all talk as captains and they are representatives of the players -- you can't talk to all 53 guys, but they represent the players and will say 'How do we feel about this? How do we feel about that?'"
If the Dolphins coaching staff really did encourage Richie Incognito to "toughen up" Jonathan Martin, it made as big of a misjudgment of Incognito's character is it did Martin's. And while Belichick hasn't always been a perfect judge of character when it comes to who plays for him, the Patriots seem to consistently have core group high-character team leaders. From Willie McGinnest, to Tedy Bruschi, to Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork, Belichick has always found models of hard work and steady leadership to take the reigns when the coaches aren't around.
"I'm fortunate. I've had a lot of great captains through my time here with the Patriots," Belichick said on WEEI. "Those guys are not only great players and great leaders and workers, but they also have a very good sense of what's right and what's wrong for the group, for the team in the locker room. A lot of times they can see things that are potentially coming over the horizon that are better to address before they become a problem than after something happens and then there's hard feelings or maybe a misinterpretation of something. I think it's definitely important to try to stay ahead of it, and I certainly bring that up at the beginning of the year, and on an as-needed basis during the course of the year."
They say it's better to be lucky than good, and in Belichick's case, there's probably a little bit of both at work here. He's been lucky to have such a competent group of team leaders, but good enough to draft or sign them. He develops a culture in the locker room that puts team success above anything else.
In the end, there is something to the "Patriot way."
Do your job.
Evan Fitzgerald was born and raised near Boston, following all things New England sports. A veteran of nearly a decade in sports journalism, he now lives in Chicago, where he can be seen covering college sports for the Big 10 Network.
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