New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has announced his retirement, ending one of the NFL’s most dominant and colourful careers.
There is a romance, a pleasurable anticipation, a certain hopeless inevitability, in supporting a team that never wins. The sweet anguish of unfulfilled longing is a mistress impossible to resist. It is one of those things that makes up a fan(atic).
I was 22 and a student living in Boston when I fell in love with the New England Patriots. Hook. Line. Sinker. How could you not love a hometown team that had never won a Super Bowl in your lifetime?
It would take the Patriots another decade and change before it achieved the unthinkable one late winter’s day in 2002 by lifting American football’s holy grail, the Super Bowl. By then I was living two continents and a lifetime away from the sport and it felt almost anticlimactic. ‘Is this what Brecht would have felt like if Godot had one day showed up at his doorstep’, I wondered?
But I need not have worried, for the golden period of Patriot’s football was ahead. The Rubicon had been crossed and history was about to be made.
The golden age of the New England Patriots
It all changed for the Patriots with the arrival of one man. Bill Belichick gave up a head coach position with the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Patriots as assistant head coach and defensive backs coordinator in 1996. That would turn out to be the start of the Patriots transformation into a winning machine.
From 1996 the Patriots won the AFC East Division championship 18 times, the AFC Conference ten times and made the play-offs 19 times. And after Belichick took over as head coach in 2000 and acquired Tom Brady they won the Super Bowl an incredible six times.
It has truly been the golden age for the New England Patriots, and like all supremely dominating teams in any sport, they are loved by the fans and despised by everyone else in equal measure.
Doing things differentlySo how did the Patriots become so dominant for a team that hadn’t found a way to win the Super Bowl in 30 years? Yes, they had Tom Brady, but even the most phenomenal quarterback in the history of American football could not have single-handedly built the team into the machine it became. The secret lies in the things that the Patriots have done differently from every other team in the league for 18 long years. This past weekend was a good example. Trent Brown arrived in Foxborough as part of a 2018 swap of middle-round picks with the San Francisco 49ers. He was an unheralded right tackle coming off a torn labrum injury. The Patriots moved him to left tackle. Brown started all 19 regular-season and play-off games last season as Tom Brady's blindside protector, anchored one of the league's best offensive lines, and did not allow a sack in this year's play-offs or Super Bowl. Trey Flowers has led the Patriots in sacks for three straight seasons. He was an unknown Arkansas defender coming into the Patriots squad in 2015 as a fourth-round draft pick earnt during a player exchange with Tampa Bay Buccaneers the previous season. Stephen Gostkowski, a four-time Pro Bowl kicker is 12th on the league's all-time scoring list. The Patriots drafted him in the fourth round in 2006 to replace Super Bowl legend and future hall of famer Adam Vinatieri. Gostkowski has led the NFL in scoring five times and has kicked 39 field goals in the play-offs and seven in Super Bowls. Last weekend the Patriots did not renew any of their contracts. All three were at the cusp of becoming expensive, the perfect time to let them go. That’s the Patriots way. [caption id="attachment_564766" align="alignleft" width="755"] James White of the Patriots. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)[/caption]
Mike Tanier, writing for the Bleacher Report, put it well:
The Patriots have self-scouted better than any other NFL team for the entire 21st century. They know where the talent of players like Brown and Flowers ends and the ability of Brady to make his linemen look good and Belichick to make his defenders look good begins. They know who they can afford to replace.
The Patriots scout the bottoms of other team’s rosters, the middle rounds of the draft and the free-agent thrift shop better than any team in the NFL. For years, they have loaded their roster with miscast or underappreciated players from other organisations …
The Patriots can successfully swap out veteran starters for middle-round picks and reclamation projects because Belichick’s structure has been in place for nearly two decades, so the coaches, scouts and salary-cap people are always on the same page.
The teams that signed Patriots free agents usually end up with buyer’s remorse, while some mid-round pick or free-agent rando starts in the Super Bowl.
That’s the Patriots Way, and it’s the reason why the Patriots seem to lose every offseason but end up winning.”
The Brady miracle
There is no better example of supreme talent scouting in the world of sport than the New England signing of Tom Brady. It is hardly a coincidence that Bill Belichick’s phenomenal run with the Patriots team started two years after he picked up Tom Brady as the 199th pick in the sixth round of the 2000 draft.
Losing heart after remaining unappreciated for five rounds of the NFL Draft, Brady had just taken his reluctantly prepared resume out of his bag – his only notable experience outside Football thus far being an internship on the sales-trading desk at Merrill Lynch – when he saw the Patriots pick him. The relief was immense.
Brady would go on to play in nine Super Bowls, more than any other player in NFL history, and win six of them. He would also win more regular-season games than any other quarterback in history. Suffice to say that the New England Patriots have never won a Super Bowl without Tom Brady.
Brady’s oft-told and increasingly fairytale-like story is rivalled only by the scarcely believable career of his favourite receiver, who makes Brady’s game complete, Julian Edelman.
The extraordinary story of Julian Edelman
If Brady thought he had had a hard time on NFL draft day, Julian Edelman’s was even more nailbiting. When the Patriots finally took him as the 232nd draft pick in the seventh round in 2009 he had been ready to give up.
Edelman’s had been an unusual career before he came to the NFL. He could in fact have been considered a backup to Brady. For three years Edelman had been the quarterback for Kent State University, throwing 4997 yards and rushing 2483, leading his college in both categories in his senior year.
The NFL Scouting Combine is a week-long showcase occurring every February where college football players perform physical and mental tests in front of NFL coaches, general managers and scouts. Athletes attend by invitation only. An athlete’s performance during the combine can affect their draft status, salary and, ultimately, their career. Julian Edelman was not invited to the 2009 combine, but from the outside he beat several speed records set at the combine, attracting the attention of coaches and scouts. His pick was a typical gamble of the ‘Patriots way’. And it would pay off in no uncertain manner.
Being a quarterback was only one of Edelman’s many skills and the Patriots recognised it. When they picked him they didn’t know where he would fit in. They just knew three things: he was versatile and fast, he already had the reputation of being hardworking, and at 232nd in the draft he was undeniably cheap. The rest would be left to the Patriots Way.
In a preseason game in 2009 Edelman returned a punt 75 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles to score a touchdown and earned a slot as a wide receiver during the regular season. He finished the regular season with 37 receptions for 359 yards and one touchdown. He also made six punt returns as well as 11 kickoff returns combining 304 yards in all on 17 returns. Edelman then became the first rookie to score two receiving touchdowns in one post-season game in 15 years. The following season he had a 94-yard punt return touchdown, the longest in Patriots franchise history.
But it was in 2011 that Edelman’s versatility was truly understood by NFL fans. Through the first part of the season he was used as a kick and punt returner. Then, in Week 10, because of injuries to the Patriots’ secondary, he was pressed into service as a defensive back during the fourth quarter. During that 2011 season Edelman played 13 games with four receptions for 34 yards and 584 return yards on 40 kickoff-punt combined returning opportunities.
Edelman comes from a blue-collar family and isn’t afraid to work. He gets it from his father, who owns and operates an auto body shop in nearby Mountain View, California, and admittedly is a serious and simple man. It is hardly a surprise that during the season he was nominated for the NFL’s ‘hardest-working man’.
Over the next seven years Brady would be the Patriots trigger and Edelman the bullet that delivered the fatal blow. The Brady-Edelman connection is the most prolific in NFL post-season history. No quarterback-receiver combo has more receptions (115) or receiving yards (1,412) in the playoffs.
Together they conquered the NFL. Edelman’s 499 receptions, 5399 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns that resulted from this combine is complemented by his 2593 total return yards and four return touchdowns. He has become the most effective post-season wide receiver in franchise history and one of the best in the league’s history.
As if to prove that the world has not yet discovered the full import of his talents, in the off-season Julian Edelman also writes children’s books.
Flying High tells the story of Jules, a squirrel who wants to play football but is told he’s too slow, too small and too weak. A discouraged Jules then meets a ‘goat’ named Tom who offers motivating words about hard work paying off. Jules suffers another setback but eventually works his tail off before being called into the game, handed a No. 11 jersey and scoring the winning touchdown. Then he wins a Super Bowl.
“There’s a bunch of guys I’ve played with and a bunch of little kids I’ve played with that were tremendously talented and very good but went down the wrong road,” Edelman said. “Hopefully little kids see this with the message of work hard, be relentless, chase your talent and chase your dream. It’s okay to dream.”
In early 2019 the dream played out on screens across the world as Edelman picked up his fourth Super Bowl ring and was named the most valuable player in the Patriots 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
Touchdown the Patriots way. Differently.