The last time I didn’t root for the Patriots in a Super Bowl was 2002.
I didn’t know then that they’d be in it eight more times with the same coach and the same quarterback over the next seventeen years. If I did, I would have been pulling for them then too. That’s contrary to the trend, I know. That year I rooted for the team I thought was the most remarkable at the time. The 2002 Kurt Warner led Rams were the “greatest show on turf”. They were fast and dynamic and they were changing the game before our eyes.
That’s what I root for.
That thing that is most remarkable.
On Sunday I rooted for the Patriots to win their 6th Super Bowl in the last seventeen years. No one else I know, outside of Patriots fans, was rooting for them. The true Pats fans have no choice. We humans choose our political affiliations and our sports teams between the ages of nine and fourteen. And once locked in, they almost never change no matter what evidence is introduced to the environment.
My wife tried to hate the Chargers for moving to L.A. She lasted until opening kickoff.
That those two preferences–sports team and political allegiance– lodge themselves into the same irrational parts of our brains is telling. I have a bit of a soft spot for my childhood heroes, the Dallas Cowboys. But I’ve always found myself inherently rooting for whatever team is doing something remarkable.
The same can be said for my politics, by the way.
Few teams evoke the type of vitriol the Patriots do, with their smug quarterback and his supermodel wife and the old curmudgeon head coach who never smiles and doesn’t suffer stupid sideline reporter questions. There’s charges of cheating and deflating footballs. Their politics are dicey. There’s plenty of reasons not to like them. Yet I do. For one reason.
I’m never going to see this level of excellence again, in football at least, in my lifetime.
Belichick and Brady have played in more Super Bowls than the bottom 11 teams in the league have combined in the 53 years the NFL has been playing them. They’ve won more than the bottom 18 teams combined. In a league of frequent injuries, salary caps and free agency, that record is absurd. There are things about the way the world works that can be learned from how they’ve done it. And so I hope they keep doing it.
I’m not one for hero worship. They’re just men playing a game after all. I don’t want my kids to grow up to be them. Their performance says little of their character or morals. But saying that it’s just football misses the point too. Because football is a highly competitive, highly complex system involving actors with misaligned objectives. And so is much of the world around us. If you care enough to wonder why they achieve such a consistent, positive outcome, you might see a few things.
Here’s five that come to mind:
Execution is king. Talent helps. Strategy is important. But execution is the multiplier. If you watch the Patriots play, and you know what to look for, the variance between what’s supposed to be done by their players and what is actually done by their players is extremely low. The instances when the variance is high, is when the other team’s athleticism or talent has actively prevented them from executing what the Patriots want to. Which means, in sports talk, that the Pats rarely, if ever, beat themselves. You have to beat them. That’s the power of execution.
Strong link strategies dictate weak link responses. One of the most common observations in the business or military worlds that I’ve worked in, is that it’s more effective to concentrate energy in your strengths than to distribute resources to shore up weaknesses. The Patriots apply this as a core principle.
On Defense, they focus their strategy on stopping the other team’s best offensive players, not defending against all outcomes. They dare their opponent to try to beat them with what they don’t do well.
On offense, they focus on whatever the other team’s defense can’t stop, and they do it relentlessly until it’s stopped. Both strategies evoke a response from the other team that doesn’t allow them to flex their strengths. Which most teams simply can’t win without doing against an experienced team that makes few mistakes.
Flexibility is underrated. I’ve watched the Patriots win a Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback who didn’t look like he could throw the ball more than ten yards downfield. I’ve seen them win low scoring games with suffocating defenses. I’ve seen them win by throwing the ball 60 times a game. I’ve seen them re-introduce a two-tight end offense when no one had seen it in decades. Sunday, they played with run two running backs in the backfield like it was 1991. Generally, teams find a great quarterback and maybe some surrounding talent and ride out a few years of winning with that strategy. The Pats have re-invented themselves at least 5 times that I can count and been better than everyone else each time.
Disruption leads to dominance. The Patriots study the trends and figure out what no one is doing anymore and they do it. In doing so, they make teams play differently against them then they have to against the other 31 teams. At the end of the year they’ve played a season the same way against teams that only play one that way once. And so they’re understandably better at it. The Greek poet Archilochus wrote in a classic poem and oft used business school trope that the fox knows many solutions and the hedgehog knows one big thing. The genius of the Patriots are that they are both fox and hedgehog at the same time. Their one big idea is that they have no one big idea. They win a million ways as a rule.
The players matter. Maybe not the way you think though. One of the funniest things anyone can see on the internet is Tom Brady’s 2000 draft combine performance set to music. He’s awkward, skinny and un-athletic and went in the sixth (that’s late) round of the draft. Sunday’s Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelmen went in the seventh (the last) round. One in five Patriots players weren’t even drafted at all but instead joined after as free agents; the NFL version of college walk-ons.
Assuming the baseline athleticism of any NFL player, Belichick and his staff put a premium two things. What they call “football IQ” and coach-ability. Flexibility and execution require smart players who follow directions and buy into the system. There are transcendent talents all over league who could play for a hundred years and not win as much as Brady did. And he ran the 40 yard dash slower than I did.
I know it’s not popular to like the Patriots right now. And maybe it’s not great for the NFL that they’re winning every year. But it’s not unreasonable to appreciate what they do. If you lead teams or build things for a living, I’m pretty sure there’s some things to be learned from them. Execution, focusing on strengths, flexibility, talent standards and disruptive creativity have universal value. I’ve built teams in corporate America and for the U.S. Special Operations command and I’m not sure I can come up with better first principles.
Whether you can stomach Tom Brady’s Instagram account or not is a different issue. I just hope he keeps playing football some more.
I’m ready for number seven.