FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriot Way.
We’ve heard that phrase for years, used to describe what it is that allows the New England Patriots to remain at the top of the NFL despite an ever-changing roster, new personalities and injuries.
“It’s very contagious,” said tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, a third-year NFL player but first-year Patriot. “That’s the word I would use.
“From Day One, coming in here and learning the Patriot Way … it’s easy to become part of and to buy into. They’ve obviously been successful around here for many years. It wasn’t just an overnight thing.”
Since Tom Brady took over from Drew Bledsoe as Bill Belichick’s quarterback in the 2001 season, the Patriots have become the NFL’s best franchise.
Three Super Bowl championships. Five AFC titles. A seventh appearance in the AFC championship game at 6:30 p.m. Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
“As a player,” said cornerback Aqib Talib, another first-year Patriot, “if you could pick where you could play at, you would want to play for a team like the Patriots.”
Talib didn’t join the team until Nov. 1, when he was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay. Extremely talented, he came with baggage — he was serving a four-game suspension for taking a banned substance when New England traded for him — but has fit in quite well, solidifying a secondary that was suspect.
No one is surprised at this.
Perhaps better than any other team, the Patriots take care of their own. They take in rookies or outsiders and teach them how to act. The Patriot Way is passed down from generation to generation.
“I learned a long time ago from Tedy Bruschi, (Mike) Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison, (Richard) Seymour,” said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, now in his ninth season. “I learned from some of the best that ever played here.”
What, exactly, did Wilfork learn?
“You can’t be selfish playing here,” he said. “It’s not about you. It’s team. And if you buy into that you’ll be very successful.
“And that’s the one thing this organization has had for a long time, guys who have come here and were not selfish, that put the team first. Because it is a team sport. You need everybody working on the same page. If you one or two guys that’s not, you can be in big trouble.”
But it’s more than that. The Patriots, said Jerod Mayo, look at the person first, not just the player.
“It starts at the top with the Kraft family,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo, of owner Robert Kraft and late wife, Myra. “It’s not only being a good football player, but a good person. And following that line.”
As the snow fell across the region Wednesday morning, slowing commuter traffic to a crawl, Mayo spoke about what it takes to be a good football team.
“We talk if you want to be a good football team, you’ll never be stuck in rush hour traffic,” he said. “You want to be the first one here and the last one to leave. I think guys really buy into that. I think guys that come in from other teams they follow the lead of the bulk of this team and it’s worked.”
They follow the lead of the veterans, like Wilfork, like Mayo, like Brady. When you talk about this team’s success, Brady’s name usually precedes it. He is, in many ways, the soul of this team.
When he talks, other players listen. When he does something, they want to follow.
“He commands the game like no other,” Mayo said. “I love watching him from the sidelines.”
Or in the locker room.
“He puts a lot of work in,” Mayo said. “Even though he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback, you would think this is his first year and that he was starting his first playoff game. That’s the way he works. He always comes in. He makes sure everybody’s on the same page.”
And that, Brady said, is because that’s what he was taught when he was a young player looking to earn a spot.
“Tedy Bruschi took me aside and Willie McGinest took me aside and Lawyer Milloy took me aside,” he said. “I think that’s probably the responsibility of the veteran player, that you learn from these experiences and try to convey the messages to the younger players so that they don’t have to learn the hard way.”
In the end, Brady said, the Patriot Way is simply about doing your job.
“I think Coach always talks about doing your job,” said Brady, who holds the NFL record for most career playoff wins (17) as a starting quarterback. “So you do your job so that everyone around you can do their job. When people trust each other, you can play with anticipation and confidence and ultimately go out there and play aggressively.
“There’s really no secret to it.”
Maybe not. But the Patriots have found a way to do it better than anyone else.