The success of the New England Patriots has led to joy for the team’s many fans. But it also has led to a big question among those who closely follow the game.
In short, how in the world are they doing this?
Yes, they have a great quarterback in Tom Brady. But plenty of teams have had a great quarterback without the track record of the New England Patriots. Consider some of their accomplishments.
- The Patriots have gone to six straight conference championships
- They have gone to seven Super Bowls since 2001, winning five of them
- They have had a winning record in 16 straight seasons
- They’ve gone to the playoffs in 14 of the last 16 seasons
The only teams with that sort of record are the Dallas Cowboys from 1966 to 1985. That team, coached by Tom Landry, made the playoffs in 18 out of 20 seasons. They went to the Super Bowl five times, winning twice.
The Cowboys of that era also were pioneers in the use of data analysis for both picking players and in-game strategy.
Is that also the secret weapon of the New England Patriots?
New England Patriots Play Close To The Vest
The Patriots – much like the Cowboys in the Landry era – play their cards close to the vest. No one is quite sure how they evaluate players or make strategic decisions. It’s just clear that whatever they are doing, it’s working. Very well.
What is known is that the team brought on Ernie Adams, a former data-driven Wall Street trader, from the outset of the Bill Belichick era. Belichick has coached the team since 2000. Also, Patriots owner Robert Kraft also owns an analytics company, the Kraft Analytics Group. The New England Patriots are listed as a partner. While it shows an interest in data analytics, company’s focus is on marketing and operations research.
More importantly, those who watch analytics closely have followed the Patriots with great interest. “They’re completely consistent with what sophisticated analytics would tell you to do,” an anonymous “long-time NFL exec” told Sports Illustrated.
Of course, the one-man genius theory continues to be an option. In the very same Sports Illustrated article about data analytics in the NFL, another anonymous NFL team executive claims that Belichick makes decisions with an “intuition” that matches the most advanced analytical tools.
He is compared to Bill Walsh, the late coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who created a new style offense to elevate the team to three championships in the 1980s.
The Patriots have made many moves that keep them ahead in the highly competitive NFL. With every team operating under a salary cap, the playing field is theoretically level. But in reality, it’s not. Certain teams have remained consistently good over the past decade. The Patriots rank first among this group.
This in an era where most teams have subscribed to data analytics services that provide breakdowns of every game. One possible difference is that the Patriots leverage the data in positive ways, while other teams either don’t do that or even ignore the data.
Here are some of the moves the Patriots consistently make.
Dealing middle round draft picks. Over and over, the Patriots have dealt fourth or fifth round draft picks to other teams in exchange for veterans. Essentially, they are trading an unproven player not among the top rankings of college players for a guy who already has shown worth in the NFL. Not flashy, but effective.
Cutting expensive players. They will let go players, even in their prime, who have become too expensive. This is part of managing the team budget. Examples would include defensive back Lawyer Malloy and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
Invest in the middle. It’s logical to attack an enemy in their weakest area. Data analysis backs up that strategy. In the context of football – why invest in super expensive receivers who go up against the other team’s best defensive backs? A better strategy is to secure dependable slot receivers and running backs who can catch the ball. They typically work the middle of the field, matching up against the weaker pass coverage personnel on the defense.
Rotating running backs. The Patriots have had good, solid running backs. But they make frequent changes at this position and do not over-invest in the position. From a percentage point of view, this has better odds of succeeding than investing heavily in one running back. Teams that do that are often one injury away from having a lost season.
Other teams do these things, but not all of them, all of the time. The Patriots have been remarkably consistent with these strategies.
Much of it, according to experts, aligns with an advanced, data-driven approach to running a football club. Do the New England Patriots take this approach? It certainly seems likely.
Or Bill Belichick is a football savant.
Maybe a bit of both.