Monday, July 14, 2014

Patriots' Camp Preview - Kraft's Business savvy, Belichick's commitment keys to the "Patriot Way"

Editor's Note:  The following was originally published as a contribution to .

Since the turn of the century, there has been no team that has demonstrated consistent excellence as the New England Patriots have - and it's not even close.

The National Football League expanded it's season to 16 games in 1978, and only the San Francisco 49ers of the mid-80's to the late 90's has more consecutive winning seasons than the current streak of 13 that has been put together by coach Bill Belichick and his constantly evolving roster, this despite employing and relying on relatively low profile, high effort hybrid players.

The reasons for the consistency actually go far beyond just X's and O's, and the formula for success makes just as much sense in a Business 101 class as it does on a football field, but with football being a business - a business with a set amount of money that a franchise is allowed to spend and one that sees an average of twenty to thirty percent turnover annually - what the Patriots have been able to do since Robert Kraft bought the franchise in 1994 is nothing short of developing a business plan and sticking with it.

And the results speak for themselves.

"Look, we've been privileged to own this team for twenty years as a family," Kraft said last February at the Super Bowl as a guest on The Felger & Mazz show, on 98.1 The SportsHub in Boston, "and when you think about it, we've been to nine conference championship games in those 20 years, and I'm pretty proud of that."

As impressive as that is, if condensing down the time frame to the 14 years since Kraft hired Bill Belichick as head coach in 2000, the numbers are downright astounding: 13 consecutive winning seasons, resulting in 11 AFC East division titles, 8 AFC Conference championship game appearances (5-3 record) and five Super Bowl appearances (3-2).

In the interview, Kraft was responding to questions from the radio shows hosts regarding the thought that the team needed to "Load up" in order to win now, and to earn another Lombardi Trophy before Brady hangs up his cleats - but he was having none of it.

"We have to try to sustain success by managing the best we can" Kraft continued, "It's not dependent on any one player, because you never know what's going to happen."

The lone constant in that time period has been quarterback Tom Brady, who took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe early in the 2001 season and has had a stranglehold on the reigns of the offense ever since - and even with Brady, Kraft's statement about never knowing what's going to happen resonates when thinking back to the 2008 season, when the face of the franchise was forced to the sidelines with a torn ACL.

Same with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the only other player that has logged double digit seasons with the team and is coming off a season-ending injury of his own - yet the Patriots have been the most successful franchise of the new millennium and are showing no signs of erosion...

...nor is anyone associated with the franchise showing any signs of losing their passion for the way they do things - just a resounding and universal disappointment in not bringing home the hardware every year - such is the result of the Patriots' unprecedented success.

Still, The Boss will not stray from his formula, nor should he.

"There's nothing more important to me personally than winning as many championships as we can while the good lord lets me be on this planet." Kraft said,  "You can gear up (load up), but I think a better strategy is to try and be solid and compete year in and year out - we want to be in the running and to do whatever we can to be the best we can be."

Kraft brought up examples of teams that "gear up", essentially mortgaging their futures for the elusive trophy, then not being able to maintain that success due to over-extending on the salary cap - the most recent example being the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, who beat the Patriots in that season's AFC Title tilt.

"So Baltimore beat us in the championship game (in 2012) and won the Super Bowl," Kraft continued, clearly annoyed with the line of questioning, "and what happened to them this year?  Did they make the playoffs?"


But one doesn't attain that level of success by merely staying the course in a business sense, they must have good people that fit the team concept, with consistent leadership to lead the way - and he has had that in Belichick and Brady and Wilfork for the past decade plus, but the team concept, the philosophies that comprise the core of the team function dates back to when Kraft's business empire was a fledgling endeavor...

...back to the mid-70's, when Kraft was a mere season ticket holder and a guy named Chuck Fairbanks and three of his assistant coaches devised a stratagem that is still in place today, 40 years after the fact.

How's that for consistency?

Of course, having a system in place for that long will inevitably bring up the argument as to whether Belichick and Brady makes the system work, or if their success has come as a result of the system - but does it really matter?

No, the only thing that matters is that Kraft's business savvy combined with Belichick's continued coaching excellence and commitment to both Kraft's business philosophy and Fairbanks' "old school" football strategies maintain the successful mantra known universally as The Patriot Way...

...a model for protracted success in the era of free agency and burgeoning salary cap rules, a system of which the Patriots use to their advantage when other teams are handcuffed by it - utilizing free agency to win the ever-evolving battle of attrition and the rules for the cap to devise a sort of rotating turnover that keeps the franchise both loaded with talent and on the path to financial solvency.

That said, the greatest friend to the Patriots' bottom line and success on the field has been a rookie salary structure that enables a team to draft players and sign the lot of them for the same amount of money that it used to take just to sign a first round draft pick before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement went into effect prior to the 2011 season.

Since the new CBA went into effect, 18 players that have been drafted by the team have taken roster spots, with half of them gaining starting gigs - all the while enabling the team to extend tenured veterans and to concentrate a little more money to deft free agent signings.

In fact, a look at the projected 53 man roster for the 2014 team reveals that 41 of them - between draft picks and free agent signings - have joined the team since the CBA was ratified by the owners and the players, an absurd 77% turnover in three years.

How in the name of Vince Lombardi have the Patriots managed to make it to three consecutive AFC Championship games and one Super Bowl with such metamorphosis taking place?

Simply, by staying the course with their philosophies, excellent scouting and personnel decisions, fiscal responsibility and, contrary to popular opinion, superb drafting and development - and as long as the Kraft family owns the franchise, history suggests that the Patriots will remain competitive and successful...

...and heading into training camp, the 2014 season is shaping up to be the best of them all - and in part 2 of this seven part camp preview, we'll take a look at how the Patriots' offense may be the most consistently lethal unit fielded during the team's amazing 13 year run.

This is Part 1 of a seven part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with parts two, three and four focusing on the offense, while parts five, six and seven look at the defense and special teams.

Follow Mike on Twitter: @FoxFreePress

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