AP NEWS

Keegan: Patriots Are Winning with Strategy, Not Athleticism

December 5, 2018

New England Patriots defensive ends Adrian Clayborn, left, and Trey Flowers celebrate their sack of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during a Nov. 4 game in Foxboro. AP FILE PHOTO Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

By Tom Keegan

Boston Herald

FOXBORO -- The stopwatch doesn’t lie, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole truth of a football player, either.

If it did, the New England Patriots wouldn’t stand a chance of running down the Kansas City Chiefs. As it stands, the Pats, winners of eight of their past nine, are very much in the hunt for the top AFC spot at 9-3.

How are they doing it? First, here’s how they aren’t doing it: with receivers using world-class speed to gain huge separation from defensive backs. And they’re not doing it by overwhelming opponents with speed on defense.

The easy answer, then, is the coaching staff and its superior scheming and practice preparation. The problem with that conclusion is it skips a step.

The Patriots hang with faster teams in part because they do a great job of identifying, drafting and signing players with fast minds. It takes discipline to not fall in love with the stopwatch. It’s more difficult to get an accurate read on a football mind, but the Patriots obviously know the formula for doing so.

Coaches learn more by watching film of prospective Patriots than from watching them run, jump, throw and lift. It doesn’t really matter how fast you run if you’re not ending up in the right place at precisely the correct time.

Any teacher can move through material only as rapidly as the dumbest student in the class can absorb it. Every brain has a different capacity, and the limit for wrinkles added by coaches must stop when the slowest mind in the huddle reaches the point of diminishing returns. The Patriots are able to change coverages so frequently and disguise them so well because things don’t have to be simplified for the slow kid in the class. He doesn’t exist.

The Patriots are honors students, minus the pocket protectors.

Jason McCourty had spent his entire career lining up on the outside and didn’t work in the slot until recent weeks. On Sunday, he spent most of the game in the slot and was instrumental in limiting Vikings star Adam Thielen to 28 receiving yards.

“Learning on the fly, I guess you can call it,” McCourty said.

Brains capable of flying through material allow for that.

A burner coming out of Rutgers, McCourty and twin Devin are 31, as is safety Patrick Chung. Stephon Gilmore is 28.

Experience, a great equalizer, teaches the value of communicating.

“I think it’s an old-guy thing,” Jason McCourty said. “That’s one thing you gain with as many as 30-year-olds as we have in this secondary. We have guys who have a good understanding of what’s going on and are always talking, trying to always communicate.”

Tom Brady’s as good an example as any of the importance of a quick brain. His infamous NFL combine numbers, as bad as his career has been brilliant, meant nothing. Stopwatches can’t capture exactly what a quarterback sees, how quickly he processes information, how precisely he thinks.

Smarts have a lot to do with why the Patriots get better as the season progresses. The same goes for why they tend to need a feeling-out period before taking control of games. They figure it out.

AP RADIO
Update hourly