The New England Patriots have been knocked out of the NFL playoffs in the first round, and many are rushing to call their upset loss the end of one of the most amazing dynasties in sports.
I never thought I would hear these words. The notion of the Patriots not making yet another strong run for the Super Bowl is as alien to me as my speaking some ancient Greek language or eating foie gras. Yet it has happened somehow. And it has happened to an exceptionally successful team that won its first eight games this year and secured its 11th consecutive title as the champion of the eastern division of the American Football Conference, where my serially disappointing New York Jets play and have been shellacked routinely by the Patriots.
But as tempting as it is to join in the virtual America-wide celebration of the possible end of this amazing football dynasty, I'd rather reflect on how the Patriots have been able to manage success so well and so long — quite an achievement in both sports and business.
I suspect strongly that I am not the only one surprised by New England's loss. Most of America had become accustomed to the Patriots winning again and again. And understandably so; there is no lack of data to document the Patriots dynasty.
The team has won six Super Bowl titles, matching the record held by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it has done so in less than 20 years. As notable, the Patriots have been so consistently successful that they had not had to play in the first round of the playoffs since 2009; and since then, until this season, they had never failed to make it to at least the divisional round of the playoffs.
Anchoring all this is an incredibly stable 20-year partnership between a great quarterback, Tom Brady; a legendary coach, Bill Belichick; and a highly supportive owner, Bob Kraft. It's a partnership that, according to CBS Sports, has produced for Kraft the most team victories for any team since 1994 and the most post-season victories for a coach. Brady is the post-season leader in passing completions, yards and touchdowns. Even more astounding, going into Saturday's AFC knockout games, Brady had won 30 of his 40 post-season games while his fellow quarterbacks from all the other AFC teams in the playoffs had won one out of four cumulatively. Brady has won three NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP titles, while Belichick has been named coach of the year by the Associated Press three times.
These numbers are even more extraordinary when you consider that the NFL is designed to stop dynasties. The best-performing teams are allocated the lowest draft picks, meaning that, absent some clever trades with other teams, they don't get a shot at the most accomplished players coming out of college. Their regular season schedules are tougher. And they are subject to a salary cap that makes it difficult to keep their best players year after year.
Yet the Patriots excelled continuously. Among the many reasons for this, five have stood out for me consistently and are extremely relevant for sustained business success:
* Mid-course adjustments: Time and time again, the Patriots come up with small changes in the way they play and in their personnel that make a huge difference on the field. I am not talking just about between games or at half-time. They also do so during games and especially in the final minutes of very close encounters.
* Hard work: Their players and coaches are totally engaged and disciplined. Who will forget soon the images of Brady consistently looking at screens and printouts while waiting on the sideline to get back in the game, or Belichick with that pencil figuring out adjustments and communicating them to the team in person?
* Personnel management: Year after year, the Patriots lost some of their star players, except for Brady, of course. But before fans of opposing teams like me could rejoice properly, the coaches found and developed previously unknown players who would then feature in our nightmares.
* Perfecting the simple yet devastating: Many have tried but few have succeeded in making the simple extremely painful for the opposing teams. I am not talking just about Brady's quarterback sneaks, but also the ability, time and time again, to score at the end of the first half and on the first series of the second half - often turning games in New England's favor.
* Constructive paranoia: All of which speaks to a culture in New England that, although not uniformly admirable, has delivered a lot for its fans. The team never seemed to relax or become complacent. Discipline was paramount, enforced by a seemingly never-compromising Belichick. Infighting was kept to a minimum. Communication with the media managed to avoid distracting drama; and, when it comes to Belichick, I suspect that few journalists enjoy the interactions with him, particularly at the post-game press conferences in which the coach made former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan's famous (and intentional) mumbling and lack of substantive communication seem almost amateurish.
It's fascinating, though not surprising, that most of the post-game media coverage has focused so far on the Patriots' loss rather than the victory by the Tennessee Titans, which pulled off a huge upset by going to Foxboro, the Patriots' hostile home field, and executing an extraordinary game plan that included brilliant running plays and punting perfection. It speaks to the respect, grudging as it is, that most football teams, commentators and fans have for the Patriots - and the fear that somehow this team may find a way to keep the dynasty alive.