People hate winners. That’s the primary reason why fans around the country hate the New England Patriots. No matter how much the haters complain about unfounded allegations in the long run it really does come down to one thing: the Patriots win and they don’t like it. It has to be because Bill Belichick and his staff find ways to bend the rules (or just out and out and break them) to gain any advantage possible. There couldn’t possibly be any other reason for their continued success, right?
There is one play from yesterday’s Patriots 51-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars that shows exactly why they’re better than the other 31 teams. In the box score it’s just one innocuous line:
4-8-JAC 22 (2:01) (Punt formation) 33-C.Grant right end to JAC 24 for 2 yards (18-M.Slater)
That’s the line item for the Jaguars failed fake punt with 2:01 remaining in the third quarter with New England leading 37-10. It reads exactly what happened, that special teams captain Mathew Slater tackled Jacksonville running back Corey Grant after a two yard gain after a fake punt. But as is often the case it’s the back story on how Slater was prepared for that moment that tells the truth of the situation.
Let’s all remember back to the biggest moment so far for the Patriots in 2015, which is obviously Malcolm Butler’s interception on the goal line to win Super Bowl XLIX. It was a play the Patriots faced in practice against the scout team, and Butler wasn’t so successful at it. “I was at practice, and the scout team ran the same exact play, and I got beat on it at practice because I gave ground. (Bill) Belichick came and said to me ‘Malcolm, you’ve gotta be on that.'” And all of the sudden the situation happened right as the Patriots practiced it, and that’s why Butler was ready for it and made the play when it counted.
Now flash forward to Sunday, and in a situation that makes little sense to run a fake punt Slater and his special team teammates were completely ready for it. And they were ready for it because they practiced for that situation during the week.
From Belichick’s post game press conference:
“You know, it was actually a play that we ran in practice and James White got us on it, and we made some corrections on that in practice and then were able to carry those over into the game. Slate got a good read on it, and he’s a hard guy to outrun. It’s hard to outrun Matt to get to the outside. He did a good job of tracking it down and making the tackle. It was a heads-up play by our special teams, punt return unit. We’ve always got to be alert for those kinds of things, whether it’s a fake punt or an onside kick or fake field goal – whatever it happens to be. That’s part of their job, but I thought the whole unit reacted well to it because we had to obviously stop it on both sides. We didn’t know which side they were running it to. Matt had good width and was able to track it down. It was a good job of staying at home, being responsible.”
I DVR’d the game, and if you watch the video (and I searched and couldn’t find any online) you’ll see that on every Jacksonville punt the Patriots special teamers were looking for a fake. In the locker room after the game Slater said, “They needed a play. They needed to do something to keep themselves in the game and we were aware of that every time we went on the field. Like I said, our communication was really good and everybody being on the same page and being alert for something. Like I said, that’s really coaching and preparation throughout the course of the week.”
The Patriots are successful simply because they continually practice situational football. With New England having one of the best scouting staffs in the NFL they already have a good idea when and how the opponents will go about their business in certain situations. The Patriots then practice against those specific plays and how to stop them. For the Patriots, it’s nothing more than being totally prepared for what an opponent is likely going to do in any given situation.
And the proof of that is in one ill-advised failed fake punt.