Isn’t that just how the Patriots like it?
They latched onto it and used it as motivation all the way to the Super Bowl, proving once again that as impressive as their dominance has been on the stat sheet, it is their mind-set that truly sets them apart.
Even if they have to invent it, the Patriots will always find an edge, real or perceived slights tucked away ready when the situation warrants. When Brady thinks you think he stinks, you can be sure he wants nothing more than to shut you up. Elite athletes, already among the fiercest competitors we know, are experts at preserving at least one corner of brain power insisting, “OK, I can use THIS to my advantage.”
“When you go out there in a business that’s all competition, you will find any and everything to help push you,” cornerback Jason McCourty said Thursday, the official first day of training camp in the books, the official defense of the Super Bowl championship underway. “Whether it’s what people are saying — sometimes it may just be something your wife says at home before you leave the house — you’ll use anything to make you angry enough to take it out on the field.
“I just feel like here, everyone is always on the same page. Whether they’re saying you’re All-World or saying you suck, everyone is more focused on whatever Bill [Belichick] is talking about. You ignore the noise, everybody agrees with that, and move in that direction. But whether it’s individual or your position group, you definitely know what’s being doubted.”
So what will THIS be this year? What outside force will the Patriots use to sharpen their edge?
“You come into a year, say this one, we know [Rob Gronkowski is] not here, so everybody’s going to talk about the tight end position,” McCourty said, “or when you lose some guys, whatever the talk is, you know there’s going to be things that are said, so you want to go out there and prove it wrong.”
Last year’s fodder was provided three weeks into the season, when a 1-2 record portended doom. But doom was no match for the Patriots, who silenced it much the same way they have for two decades and counting, a fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years and a sixth championship of the Brady-Belichick era ultimately ridiculing anyone who dared question otherwise. When Brady yelled into a post-divisional playoff win microphone that “I know, you know, everyone thinks we suck, and you know, we can’t win any games,” he tapped directly into the ethos that drives the psyche of a franchise.
The NFL’s absolute overdog manages to channel an underdog mentality.
“You have to stay in that mind-set that you have a chance to be good, but you have to start over and prove yourself every year,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “We’re motivated on our own, we push each other every day, nobody is going to take shortcuts and if we see someone doing it, we pick each other up.”
Of course it starts at the top. Belichick isn’t about to reveal what real or perceived slights get under his skin, not when he barely moves his lips to dismiss questions about Nick Caserio as “water under the bridge,” as he did Thursday before practice. But it’s not so much about telling his players how to feel, but showing them how to respond. His example sets the standard.
“When I got here, so many people asked me what’s different,” said McCourty, who played nine years in Tennessee and Cleveland without making the playoffs. “It’s not really what’s so different about here; it’s more what’s different about other places. It’s really not as hard as we made it seem when we were there.
“When I was in Tennessee, you’re coming onto a bad team, everybody says you suck, you’re motivated to change that. But it’s a matter of, is the structure set up, do you have the personnel? Here they have the personnel right, good coaches, good players, go out and execute on Sunday you win football games. For me coming here you see that and it’s like, ‘It is that simple.’
“When I got to Cleveland that year they were 1-15 the year before, talk about somebody saying you suck. Everyone there was motivated. But still, if you’re not set up and don’t have the right people, it won’t happen.”
But be real: Those teams were bad. The Patriots, winners of 10 straight AFC East titles, owners of 16 consecutive 10-win seasons, defending Super Bowl champs, are not. So why the edge?
“At the same time you could look at as nobody wants to see you win,” McCourty said. “There’s always something. There’s always something.”