RICHMOND, Va. — Many teams in various sports tout their “way” of doing things. Usually, that methodology includes lots of mentions of sports buzzwords such as teamwork, respect, fundamentals and discipline. It can seem like just so much empty rhetoric sometimes — corporate motivational speak without tangible meaning.
But sometimes, when you see the way things are done, the way the players carry themselves, it all starts to make sense. And when you see it in plain view, side-by-side with a team that does things differently, it becomes clear why The Patriot Way has worked so well for New England while teams such as the Redskins have struggled.
It’s the real reason the Patriots were invited to share Redskins training camp for three days in advance of the teams’ preseason matchup on Thursday. And though new Redskins head coach Jay Gruden has stood by the idea of wanting to do things his own way, it’s clear that he understands there is good reason behind the success of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his star quarterback, Tom Brady.
“He’s won a lot of football games and a lot of Super Bowls,” Gruden said of Belichick. “So he deserves our respect.”
Belichick grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, as a self-described Baltimore Colts fan, and began his pro career as an assistant in Baltimore. But his head coach, Ted Marchibroda, had been the Redskins’ offensive coordinator the year before he got the Colts job and brought the offense with him. So Belichick was introduced to the Redskins early in his career.
“I learned a lot about the Redskins organization through the Colts and Coach [George] Allen and his assistants, his staff,” said Belichick. “I was brought up with the Colts that first year, but it was really the Redskins’ program over in Baltimore.”
It would take 25 years before Belichick finally landed in New England as the head coach, but that began a stretch of success that ranks among the elite dynasties in professional sports.
Since Belichick took the reins for New England in 2000, the Patriots have gone 163-61 in the regular season and 18-8 in the playoffs, winning three Super Bowls. They’ve reeled off 13 consecutive winning seasons, missing the playoffs just twice during that stretch.
Meanwhile, the Redskins have had just three winning seasons over that span, playing to an overall record of 94-130 and winning just a single playoff game, over the Buccaneers in 2005. They’ve won 69 fewer games over 14 years, or nearly five games per year fewer in a 16-game schedule.
New England’s success has made the Patriots a popular practice partner for teams in recent years, and the Patriots are finding their preseason dance card full every season now. The past three years, they have shared practices both home and away, and will do so again this year, hosting Philadelphia later in camp.
The difference in execution between the teams is evident as soon as they begin to line up against one another. In drills, Patriots quarterbacks — not just Brady, but a rotation with backups Ryan Mallett and Jimmy Garoppolo — complete pass after pass, hitting receivers in stride on crossing patterns, wheel routes and double moves over the top of the Redskins defense.
On the sideline, Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen — son of George, the man whose system Belichick first learned — watches intently, scribbling notes on a pad between plays.
During the official scrimmage, the Patriots drop a pass, and Tom Brady gets animated in the huddle, barking out signals, demanding better. This may be only practice, but you can feel the difference on the next few plays, as the offense executes with video game-like precision, carving up the Redskins secondary.
Later in the scrimmage, the Patriots go into a hurry-up offense and catch the Redskins sleeping. A defensive back is late seeing New England running back Shane Vereen split out wide, and Brady snaps the ball before the defender can recover, slinging it out to his receiver for a nice gain. After getting put back on their heels for a few plays, the Redskins show blitz. Brady slows up at the line, reads the defense, audibles to a different attack and completes another pass over the middle.
“We’re trying to implement our scheme and teach the way we want to play,” said Gruden, but was quick to add a caveat: “We’re obviously not satisfied with where we are today, and what happened today.”
You could blame the difference between the clubs on the talent gap, but when the final horn is blown on practice, the evidence is right there on the field.
The Redskins huddle for a quick moment, then scatter. Some players split up to run sprints, others to throw, while groups of twos and threes remove their pads and walk slowly back towards the locker room.
The Patriots, meanwhile, line up their entire team, as a unit, along one sideline. In three alternating groups, they run wind sprints, to the other sideline and back, every player on the team participating. Belichick stands at the 50-yard line in the middle of the field, his solitary figure swallowed up by the waves of blue and white jerseys, then spat out the other side as they pass.
As more Redskins trickle off the field, the Patriots take a knee in a large circle around their coach. They stretch as a team before bringing themselves together at the middle of the field. It’s at that point that you start to understand how that unity might help lead to every block being picked up, to every receiver being in lockstep with his quarterback, both men knowing exactly where and when player and ball need to arrive in order to succeed.
But in his afternoon press conference, Gruden was more focused on the X’s and O’s.
“This is what coaching is all about,” says Gruden of fixing the errors in the gameplay. “We’re gonna come out here and grind on these guys in the walk-through, correct the mistakes that we made.”
That will help, but the bulk of the learning opportunity came after the action itself. As a Redskins fan, you should hope the players and coaches were paying enough attention.