American Football

Inside the Patriots’ winning machine: ‘The Super Bowls are an offshoot of two extremists’

For most of the past two decades, the New England Patriots’ dynasty monopolized the NFL. Between nine Super Bowl appearances, multiple scandals, a global superstar quarterback, and a coaching wizard, the Patriots machine churned and churned until Tom Brady joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020.

The organization’s historical run resulted in an infinite amount of reporting, yet a cloud of mystery has always been present. ESPN Senior Writer Seth Wickersham, who has covered Brady and company since the early 2000s, presents the deepest dive yet into the Pats’ dynasty in his debut book, It’s Better to be Feared.

The Guardian caught up with Wickersham to talk about what he learned reporting the book, the evolution of the Brady-Belichick breakup, Brady’s happier world in Tampa, and much more.

It’s Better to Be Feared is packed with anecdotes from start to finish. How difficult was it to get inside the Patriots machine?

I think getting inside any team is hard, even the ones that are easier, like the Cleveland Browns. But I think the relationship with Brady and the team changed a little bit beginning in 2017 after they played the Falcons in the Super Bowl. Tom started to venture into things that were different from just being the quarterback of the Patriots. He came out with his book, The TB12 Method, he did the Tom vs Time documentary of which the Patriots only had nominal awareness. And he started to branch himself as a cultural presence beyond just the team.

At the same time, you had Belichick deeply invested in Jimmy Garoppolo. You had Belichick banning [Brady’s business partner] Alex Guerrero from the building. Then they had had that tough Super Bowl loss where they put up 600 something yards of offense and didn’t punt. At the same time, Brady wanted a contract that would guarantee him until age 45. And when that offseason began, Brady disconnected from the team. He was the only starting quarterback in the NFL who skipped all the voluntary workouts. For a long time, we didn’t know if he wanted to be with the team. So I would say beginning after the Falcons Super Bowl, there’s always been the people in Tom’s circle who you could call for information and the people within the Patriots as well. That’s when it became a little easier to get inside those different camps when before they were more united.

You’ve had a lot of access to Brady, especially in the early years. And you really got into the psyche of his blossoming fame in the book. How do you think Brady handled his growing celebrity?

I think generally speaking he handled it phenomenally well because it never broke him. He never embarrassed himself as a celebrity. He experienced American fame as it usually arrives, which is at warp speed, with little time to think or process or to consider anything. That was one of the parts of the book I really enjoyed, having exposure to him at the time, and then going back to look at those moments from where he is now. He’s almost beyond a celebrity, a global figure and brand, and one of these people who’s a one-name person.

[Brady’s] adjustment to that was interesting. That doesn’t mean it was easy, though. One anecdote I really like in the book is it’s 2003 and Brady calls Greg Harden, his counselor at Michigan, and he’s whining and complaining about all the things he can’t do because he’s so famous. Harden starts laughing at him. And Harden, I’m paraphrasing, says, ‘You want to be the best at what you do, you deal with these other things. Look, you can change a kid’s life by picking up the phone and talking to them for five minutes. So do that because you’re the hot cookie right now and you won’t be forever.’ Of course, as it turned out, he’s been the hot cookie for 20 years.

In the book you say the The Patriot Way is described by others as (1) the emotionless pursuit of victory, (2) a team-first ethos, and (3) arrogance. Which of those do you think was most at play during the dynasty?

I actually think none, and I think if you look at how it ended, there was no Patriot Way. There were just two very special people – Tom Brady and Bill Belichick – who were together for a really long time and accomplished something unprecedented. It ended when they did. There might be the jet wash of it in how they go about their business now but it was really more a reflection of an era than a culture and I think that’s what we’ve learned with the blessing of time.

You detail Belichick’s use of psychological warfare in his coaching. Which of his foes do you think was most impacted?

I have to say probably [Former Rams coach] Mike Martz because it happened on the game’s biggest stage [at Super Bowl XXXVI] and Bill, for as much as an introvert as he is, how comfortable in awkward silence he is, he is a master at understanding the psychological impulses of his opponent and figuring out ways to get them to revert to their most essential selves. He knew that going into the Super Bowl against the Patriots that Martz was going to throw the ball and would not call running plays, and he used it against him. It wasn’t the first time he had ever done it, but I think it was the most impressive time because the Patriots shouldn’t have won that game. They were playing on artificial turf against one of the fastest teams ever, an all-time great offense, and they figured out a way to win because Bill developed a gameplan that the Rams had no answer for. To change they would have had to change who they were in the middle of the game, and they didn’t figure out a way to do it until the end of the game when it was too late.

You also detail how demanding both Brady and Belichick were toward fellow coaches and players. As a general rule, do you think the average player liked playing in New England?

It’s like as a writer, you say: “Do you like writing?” And you say: “No, but I like having written.”

I think they like having played in New England but when they’re there, they’re worked hard. They’re under a lot of pressure and scrutiny. Losses there take on a completely different dimension. Belichick and Brady’s reaction to losing is so large it’s almost atmospheric. They’re also often not paid at top dollar. One of the things that Belichick was able to do with Brady was to keep people’s salaries a little lower than the player felt like they should be at. So they often go other places where they don’t have to deal with so much crap, where they’re paid more, where they don’t have to work as hard but they often don’t win as much. So I think when players look back at their time in New England, they see some positives and some negatives but they understood they were part of a program where everything was engineered toward winning.

As you referenced earlier, the Brady-Belichick parting of ways was in the works for some time. The team wouldn’t commit beyond two years and Brady wasn’t given the roster input he craved. Why not give Brady some input? Didn’t he earn that?

Alex Guerrero came out and said that Bill didn’t evolve with Brady. I don’t think that’s quite fair because Belichick did evolve. Everyone knew that Tom Brady wasn’t just one of the guys. But I think there was a feeling to just how much influence Tom Brady could have across the organization. At one point, he tells Joe Montana: “They ask my input; I give it to them and they go do their own thing.”

Whereas in Tampa, things are just different. There’s an anecdote in the book where Bruce Arians is pitching Brady on coming to the Bucs and tells him that he always gives his quarterbacks a lot of leniency into what he does on offense and then says: “And you’re Tom Brady.” He made that very clear. And you have to wonder when the last time a head coach of a football team told Tom Brady that and gave him that sort of validation and status.

Is Brady enjoying himself more in Tampa?

It sure seems like it. In Tampa, he’s the quarterback. He’s also the de facto offensive coordinator, and he’s also a pseudo personnel executive. His business partner, Alex Guerrero, who was curtailed in New England by Belichick not only has an office in Tampa, he has a Super Bowl ring. So they definitely seem more willing to embrace Tom Brady and everything that comes with it than they did in New England.

What surprised you the most about the team or key players when writing the book?

I think one of the most interesting things that should not get overlooked is how hard that 10-year gap was when they weren’t winning Super Bowls but they were coming very close. They were so close to winning more Super Bowls but just coming up short and the fact that Brady and Belichick went back to reevaluate their belief systems and challenge these patterns that had maybe worked better than for any quarterback and coach ever but they were still looking to improve on that last 10th of 1%.

I think you see it happen later in the book in the Baltimore Ravens playoff game in 2015 where they’re down in the third quarter by two touchdowns. The Ravens aren’t scared of them. They’re looking like this is another wasted year where they were going home early, but Belichick had prepared for this moment and knew they might need something unpredictable. And he unveiled those two funky formations – the ‘Baltimore’ formation and the ‘Ravens’ one and in a matter of minutes got them back in the game, I think it was those decisions that went a long way toward reigniting the dynasty.

When this dynasty is reflected on in say, 50 years, what’s the lead narrative aside from the mountain of Super Bowls?

The longevity. I don’t write around the Super Bowls. The Super Bowls are an offshoot of two incredibly driven people and two extremists in this spectacularly unhealthy world of professional football. The fact is these guys could have exited at any time with their health and their wealth and their legacy intact and yet they ignored all those off-ramps and they keep going. Even to this day they keep going and every time they give you an indication of when they might walk away, they move the goalposts.