A full disclosure of partisan bias at the start: As a lifelong fan of the Denver Broncos, it goes against my mental grain to acknowledge anything positive about the New England Patriots beyond their obvious success. In the first post-9/11 Super Bowl, I rooted for their improbable upset as the appropriately-named patriotic underdogs of Super Bowl XXXVI. But, by the time of their remorseless steamroller of a march to 18-0 in 2007, I was pulling for their fall as the arrogant Goliath of the NFL. I enjoyed watching the New York Giants ruin the Patriots’ perfect season in Super Bowl XLII nearly as much as my Broncos’ championship wins a decade earlier.
The antipathy I felt towards the Patriots became much more focused after Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan as the Broncos head coach in 2009. By the time he was fired before the 2010 season was over, McDaniels had turned my beloved team into a dumpster fire: driving away several of the team’s best offensive players, losing 17 of his last 22 games, and dragging the Broncos into the shameful hole of the Patriots’ Spygate saga. That the Patriots hired McDaniels back as a consultant on the eve of the 2011 playoffs — one that ended for Denver in Foxboro — only made things worse. Then Peyton Manning arrived and Denver, and the epic Manning-Brady rivalry fueled a full-blown Broncos-Patriots rivalry.
I disclose all of this to reveal the lenses — some might say “blinders” — through which I view the Patriots, and why I am surprised myself to be saying this: the Patriots aren’t just a team enjoying the greatest run of sustained excellence in NFL history, who just pulled off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. They are also an ideal example of how organizations of any type should be approaching their operations in this 21st century of rapid and accelerating change. It is more than just the Patriots ridiculous consistency as one of the best the NFL has to offer each year over the last 16 seasons: 14 AFC East titles, seven AFC Championships and five Vince Lombardi Trophies. It is how they have gone about achieving this unparalleled string of success.
Resilience is THE competitive advantage.
Our world is now defined by the technological connectedness of everything, which both accelerates the pace of change and amplifies its impact. In this environment, organizations built to win by executing a plan more efficiently than the competition are at a severe disadvantage because of the inherent unpredictability of such a complex system. In his book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, Gen. Stanley McChrystal describes in great detail the lessons learned fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2003-04 — lessons about this new reality and the implications for organizations regardless of industry. In the fluid world of instant information and always connected cloud networks, it is resilience rather than efficient execution that wins. Says McChrsytal:
In a resilience paradigm, managers accept the reality that they will inevitably confront unpredicted threats; rather than erecting strong, specialized defenses, they create systems that aim to roll with the punches, or even benefit from them. … Robustness is achieved by strengthening parts of the system (the pyramid); resilience is the result of linking elements that allow them to reconfigure or adapt in response to change or damage (the coral reef). … The key lies in shifting our focus from predicting to reconfiguring.”
With resilience, flexibility is the name of the game, and is there a better description for how the Patriots have approached the challenges of roster building and winning year after year? The Patriots do not win by hoarding the most talented players; their average first pick in the draft during the Tom Brady era is near the bottom of the first round at pick #26. Besides hoodies and a minimalist approach to press conferences, perhaps nothing is more descriptive of Bill Belichick and his Patriots teams than their flexible approach to everything::
Belichick’s greatest gift as a coach is his adaptability. The Patriots are essentially a different team from week-to-week — on both sides of the ball. One week, you might see a run-heavy offense featuring multiple tight ends and backs with a defense playing complex zone defenses. The next week, they are spreading things out with three- and four-receiver sets on offense and just lining up and playing tight man-to-man defense with no frills.
This is the team that, in their third championship season of 2004, played their aging former top receiver, Troy Brown, as a defensive back when injuries struck the secondary. The result? Brown finished the year totaling three interceptions while playing spot duty as a nickel cornerback, tying him with the likes of Champ Bailey, Deion Sanders, and four other cornerbacks who were all 1st Round draft picks. The Patriots also flipped that script, employing linebacker Mike Vrabel as an occasional tight end on offense. Vrabel finished his career with 12 catches — all for touchdowns — including touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXVIII and Super Bowl XXXIX.
Over the years, the Patriots have won with excellent defenses, and terrible ones. They put up record breaking offensive numbers in 2007 with legendary deep threat Randy Moss, while returning to the Super Bowl four years later with an offense built around two tight-end sets featuring a pair of second-year players: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Two years ago, the Patriots overcame an embarrassing early season loss and key injuries on the way to their 6th Super Bowl in 14 years. After being the first team in Super Bowl history to overcome two 10-pt deficits, the Patriots clinched their 4th championship on a goal-line interception by Malcom Butler … himself an undrafted rookie free agent from tiny Division II West Alabama. Tom Brady’s top two wide receivers this season are a smallish 7th Round pick who played quarterback in college (Julian Edelman), and an undrafted player cut by four prior teams and signed as a free agent just this year (Chris Hogan).
Thanks to the controversial Deflategate suspension of Tom Brady, the Patriots opened the season on the road with an offensive eleven that combined made less than the opposing quarterback alone, Arizona’s Carson Palmer. Even so, the Patriots finished Brady’s four-game suspension in first place with a 3-1 record. A team is not supposed to finish with the best record in the NFL at 14-2 when they have to play the first quarter of the season without the best quarterback to ever play, but that’s just what the Patriots did, because they had done it before. When Brady tore his knee up in the first game of 2008, the Patriots didn’t go into a tailspin. Although they missed the playoffs, they still did so with an 11-5 record with the 5th best offense, led by a backup quarterback who had not started a game of any kind since high school, nearly a decade prior.
And then there’s what just happened last night, which people will be writing about for a long time. I was rooting for the Atlanta Falcons, and laughing at the comparisons to Marsha Brady when the game was 28-3. I still can’t quite find the words to describe what we all saw the Patriots do over the last 20 minutes of Super Bowl LI except one: Resilient.