FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady entering their 15th season together, and ownership by Robert Kraft now in its 21st year, the New England Patriots represent in many ways the definition of NFL stability.
Just look at all of the changes around them in the AFC East in that time.
The Buffalo Bills have had six head coaches, while seven quarterbacks have started the majority of games in a season. The franchise is also bracing for an ownership change after the death of Ralph Wilson in March.
Make it five coaches for the Miami Dolphins (not including an interim) and nine quarterbacks to start the majority of games in a season during that time. Owner Stephen Ross is a relative newcomer, having purchased the club in February 2008.
So that leaves the New York Jets as the closest rival in terms of stability -- four coaches, plus six quarterbacks to start the majority of games in a season, with owner Woody Johnson taking over in January 2000.
With the pace of the NFL news cycle slowing down, these are the types of things that come to mind when considering how the Patriots are positioned for what looks like another successful season. They are heavy favorites to capture their 12th division title in 14 years, in part because as everything keeps changing around them, their three key pieces -- owner, coach and quarterback -- remain in place.
It obviously helps that the coach and quarterback are rare finds. Anyone can keep the same people in place for the sake of stability, but if the losses are piling up, it makes no sense to do so. Kraft clearly hit it big with his Belichick-Brady combo.
With that in place, what has been witnessed on a regular basis around these parts -- and not so much with their division rivals -- are examples of how the Patriots’ stability allows them to walk the tightrope of balancing short- and long-term decisions that can be awfully tough to navigate for those who don’t know if they’ll still have a job the following year.
Consider the dilemma faced by some of the good folks in Buffalo, such as second-year general manager Doug Whaley and first-year coach Doug Marrone. With an ownership change coming, one could understand that they feel an immediate pressure to win to keep their jobs, which had to be a factor in their willingness to trade a 2015 first-round pick to move up just five spots in the first round this year to select receiver Sammy Watkins.
In Miami, where Joe Philbin enters his third season as coach, the Dolphins are installing a new offense under first-year coordinator Bill Lazor with fresh terminology for players to learn, which almost requires them to hit the reset button. That’s obviously a big adjustment, something the Jets know well because they went through the same thing in 2012 (Tony Sparano) and 2013 (Marty Mornhinweg).
This came to mind Monday when Brady was asked how he thinks his career has benefited from the stability of playing under the same coach for 15 years, as Belichick has instituted a setup in which the offensive and defensive systems trump any individual coach because they are essentially his own.
“I’ve been lucky to really be in the same offensive system my whole career and coached by the same coach. There’s nobody I’d rather play for than Mr. Kraft and no other coach I’d rather play for than Coach Belichick, because I think we have the greatest chance to win every year,” Brady said. “That’s why we’re out here working hard. That’s why we pay the price -- to go out and win games."
Meanwhile, Kraft said Monday that he likes to win, and his 21 postseason owner wins tie him for fifth-most in NFL history (Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney is tops with 33). While he hopes that number grows, he also takes pride in having had just three head coaches in his tenure. Only the Steelers have had fewer (two) in that span.
“I learned early on when I came in as a new owner, transitioning from Bill Parcells to Pete Carroll [in 1997], and then looking at other teams around the league, every new coach has their system, how they want to do it,” Kraft relayed. “Here you’ve been drafting players and doing things a certain way, and then you have to give two to three years to give a chance for a new setup.
“So I made it a point then to try to find a way -- I think you get a competitive advantage in this league if you have continuity. There are just a lot of little things that are done, and the experience -- whether it’s how you travel, how you train in the offseason, how you train at training camp -- it’s all built up over a learning curve. A new system, with a new coach coming in, it takes quite a while.”
Consider this: Belichick is in his 15th season, and there have been 15 different coaches among the AFC East’s other three teams in that time. That’s a lot of change.
Also consider: The Patriots have had three quarterbacks play the majority of games in a season since 2000 -- Drew Bledsoe in '00, Matt Cassel in '08 and Brady. The other teams have had 22, which again is a lot of change.
The Patriots obviously have bigger goals than the AFC East title, but that’s where it starts. And in a division of constant change, the stability of having the three key pieces in place -- owner, coach, quarterback -- stands out even more as the years continue to pass.