When considering the core principles of the New England Patriots' roster-building philosophy, and why this franchise has been consistently successful in Bill Belichick's 14-year tenure, there is a timely example that almost perfectly captures the multiple layers it entails.
Simply look at the two players who are trending after the team's AFC divisional-round playoff win over the Colts -- bulldozing running back LeGarrette Blount and ultra-athletic rookie linebacker Jamie Collins.
Then consider how they were acquired, how much salary-cap space they account for, and how expert coaching has put them in position to succeed, and there you have it.
These Patriots believe in depth, or in the oft-repeated words of owner Robert Kraft, "quality depth management." Blount and Collins were acquired, along with productive rookie cornerback Logan Ryan and speedy rookie receiver Josh Boyce, with the draft picks gained from a rare four-for-one trade.
These Patriots believe in fiscal discipline with the salary cap, which often means tough decisions with beloved fan favorites (e.g. Wes Welker). They attempt to build a strong middle class on the roster, which is easier to do when players such as Blount ($680,000) and Collins ($683,000) are in starring roles but accounting for so little cap space. It also helps when your star player, quarterback Tom Brady, is on board with the plan.
And, at the core of what they do, these Patriots believe in the power of teaching and its growing importance in today's NFL, when teams have 53-player rosters but often wind up needing 70 players or more by season's end because of attrition with injuries. This might be the area that is most overlooked when analyzing the Patriots' consistent run of success -- the development of players by Belichick and his staff, and the ability to put them in the best position to succeed, is off the charts.
Again, Blount and Collins are shining examples.
Few viewed Blount as an asset last April when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were shopping him in trade talks, and his initial role in New England was as the No. 2 back. But when he was given the chance to become more of a No. 1 option in early December, his altered running style (lower pad level) helped him turn into a force that has transformed the identity of the offense.
Meanwhile, Collins arrived in New England probably as raw as any of the team's top draft picks in Belichick's 14-year tenure. Several NFL scouting staffs had similar reports on Collins -- ultra-athletic and versatile, but a question as to what position would be his best fit. How the Patriots have groomed him behind the scenes (consider that he averaged just 10 defensive snaps per game through the first 10 games), and how Collins exploded when finally thrust into a full-time role Saturday, is a reflection of expert development.
Coaching has always been important in the NFL, but one could make a case it has never been as important as it is today in the salary-cap era. The ability to draft and develop, and get meaningful contributions out of the bottom third of a roster and beyond, is critical.
The examples on the current Patriots roster are countless -- starting defensive tackle Sealver Siliga anyone? -- which is something that members of the coaching staff naturally take pride in.
"You certainly want to have as much depth and as capable of depth as you can at every position on the team. I think part of creating the depth that you're looking for is development. That's what our jobs are as coaches," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
"Ultimately we make selections or we sign players or whatever we do to bring the player on to our team, and then once they're here, it's our job from the first minute we have an opportunity to spend with them in April or May or whenever that may be, until the very last meeting or practice of the season, to spend our time in not only trying to get them familiar with maybe an opponent that we're getting ready to play, but also to still continue to focus on the skills that we need them to improve on to become better players themselves.
"Even though we're going to get ready to play another playoff game this week, there's still going to be a decent portion of our practice time and meeting time spent on trying to assist in the development of the younger players on the team because even though a guy may be second or third team, or practice squad, eventually we'd like for that player to help us and play in games. I think that process is ongoing and the development of those young players can't be understated in terms of creating the type of depth that you're looking for."
The Patriots have needed that depth, and relied on their expert development, more than ever in a season filled with significant injuries.
The emergence of Blount and Collins is just the latest reminder of their excellence in that area.