NFL Teams
Bill Barnwell, ESPN Staff Writer 30d

Fact-checking Patriots' 18-year NFL dynasty: What's real, what's a myth

NFL, Fantasy, Fantasy NFL, New England Patriots

We are 18 years into the New England Patriots dynasty. A run that started during the 2001 regular season is likely going to stretch into its third decade, which would be unprecedented in most sports and seems downright unfathomable in the modern NFL, where attrition and the salary cap conspire to strike down promising teams before they grow comfortable atop their divisions. There might never be a team like the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick Patriots again.

By virtue of that 18-year reign, though, the Patriots have amassed what amounts to a popular folklore. There are stories and arguments about how the Patriots perform and what they do to win games, and while some of them are true, plenty aren't. Some of the ideas might have been true at one time but haven't been the case in years. Others were built upon an insufficient sample, with one play or one game used to tell a broader story without any tests or support.

I wrote about myths for all of last week's eight playoff teams. With the Patriots, I found that a common claim held up with regard to New England simply isn't accurate. Despite what you might hear during Pats games, there's no evidence that the Patriots consistently sport a bend-but-don't-break defense. Belichick doesn't tell his defense to suddenly figure things out in the red zone because that doesn't make any sense. Great defenses are great all over the field.

With that one out of the way, I came up with a whole list of stories that seem to sprout up about or around the Patriots organization. (Brady on Sunday gave me one more for the list.) I went and tested those theories out using the data from New England's run over the past 18 years. Some of them turned out to be total nonsense. Others, surprisingly, are absolutely true.

Jump to the top theories:
The Pats get all the calls | Gronk is done
Brady's backups | 'Everybody thinks we suck'
Secret weapon: punters? | The 2-for-1


Fact check: You can't touch Brady without being flagged

One sore spot for fans frustrated by the Patriots has been the treatment supposedly afforded to Brady after Bernard Pollard tore Brady's ACL on a low hit in Week 1 of 2008. Before the 2009 season began, the NFL instituted a "Brady Rule" banning forcible hits below the knees on quarterbacks in the pocket. Frustrated Cincinnati Bengals fans wondered why the league hadn't been as concerned about low hits after Kimo von Oelhoffen destroyed Carson Palmer's knee during the 2005 playoffs, and it's fair to say they have a gripe.

Since then, however, any roughing the passer call on a Patriots opponent has led to complaints that you can't even breathe on Brady without being flagged for a penalty. This one seems pretty easy to test. Do the Pats get roughing the passer calls at a disproportionately high rate?

Using data from ESPN Stats & Information, I went back through 2009 (when Brady returned and the new rule was enforced) and analyzed how frequently each team benefited from a roughing the passer call. New England's opponents were penalized 28 times, which is the 18th-highest total in football. The Cleveland Browns have picked up more roughing the passer calls on their quarterbacks than the Patriots.

If you adjust the numbers for the fact that the Patriots have thrown the ball quite a bit over the past decade, the case gets weaker. The Pats generate a roughing the passer call once every 224.5 dropbacks on offense, which is 20th in the NFL. If we look only at snaps in which Brady is under pressure from the defense, that number improves to once every 48.8 dropbacks, but that's still only good for 12th. There's no evidence Brady gets roughing the passer calls at a disproportionate rate.

The team benefiting from the most roughing the passer flags against their opponents, coincidentally, is a team whose fan base might be the most vocal in complaining about a different set of rules for Brady. The Buffalo Bills and their various quarterbacks from 2009 to 2018 lead the league in roughing the passer calls drawn (43, tied with the Chicago Bears), roughing the passer rate (once every 135.5 dropbacks) and roughing the passer rate while under pressure (once every 35.3 dropbacks).

The verdict: False


Fact check: The Patriots use left-footed punters because they create more muffed punts and fumbles

Since taking over as coach of the Patriots for the 2000 season, Belichick has started each season with a left-footed punter. While he has publicly chalked up this fact to "coincidence," the chances that the Patriots would repeatedly stumble onto left-footed punters during Belichick's reign are exceedingly unlikely, even as the league has begun to follow in Belichick's footsteps. As Sports Illustrated's Jenny Vrentas noted when she looked at this issue last year, the league went from five left-footed punters on opening day in 2000 to 10 during the 2017 season.

The relative obscurity of left-footed punters is what makes them valuable to Belichick. When a left-footed specialist fires off a punt, the ball spins in the opposite direction than it would from the boot of a right-footed punter. Because returners spend most of their time staring up into the sky looking for punts from right-footed punters, the atypical spin of the left-footed punter causes them trouble. Returners don't have time for trouble. Trouble leads to fumbles, and Belichick wants opposing return men to fumble.

Has Belichick's predilection for port-sided punters paid off? When Vrentas looked into the issue, she found that left-sided punters did force muffed punts more frequently than right-sided punters. If we go back further and look at the Patriots' records, though, have Belichick's teams actually forced more fumbles on punts than other franchises over that same time frame?

ESPN Stats & Information has play-by-play data going back to 2001, which includes all but the initial year of Belichick's reign in New England. Since then, about 7.4 percent of NFL punts have resulted in muffs by the returner. Over that time frame, the Pats have run out specialists such as Ken Walter, Josh Miller, Zoltan Mesko and current punter Ryan Allen, all of whom are left-footed.

Those legends and the other various New England punters have forced opposing return men into muffed punts on 11 percent of their attempts, which is the highest rate in the league. The second-highest rate in the league is in Kansas City, where the Chiefs have generated muffs on 10.1 percent of their punts since 2001. Their punter since 2005 has been Dustin Colquitt, who happens to use ... his left foot. The evidence suggests Belichick is right on this one!

Has it actually made a significant dent for the Patriots? Not really. Fumble recovery rates are random, but most muffed punts -- about 68 percent -- are recovered by the team attempting to return the punt as opposed to the punting team. For the Patriots, since 2001, that number has been down at 22.6 percent, which is the third-lowest rate in football. As a result, only 2.5 percent of Patriots punts over that time frame have resulted in a turnover back to New England, which is 11th best in the NFL. The Chiefs top the league there at 4.2 percent.

The verdict: True (but not as actually impactful as it might seem)


Fact check: The Patriots get all the calls to go their way

Complaining about bad officiating is the lowest-hanging fruit in fandom. Nobody likes the refs. There's no golden era of good calls. It's never going to get fixed. Replay might only have made things worse. And when you have a near-20-year-long dynasty whose first notable moment involves a controversial call, well, there's going to be plenty of complaints that the calls favor that dynasty.

While it's hyperbolic for then-Oakland Raiders right tackle Lincoln Kennedy to suggest that both Belichick and Brady would not be future Hall of Famers if the Tuck Rule call hadn't gone the Patriots' way all the way back in January 2002, it's fair to say that Walt Coleman's famous decision to overturn a Charles Woodson strip sack and return the ball to the Patriots was one of the formative plays of this Patriots era. It didn't hand the Patriots the game -- Adam Vinatieri still had to hit two improbable kicks in the snow to win -- but for conspiracy theorists, it was the first sign that the league was in the bag for the underdog Pats.

As the years went on and the Patriots went from plucky minnows to perennial favorites, the story got harder to believe. After Bill Polian and the Indianapolis Colts complained about New England's aggressiveness in coverage during the 2003 season, the NFL made illegal contact a point of emphasis from 2004 on, which seemed to target defense-minded teams like the Pats. New England then went on to win the Super Bowl for a third time in 2004 before shifting tactics and becoming a pass-happy team around Brady in 2007.

There are some elements of officiating that are impossible to judge. I can't look back and measure whether the Patriots are getting away with fouls where other teams would have been called, although I think it's incredibly unlikely and impossible to explain why the league would prefer the Patriots to get away with illegal moves. (If you're arguing that the league wants the Patriots to win because they're a huge team and great for ratings, why didn't that same logic apply during the Tuck Rule game, when the Raiders had a much bigger fan base and would have been far better for ratings than the Patriots at the time?)

What I can check, though, is what penalties have meant to New England. Again, going back to 2001, the Patriots have been penalized 1,949 times, the third-lowest total in football. On a per-snap basis, 5.22 percent of plays from scrimmage in Patriots games have resulted in penalties against Belichick's team, which is the second lowest in football, behind the Colts. Proof that referees are biased toward the Patriots?

I don't think so, because the hole in that theory lurks on the other side of the ball. In those same games, New England's opponents have been called for penalties 5.81 percent of the time. More than the Patriots, true, but that's the seventh-lowest average in the league over that time frame. In general, it seems like the referees have swallowed their whistles in Pats games on both sides of the ball. The margin between the two figures is 0.59 percentage points, which is the third largest in football, behind the Colts and Atlanta Falcons, of all teams.

If you're wondering whether the Patriots get key calls when it truly matters, well, I'm sorry to disappoint you. ESPN has win probability data for how each team has benefited from penalties going back to the 2006 season. Over the ensuing 13 seasons, the Patriots have generated 2.27 wins through penalties in their favor, which is the fifth-highest total in the league over that time frame, behind the Colts, Green Bay Packers, Falcons and Tennessee Titans. To put that in context, the Patriots have a league-best 6.44 wins generated on punts and punt returns since then, and the difference between them and the second-placed Bears is 2.76 wins. While the Patriots do have one of the league's larger penalty margins, I don't see a strong case that the Patriots are riding high on dirty play or that referees are habitually biased toward higher-profile teams like New England.

The verdict: Mostly false


Fact check: Rob Gronkowski has lost a step

There's no question that Gronk's production has declined this season, given that the same guy who seemed to live in the end zone when healthy had just three touchdown catches in 13 games in 2018. For a player who was rightfully regarded as a freak athlete for most of his NFL tenure, the University of Arizona product was shown up when trying to keep Kenyan Drake out of the end zone as what amounted to a deep safety during that famous last-second laterals play for the win by the Miami Dolphins in Week 14. I don't think that's a fair measure of whether Gronkowski is showing the same explosiveness as a tight end, but let's see if we can find proof of that with advanced data.

The NFL's Next Gen Stats have made player speed on a snap-by-snap basis available going back to the 2016 season, and that's going to be the best way to judge whether Gronkowski isn't the same. The bad news is that Gronkowski missed most of that 2016 campaign with a hamstring strain and subsequently a back injury that required season-ending surgery. It's tough to use his limited season as a reliable sample in comparison with the two subsequent campaigns.

In terms of absolute top speed as a ball carrier, Gronkowski hasn't slowed down. (His speed is faster across the board with the ball in his hands than without.) In 2016, Gronkowski's max speed on any play as a ball carrier was 18.1 mph. That number fell to 17.4 mph in 2017, before hopping back up to 18.2 mph in 2018. When Gronkowski wants to hit max power in a moment, he can get to the same place he was a couple of years ago.

A better measure is Gronkowski's 90th percentile speed. ESPN Stats & Information defines that as the top speed Gronkowski hits on at least 10 percent of his snaps. I'm again looking strictly at Gronkowski's snaps as a ball carrier. In 2016, again with the limited sample, Gronkowski's 90th percentile speed was 17.9 mph.

In 2017, that mark fell to 15.7 mph, so a pretty significant drop-off. It was good for 11th out of 28 qualifying tight ends. This season, Gronk's 90th percentile speed as a ball carrier actually has risen to 16.2 mph, but that has placed him only 20th out of 29 qualifying players at his position.

What would I take away from this? Not much, given that the speed of the average tight end seems to have increased notably between 2017 and 2018. I wouldn't be surprised if the Gronkowski we're seeing in 2018 is slower than the guy who excelled when healthy between 2011 and 2015, but I don't think there's evidence of a noticeable drop-off between 2017 and 2018.

The verdict: Not enough evidence to confirm


Fact check: The Patriots are the masters of the double score around halftime

The double score. The 2-for-1. The double-up. There's no official term for what the Patriots seem to terrorize teams with at the end of halves, but if you've watched a Patriots game over the past 15 years, you know what I'm talking about. If the Patriots win the coin toss, Bill Belichick is known for deferring his choice to the second half. As the game approaches halftime, the Patriots launch into their two-minute drill and score just before the end of the first half without leaving the opposition a chance to drive for a response. Then, as they get the ball to start the second half, Brady drives the Pats downfield for a second consecutive score. A game that seemed close is suddenly out of reach.

I don't think I need to tell you that scoring twice at any time during the game is good. To get any further, though, I need to break this down into a few other questions. I'll start by defining the double score to be any game where the Patriots score a field goal or touchdown in the final minute of the first half and then score on offense again on the opening drive of the third quarter.

Do the Patriots pull off the double-score trick more than anybody else?

From what I can tell, the answer to that question is yes, although not as much as we might make it out to seem. Since the beginning of the 2001 season, the Patriots have successfully executed the double score 25 times in 288 regular-season games, or about 1.5 times per season. This is the most in football, but it's not by a considerable margin; the second-placed Saints and Chargers have done it 22 times, while the Packers and Colts are at 21. The average NFL team has pulled off the feat just under 14 times in the past 18 seasons.

Interestingly, after the Pats pulled off the double-up three times in 2017, they haven't been able to get a single one down in 2018. Josh McDaniels' offense has taken the ball and scored to start the second half only once this season. You might argue that teams are aware of the Patriots' penchant for double scores and are deferring to deny the Patriots opportunities, but they should have been aware of this years ago and didn't seem to have many issues with it last season.

If you're looking for the vaunted two-touchdown variant of the double score, though, the Chargers are actually king. They have nine two-touchdown 2-for-1s since 2001, placing them ahead of the Patriots, who have seven. In the vast majority of cases, these offenses are settling for one (if not two) field goals.

The verdict: True, but it's not really as much of a Patriots trademark as you would think

Do the Pats kill off opposing teams with the double score?

If you're going to start with the assumption that a team is scoring on two chosen drives, the sample is naturally going to include a lot of victories. Since 2001, non-Pats teams have won more than 71 percent of the time when they pull off the double score across halftime, which is the equivalent of an 11.3-win team over a 16-game NFL season. The 2-for-1 makes an average team look like a Super Bowl contender.

The Patriots? In their 25 regular-season games with a double-up, New England's record is 25-0. That's right. If the Patriots hit you with a 2-for-1, you're generally toast. The only exception I can find is actually in Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants. The Patriots actually scored touchdowns on either side of halftime, and despite the fact that teams have won 80 percent of the time when pulling off a rare double-touchdown, Brady & Co. failed to score again and fell to the Giants for the second time in a 21-17 upset.

The verdict: True ... if you hold them to a field goal over the rest of the game


Fact check: The Patriots never trade up

This is a misnomer. Of course, if you've paid attention over the past 16 years, you know that the Patriots trade down all the time. When I looked at this topic in January 2015, I noted that Belichick has amassed something close to the first, second and 19th overall picks strictly in added draft capital by trading picks for other picks, either by trading down or taking a pick in a subsequent draft.

That hasn't changed. In the upcoming 2019 draft, Belichick has an extra second-round pick from the Bears and an improved third-round pick from the Lions. (More on how he got them in a minute.) It's also fair to note, though, that Belichick does occasionally trade up. Even as he made a handful of trades down during the 2018 draft, he moved up seven spots in the second round to grab cornerback Duke Dawson, who was injured for the first half of the season and spent the rest of the year as a redshirt. In the past, he has moved up to nab several players, most notably Rob Gronkowski.

More often than not, Belichick's moves to grab a player are small trips in the range of five to 10 picks ahead. He rarely moves up an entire round or trades a future pick in a higher round than the present one, as the Lions did by trading the Pats their 2019 third-round pick during the fourth round of the 2018 draft. The value Belichick accumulates trading down dwarfs the modest spending he makes trading up.

The verdict: False


Fact check: The Pats have been a model franchise in drafting and developing young quarterbacks behind Brady

Teams turn to the Patriots for just about everything, so it's no surprise that other organizations would be in love with New England's quarterbacks too. If you can't get Brady, why not get the next best thing and go after his backup? The Pats have drafted a series of quarterbacks behind Brady, most notably Jimmy Garoppolo. Here's the full list of passers the Pats have drafted since taking Brady in 2000, what it cost to acquire them by Chase Stuart's draft chart, and what the Pats have received in return when they've traded those quarterbacks away:

Your eyes don't deceive you: That's new Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was a late-round pick for the Pats in 2003. In terms of draft capital, the Patriots have paid more than they've gotten in return for their backups via trade. Those trades have included two players: Starting linebacker Mike Vrabel was sent to the Chiefs alongside Cassel for a second-round pick and played two seasons before retiring, and the Patriots acquired wideout Phillip Dorsett from the Colts in exchange for Jacoby Brissett. To keep things relatively simple, I'm going to just cancel those two players out for now.

What this chart doesn't do is include what happened next. In the case of Garoppolo, as a key example, the Pats were able to turn the second-round pick they got for their promising young passer into much more. After a series of trade-downs, the Pats ended up netting 18.7 points of draft capital, including those extra picks in 2019 from the Bears and Lions. That's roughly equivalent to the 12th overall pick on the Stuart chart, a much more impressive grab than the 43rd pick the Pats initially acquired. The Pats also used the second-rounder they got from the Chiefs on Patrick Chung, who was a solid contributor on a rookie contract for four years before leaving for the Eagles (and then returning to New England shortly thereafter). There's enough in here to wipe away the difference between draft capital spent and returned for me.

There's also the value of having a young quarterback lying in wait if Brady got injured, although I'm more skeptical of this claim. The Pats have needed only 19 starts from their backups in the Brady era, 15 of which came when the reigning MVP tore his ACL in Week 1 of 2008. They turned to Cassel, who inherited arguably the greatest offense in NFL history from the prior season. Cassel struggled at first, but he eventually managed to helm the league's seventh-ranked offense by DVOA.

Cassel went on to take the Chiefs to the playoffs with 27 TD passes and seven interceptions in 2010, but that was with a great defense, a dominant running game and subpar numbers in other categories. When the Chiefs came up against the Ravens during that year's postseason, Cassel was 9-of-18 for 50 yards with three picks. He wasn't effective for any extended period of time in any of his other years as a starter. I don't think Cassel was much more than a replacement-level quarterback, and it's fair to at least wonder whether the Pats would have made the playoffs in 2008 with a higher-level backup behind the injured Brady.

Garoppolo and Brissett played well in three of their four starts, with Brissett struggling mightily in the fourth, a 16-0 loss to the Bills. Garoppolo kept his level of play up during the 2017 season with the 49ers, although the Eastern Illinois product wasn't as effective before tearing his ACL early in the 2018 campaign. Brissett exceeded everyone's expectations with competent play in Andrew Luck's stead during the 2017 season and profiles as an upper-echelon backup. The other passers the Pats drafted either never played or showed little when they did make it onto the field.

There's also the opportunity cost of using second- and third-round picks on backup quarterbacks who barely played on competitive teams. The Patriots would have been landing spot No. 1 for any veteran passer trying to hold on for a ring if that had been their strategy, and while those passers would have been more expensive, they would have been free to use those picks on players who might have made more of an impact. Belichick used the 49th pick in the 2008 draft on Kevin O'Connell, but in the picks after the quarterback was chosen, other teams took meaningful contributors like Thomas DeCoud, Tyvon Branch and Mario Manningham, who famously caught a dart from Eli Manning during the game-winning drive against the Patriots in Indianapolis at the end of the 2011 season. As good as Garoppolo was, would the Patriots have been better off going for the player drafted after him and bringing Jarvis Landry into the fold?

There's no clear answer to this one. In pure draft capital, I think the Patriots basically broke even after you consider what they did by trading down with the picks they acquired. Had the Patriots managed to keep Garoppolo, this would have been a rousing success, but they didn't do so. The Pats might have been better off just installing a permanent McCown brother as their backup and using their picks on players who could have impacted their actual week-to-week operations.

The verdict: Too close to call


Fact check: Bill Belichick confused the Seahawks into foolishly calling a pass play on the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX by not calling a timeout

Many of the arguments against the Seahawks throwing the ball in that situation are either naive or inaccurate, as I originally wrote when I broke it down the day after the game. Marshawn Lynch had not been a lock to score from the 1-yard line that season. There was a similar chance of the Seahawks fumbling on the 1-yard line as there was they might throw an interception.

Did Belichick want the Seahawks to throw the ball? Maybe. He had the league's worst run defense in short yardage, and throwing the ball would have likely stopped the clock, which would have either given his defense a breather or left the Patriots a precious few seconds on the clock to try to score. The Patriots did stack the box and dare the Seahawks to throw, so I don't think Belichick was upset by the decision to pass.

The idea that he knew the Seahawks were going to throw the exact screen they ended up calling and that Malcolm Butler was going to pick it off, though, is silly. For one, smart offenses mix up their playcalls and show one thing before countering to another all the time. The Saints, notably, faked a similar screen to Michael Thomas on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line last week before instead throwing a touchdown pass to would-be blocker Keith Kirkwood, who was open when the Eagles bit on the screen look. There's a far greater chance that a failed pass in this situation results in an incompletion as opposed to an interception, in which case the Seahawks would have had two chances to run the ball from the 1-yard line.

Do you want to know how dumb Belichick thought this decision was? Two years later, the Patriots were in overtime of Super Bowl LI against the Falcons in a 28-28 tie. After a pass interference call, the Pats had first-and-goal on the opening possession of overtime with a chance to seal the game from the 2-yard line. The Patriots lined up and promptly threw a fade to Martellus Bennett, who was split out in a mismatch against Vic Beasley. The 2016 sack champion tipped a dangerous Brady pass away for an incompletion. On the next play, James White ran the ball in for a championship-winning score. Josh McDaniels is the playcaller in New England, but if there was ever an offensive playcall Belichick would have made clear before the moment happened, it would have been on that first-and-goal against the Falcons.

My suspicion on second down is that Belichick wanted to make the Seahawks use their final timeout, which would have limited the playcalls available to them and dared them to throw the ball more than once. He didn't get what he wanted, but it ended up working out better than anybody could have possibly imagined for the Patriots, Belichick included.

The verdict: False


Fact check: 'Everybody thinks [the Patriots] suck and can't win any games'

Let's finish with a topical one. After Sunday's 41-28 demolition of the Chargers, Brady took to the microphone to express his frustrations with, well, everybody. During the second quarter, with the Patriots dominating the game and leading by multiple touchdowns, one sportsbook opened betting for the AFC Championship Game and listed the Pats as 3-point underdogs. It's unlikely that Brady was referring to this perceived slight, but during the week, Julian Edelman started to sell a "Bet Against Us" T-shirt in his online store.

It's weird that Edelman appears to be offended about the Patriots' status as underdogs heading into Sunday for a few reasons. To start, the Patriots beat the Chiefs earlier this season in a 43-40 thriller at Foxborough. This game will be played in Kansas City. Home-field advantage is typically worth around three points, so the move between venues should be worth six points, or the exact difference between the score from earlier this season and the three-point opening margin for the Chiefs.

What makes the sense of disrespect even stranger is that the Patriots have been favored in 52 consecutive games in advance of Sunday. The last time they were an underdog, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, was in Jimmy Garoppolo's first start, back in Week 1 of the 2016 season against the Cardinals. Their last appearance as an underdog with Brady as quarterback was in Week 13 of the 2014 campaign, some 77 starts ago, when the Patriots were 3-point underdogs in Green Bay against an 8-3 Packers team. No T-shirts were made, but the Patriots neither won nor covered in a 26-21 loss.

The Patriots are a very good football team. They have an entirely reasonable shot of winning against the Chiefs on Sunday and advancing to yet another Super Bowl. At 11-5, they just finished with their worst record since 2009. They're playing a 12-4 Chiefs team that nearly beat the Patriots in New England earlier this season and topped them in Week 1 of the 2017 campaign. The quarterback on the other side of the field is likely the NFL MVP. Nobody of any consequence thinks the Patriots suck. It's also entirely reasonable to think that the Chiefs should be favored to win at home on Sunday.

The verdict: Extremely false

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