For the Patriots, winning is business, not revenge

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

This story is part of ESPN The Magazine's Ideas of the Year Issue -- a look at the people, moves and moments that changed sports in 2015. For more, visit espn.com/IdeasIssue, or look for the issue on newsstands Dec. 11. Subscribe today!

IN A 30-HOUR span in September, just before the opening game of the NFL season, two seemingly contradictory narratives of Bill Belichick's Patriots entered the zeitgeist. The first was an example of how the Patriots win dirty, detailed in a pair of stories: One appeared in Sports Illustrated; the other, co-authored by Don Van Natta Jr. and yours truly, titled "The Patriot Way," showed how Deflategate was a "makeup call," in the words of an NFL owner, for Spygate in 2007, a scandal far worse than the public ever knew. The second narrative was an example of how the Patriots win smart -- an NFL Network special that aired a day later called Do Your Job: Bill Belichick and the 2014 Patriots. It was a rare all-access look at how the Patriots' coaching staff devised a handful of last season's decisive plays, from the funky four-man line that vexed the Ravens in the playoffs to Malcolm Butler's Super Bowl-winning interception. It was about New England's preparation; it was also a stab at post-Spygate transparency.

Now, for the second time in eight years, New England finds itself coming off a cheating scandal and dominating the rest of the league. After Spygate, former Patriots center Dan Koppen later told me, "We just wanted to say f--- you to everyone." They were mere seconds from a 19 -- 0 season. Now, with Deflategate hovering both in the court of law and the court of public opinion, the Patriots, though no longer undefeated, are superior yet again. This season's team has fewer superstars and more injuries than the 2007 version, but when its playmakers are healthy, it possesses that familiar bloodthirstiness. Think Tom Brady throwing deep as a means of running out the clock against the Bills in Week 2. Or being so angry about getting sacked against the Dolphins in Week 8 that he spiked the ball in frustration, then threw a touchdown on the next play in a blowout win. Or watch how Belichick managed the clock late in the Giants game in Week 10, making the 10 seconds before the two-minute warning last forever and giving Brady a chance to drive for the winning field goal, which he did. Even in the Patriots' first loss, against the Broncos in Week 12, Brady drove an offense decimated by injuries to a last-second field goal to send the game into overtime, and nearly pulled off an epic comeback in a seven-point loss to the Eagles a week later. All of these plays and more have fed the juicy, easily digestible theory that New England -- after paying a $1 million fine and surrendering two draft picks for Deflategate -- once again views each game as a big f--- you.

Rage is a factor, no doubt. But that only gets a team so far. In fact, if the Patriots were truly fueled by the fallout from two historic penalties in eight years, if their anger were to metastasize into their game preparation, even if they were to give in to those who are eager to bury them after two straight losses, it would violate the iron law of playing for Bill Belichick, which is written on the door the players use to leave the facility, a final reminder for the day: Ignore the noise.

It's the worst of clichés, but the Patriots live it, much more than they live the clichéd chip on their shoulders. Back in 2007, Belichick discussed Spygate with his team exactly once. Days after it broke, he issued to his players what's become his standard rationalization -- that videotaping an opponent's signals was merely a misinterpretation of the rules -- which nobody, including Roger Goodell, believed. Then he asked whether anyone had questions. Nobody did. And he moved on, promising to prepare his players the best he could, pushing those Patriots harder than any team he'd coached. After the Pats missed a fourth-and-inches in a 45-point win over the Redskins, Belichick told the team, "Fourth and the size of my d--- and we can't get the first down?" Another week he was so disgusted with his team's sloppy practice that he walked off the field, leaving the players to find the solution. Most important, he overprepared them all. The call is Ride 130 Cross Stalk. Who's the Mike linebacker? Where did the offensive coordinator go to college? It's third-and-3 at our 27: What does the defense have a 20 percent chance of doing? "Spygate kinda disappeared," former Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs later told me. "It was the elephant in the room, but the elephant was invisible."

Today there's a new invisible elephant. And Belichick is dusting off his 2007 game plan, not because it served him well back then but because it serves him well every year. He wants his players to do their job, and their job is to focus on football. Hell, Tom Brady Sr., who knows his son better than anyone, told The Washington Post that Tom's MVP-level performance this year isn't because of Deflategate but because he spent another offseason relentlessly grinding. Long ago, Brady learned that it isn't healthy to live in a state of having to prove himself. He has become a future Hall of Famer not because he has channeled rage over being a sixth-round pick but because he's accepted why he was a sixth-round pick. Brady once said that as a rookie he peeked at the notebook containing the coaches' evaluation of him: "Everything he does is slow," it read. It was Brady's leap between his rookie and second years that changed the Patriots forever. He has a daily obsession with fixing his deficiencies. After all, that's his job.

And Belichick? The story behind Butler's game-winning interception, which came in the middle of swirling Deflategate drama, tells you everything you need to know. In Do Your Job, Belichick credits Ernie Adams, his lifelong friend and longtime right-hand man in New England -- a man who Brady once said "knows more about professional football than anyone I ever met" -- with preparing Butler for the exact goal-line play they faced. Adams has always been a mystery of sorts because nobody knows exactly what his job is. But here was Adams, on camera for the first time anyone can remember, holding a play sheet titled "14 Raffle Utah," a near-perfect diagram of the Seahawks' doomed final play. During practice, Butler, then an undrafted rookie out of West Alabama, couldn't cover it. He would chase the slant route off a pick rather than attack it. So the coaches told him: When the situation comes up, don't hesitate, just go. And he did. It was living proof that in football, anticipation is everything.

Of course, Spygate was also about anticipation, and Adams was the ringleader of it. From 2000 to '07, Patriots videographers gave tapes of illegally filmed signals to Adams for him to decode, and he would sit in the coaches box during games with a stack of notes and a direct line to Belichick and would suggest plays. It got "out of control," a former Patriots assistant coach said. When Spygate broke, some Patriots assistant coaches were so angry about all being labeled as cheaters that they wanted Adams to do a news conference, allowing the world to see the socially awkward mystery man who had tainted their accomplishments. It never happened. Do Your Job was an unmistakable attempt to demystify Adams and an epic rebuttal to those who believe the Patriots always cheat. But it still leaves one question: Can you appreciate everything that went into the Butler play without wondering, like so many around the league do, about the pivotal moments from the 2001-04 Super Bowl seasons?

Belichick once told owner Robert Kraft that Spygate helped them only 1 percent of the time. But the Patriots have built an entire legacy based on a 1 percent doctrine: "One stupid play, one stupid penalty, one mistake ends it for all of us," Belichick once told his team before a playoff game.

"The Patriot Way" and Do Your Job weren't contradictory looks at Belichick at all. They were complementary -- two sides of the vast reserve of ruthlessness, smarts, confidence and desperation that produces a great coach. Says one person who knows Belichick well: "His record can be questioned, and it can also be what it is."

A few weeks after the stories came out, as the talk of cheating gave way to the intense rhythm of football Sundays, I asked a Patriot whom I've known for years what the internal reaction was. He said the timing of the two pieces -- 48 hours before the Patriots' opener against the Steelers, when their fourth Super Bowl banner would be raised -- pissed off the team. But outside of that, he said, nobody in the building discussed the stories. "It was business as usual around here."

After all, they had a game.