Secret Formula: How the Detroit Lions are poised to emulate the Patriots

It will be a little while before we get to anything substantive regarding the Detroit Lions in this article. Stick with it, though, and I hope to make it worth your while.

On the evening of June 6th, 2019 at New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s home, the team celebrated their sixth Super Bowl Ring ceremony since 2001.

That’s six championships in eighteen years. To put it another way, one third of every Super Bowl that has been played in this span of time has seen the Patriots emerge as the best team in the NFL.

Seventeen other teams made it to the big game since the Patriots won in 2001 with nine teams making a single appearance. Five teams have made it twice. Two teams have been there three times. Zero teams have gone more than three times, except, of course, the New England Patriots.

They have an amazing nine Super Bowl appearances in those eighteen years.

Think about that for a moment. 50% of the time, the Patriots qualify to play in the biggest football game on the planet.

In fact, after Belichick’s first year in 2000, the Patriots have not experienced a losing season.

That is amazing.

I was listening to SiriusXM NFL Radio and caught part of the show, Press Coverage with Vic Carucci and Dan Leberfeld where they discussed the Patriots success.

Dan Leberfeld had an audio clip played that indicated, in effect, that the other teams in the AFC East should be “…mad as hell…”.

He certainly had a point.

Vic Carucci then countered that “…the ship that you’re talking about sailed a long time ago as far as, like, being, “…mad as hell.” I think the effort has been made, drafting quarterbacks, drafting pass rushers—I’m talking about in the division—doing something to handle this and when it’s all said and done, the Patriots are better and smarter. And they always are better and smarter.”

Carucci had a better point.

He went on to strongly opine that the long-term success of the Patriots is not due to Tom Brady alone with Bill Belichick being somehow, “…just along for the ride…”. Carucci said, “Bill Belichick has everything to do with how this thing was put together and stays together…they are an excellent operation and he is the mastermind of it.”

Leberfeld then offered that, in the division they cover (the AFC East), “…The Patriots have had unbelievable continuity with Belichick and Brady. The teams that (they) cover seem to blow things up every couple of years, new playbooks, new systems, new coaches and the Patriots are the King of Continuity.”

They then focused on other teams having such difficulty in beating New England. They brought up the competence of leadership in other teams, their need for quarterbacks and interior pass pressure.

Carucci then said, in reference to beating the Patriots, “I don’t know that the formula is out there. I really don’t know. I mean, if it’s out there, it hasn’t been found and a lot of investment has been made to try to find it.”

They essentially conceded the division to the Patriots again this year because they feel that the teams that they cover, notably the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets (with commentary about the Miami Dolphins similar situation) have not made enough strides to have closed the gap on New England.

They sounded like they are waiting for Brady and Belichick to retire so someone else can have an opportunity to win.

Really?

The answer to take down the best team in the NFL is wait for them to retire?

That may not be the grand master plan that I go with to any given team’s ownership—or fan base, for that matter!

Obviously, teams have tried to emulate the Patriots success, but have never accomplished it. The formula is secret.

Some say it is the quarterback. Others say it is the coach. Still others say that it is some magical combination of the two. Leberfeld said that it is the continuity. Who is right?

Probably all of them. I mean, none of them.

You see, when you start to inspect each element, you soon discover that it cannot be the secret formula. I’ll tell you what I mean.

The Secret is the Coach. Belichick is just some kind of savant.

Bill Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns for five years from 1991 through 1995. He had a record of 36-44 with only one winning season.

The secret is not Bill Belichick alone.

No, the secret is simply Tom Brady. He is the GOAT, after all.

In 2008, the Brady only played one game and the Patriots finished the year with an 11-5 record. In 2016, Brady was suspended for the first four games. New England won three of them.

The Secret is not Tom Brady.

Maybe it’s just luck?

No, it’s not Luck. (He plays in Indianapolis anyhow.) Even Boston’s rich Irish community cannot find that many four-leaf clovers.

Leberfeld is right. The secret to the Patriots success is that they have such great continuity, year in and year out.

So, if that is the secret. formula, why were they able to win the Super Bowl in only Belichick’s second year, then again in years four and five?

The New England Patriots seem to lose key players every year to retirement, free agency or worse, prison, but somehow continue to win.

Other times, players such as Kyle Van Noy that flounder elsewhere find success within the Patriots system.

Furthermore, Belichick has had four different offensive coordinators and four defensive coordinators in those eighteen years. Seven of those years he had no listed coordinator on one or the other side of the ball.

That is not textbook continuity.

Sean Payton was hired to be the head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 2006. For every one of those thirteen years, he has has Drew Brees as his signal caller. Brees has 12 Pro Bowl appearances, one first team All-Pro, two NFL AP Offensive Player of the Year awards and a Super Bowl MVP. You could make a case that Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. To Payton’s credit, he has made guided his team to the Super Bowl once in that time, winning that game.

John Harbaugh was hired as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. All eleven years he has had Joe Flacco as his quarterback. Harbaugh has a single Super Bowl appearance, with that one being a win.

Those are teams that have the longest tenured head coaches, after Belichick and happen to be paired with stable quarterbacks who have each won a Super Bowl.

In those cases, continuity failed to result in consistent success. It’s safe to say that is not the secret either.

The coordinators that leave New England to become head coaches should be able to take the secret with them, shouldn’t they?

For the most part, coordinators that left New England to become head coaches at other NFL franchises have failed to capture the success that they enjoyed while in New England.

Why is that?

We will look at that in a bit.

The Houston Texan’s Bill O’Brien comes the closest with three division championships since 2014 and an overall record of 42-38. Yet in a surprising move just last week, the team fired General Manager Brian Gaine.

And they have not made it to the big game under O’Brien at all.

So, it’s not the coach, the quarterback, the pairing of the two or the consistency of them being together that provides the secret formula that makes the Patriots so successful. What else could it be?

I really do not think that the secret is really a secret. I just think that it is an extremely difficult process that requires a commitment by the entire organization that most are unable or unwilling to commit to.

Here are some examples:

First of all, let’s look at the defensive rankings.

New England Patriots from www.Pro-Football-Reference.com

You will notice that in only three of the eighteen years did the Pats finish out of the top ten defensively in points.

Now consider the other side of the ball. Offensively, they were out of the top ten only once. One time in eighteen years.

That element of success is reflected in championships.

The Secret Formula.

Here is my belief: The Patriots secret formula is their system. It is integrated throughout their franchise from the front office to the scouting staff to the coaches to the players.

People try to copy parts of their system but fail on a regular basis because they are copying parts, rather than the entire system.

That is why ex-Patriot coaches have failed. They have tried to implement only part of the “Patriot Way”.

Think of it like a successful NASCAR team.

You cannot take last year’s NASCAR champion, Joey Logano, place him in Kyle Busch’s car and expect the same results.

A NASCAR team needs a talented driver of course, just like a football team requires a competent quarterback., but there are lots of those, in both sports. The mechanics who prepare the car and tune the car during the race need to be on task. The pit crew must perform perfectly. The breakdown of a critical part of the car will often lead to failure so working to minimize those breakdowns are important. There are a million details that go into successfully winning a NASCAR championship.

The ones who pay attention to detail throughout the entire spectrum of the sport have the best chance of success. They have a comprehensive plan and stick to that plan. It’s just that simple.

Another analogy is to build a really fast computer so that you can compete in some online game or other. You cannot simply choose any old processor—even the fastest one money can buy—without also considering which motherboard to select. The CPU must be paired with a compatible motherboard, memory, graphics card, power supply—every component is important.

Then, if you have achieved perfection in the building and assembly of the components but configure the bios incorrectly or fail to set up the hard drives in a RAID configuration that maximizes performance, you can fall short of your goal.

Configure your fantastic machine perfectly but connect through a slow, unstable network, and it does not matter how fast your computer is, you will still fail.

Likewise, in football, every component is critical. The players are found through the scouting staff that receives their instruction and parameters through the front office. The general manager is typically the top front office person that sets the direction. In the Lions case, that person is Bob Quinn.

The coaches—not just the head coach, but all the way down to the interns—must be coaching the same thing, the same techniques, be part of the same plan.

It is not simply having good players. You can have Hall of Fame players on the field but rarely make it to the playoffs without a comprehensive plan. Just ask Barry and Calvin.

You must have players that are capable of succeeding through your team’s plan. That is why it is critical to have the front office and the coaching staff on the same page, singing from the same hymnal, reading from the same playbook.

Likewise, on game day, the game plan is comprehensive. It is designed for team success and its facets are integrated into a single plan to defeat the particular opponent, whether the score is 51-50 or, like last year’s Super Bowl win by the Patriots, 13-3.

Offense, defense, special teams are all part of that single, comprehensive plan, one that has lead to victory for New England much more often than not.

You have to commit all of your resources to this plan. Half measures are doomed to fail. In for a penny, in for a pound.

How does this apply to the Detroit Lions?

The path is difficult. You only have to look at the disconnect that occurred last year when Matt Patricia began to install his version of the “Patriot Way”. Some players were reluctant to “buy in” to the plan. Solid players such as Glover Quin, who realized that the Lions were going in a different direction and felt that that direction was not best for them had decidedly sub-par years.

Team practices were much harder and that was a culture shock to some who had enjoyed Jim Caldwell‘s easier, laid-back approach. Players were required to actually run after practice or after making a mistake. They were in pads a lot. That was different enough so as to be newsworthy.

So, it would seem that this successful secret formula—the system—is also not an instant fix. Bill Belichick’s first year in New England was a disappointing 5-11 and good enough for last place in their division.

That sounds strikingly similar to the Detroit Lions 6-10 record and last place in the NFC North in Matt Patricia’s first year.

Much of the NFL has become a game of specialists. This particular tight end may be a great pass-catching weapon, for instance. The next is a fantastic blocker. Teams tend to place players on the field that can maximize their strengths to win individual matchups.

When discussing the Patriot’s pending replacement of Rob Gronkowski on SiriusXM NFL Radio, Pat Kirwan referred to what he called the “Gronk Factor”. When Gronk would line up, the defense would not know whether the play was going to be a run or a pass. That resulted in split-second hesitations that regularly gave the Pat’s offense an advantage.

That’s why the Lions drafting TE TJ Hockenson was so critical. If you can successfully run or pass with the same personnel on the field, you place a significant amount of pressure on the defense. Advantage, offense.

The defense that they are trying to build is also different. It too requires players with an emphasis on being able to play multiple roles. And it takes time to staff such a roster. The team must populate the roster with players that meet the criteria that forwards their overall plan.

The Detroit Lions appear to have a commitment to a franchise plan. It is clear that the front office and coaching staff is in harmony. It is a matter of time before all of the players are fully invested. Perhaps that has happened already.

This is a big “IF” but if so, if this simple but comprehensive plan really is the secret formula, and Detroit is committed to working that plan in the same manner that the Patriots have, the Lions are poised to be a formidable opponent in the NFC North for many years to come.

For more Detroit Lions news, follow Lion Lowdown on Twitter @LionLowdown or Bruce Walker @Smoke25

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