Secrets of the Patriot Way

The first rule of Bill Belichick's club is: You only talk about winning. The second rule is: You ONLY talk about winning. Third rule: If Gronk taps out, Mahty's got his back. Fourth rule: Coach is scary, but don't play scared. Or else

By Lars Anderson

January 18, 2017

It was late on Saturday night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and the man who compares winning to sex—he says they both grow more delicious with experience—suddenly slowed outside Gillette Stadium, which glowed skyward behind him. Martellus Bennett had just won the biggest game of his career, and now he was going to savor this moment.

He strolled through the wintry darkness, outfitted in black pants and a light black coat. His breathing pushed puffs of white into the cold air. He limped ever so slightly.

In the distance, a group of Patriots fans shouted his name even though it was long after New England had beaten Houston 34-16 in an AFC divisional playoff game. Pausing, the tight end raised his hands to acknowledge his admirers. For a few moments, he just stood there in the dark, a satisfied smile creasing his face, soaking it all in.

"I love everything about being here with the Patriots," Bennett said. "Everyone here is about one thing: winning. That's the culture here, and it's a perfect fit for me."

How perfect? The player who had been cast aside by three other teams—the Cowboys, Giants and Bears—is now an essential cog in the Patriots offensive machine. This season Bennett hauled in 55 passes for 701 yards and a career-high seven touchdowns. On this Saturday night, as All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski watched from the sideline still recuperating from his third back surgery, Bennett only had one reception for four yards. But don't let that stat line deceive you: He was a blocking force of nature against the Texans. Early in the fourth quarter, he sledgehammered a Houston defensive lineman to open a window for Dion Lewis' one-yard touchdown run that sealed New England's place in Sunday's AFC title game.

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Tom Brady screams in the face of Martellus Bennett after scoring a touchdown during a game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium on December 12, 2016. (Getty Images)

"Marty is as good a blocker as he is a receiver," says backup tight end Matt Lengel. "I mean he's better than a lot of offensive tackles in the league. That dude is as talented as they come. He'll be big for us next week."

Mah-ty Bennett, as the Foxborough faithful have taken to calling him, is but one sentence in an important chapter of the Pats' storybook season so far. Like their newfound star tight end, linebacker Kyle Van Noy (formerly of the Lions) and wide receiver Michael Floyd (formerly of the Cardinals) have revived their careers here in New England, where winning matters and everything else matters less. Van Noy and Floyd were in-season additions who, for different reasons, were jettisoned from their former teams. But now the trio will play key roles en route to the Super Bowl, and now only the Steelers stand in their way. How does this happen? How did three players few teams even wanted arrive at the cusp of the Super Bowl, playing for the organization that has won six of the last 15 AFC titles? Simple: It can be traced to the culture in New England, widely referred to as the Patriot Way.

Bill Belichick has claimed he has never uttered that term—he once excoriated a reporter for implying he did—but it essentially means the New England franchise is all business, all the time, which explains why the organization isn't afraid to take chances on high-risk, high-reward players other teams refuse to pursue (see: Randy Moss in 2007 and LeGarrette Blount in 2014).

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Bill Belichick looks on before a game against the Rams at Gillette Stadium on December 4, 2016. (Getty Images)

At the same time, Belichick and Co. won't hesitate to trade a Pro Bowl talent who isn't viewed as a team player (see: Richard Seymour in 2009 and Jamie Collins in 2016). In the Patriot Way, the team always trumps the individual, and decisions to protect locker room chemistry are made swiftly and without emotion.

Some think the Patriot Way can be ruthless, even heartless—think cutting Tiquan Underwood the night before the 2012 Super Bowl to bring in a different player—but for many, like Bennett, it's just what their careers needed.

"I swear it seems like Bill has listening devices in their locker room," says a longtime NFL coach. "If there's a player with a bad attitude, he'll know about it and then that player will be gone. There is an element of fear on that team—the fear of getting shipped away to a place like Cleveland—but that keeps everyone in line. It keeps everyone going the Patriot Way."

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Martellus Bennett laughs as he speaks to media at his locker January 11, 2017, in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (AP Images)

The jester was holding court.

Standing in front of his locker last week, Martellus Bennett, 29, beamed as he dropped one-liners with a comic's sense of timing to a group of reporters. He discussed his relationship with Gronkowski. "I try not to bother him with my shit, and he tries to not to bother me with his shit," he said. "We just leave each other's shit in their own toilets."

This season, Bennett—who has written a children's book and produced an animated film—has been the freest spirit in what has traditionally been a buttoned-up Patriots locker room. He penned an open letter to his three-year-old daughter, Jett, after the presidential election: "We will continue to teach you how to love, accept others for who they are, think for yourself, help others in need." He often wears sweatshirts that he's personally designed. His comfort in New England is apparent, and it underscores a larger truth for him and the Pats: For the first time in a long time, Bennett is happy in his workplace.

Playing for the Bears two years ago, Bennett led all NFL tight ends in receptions with 90. He was voted to his first Pro Bowl. But Chicago went 5-11, and in the offseason John Fox replaced Marc Trestman as head coach.

"Individual goals aren't important to me anymore. Winning is a lot more fun than any of that."


Bennett wanted a new contract—even though he had two years remaining on his deal. He didn't attend Fox's first voluntary offseason program. Bennett finished the 2015 season with 53 catches in 11 games while voicing his displeasure with his lack of targets in the passing game. Word flew around the league that Bennett was locker room poison, a loose cannon who nearly ripped the head off teammate Kyle Fuller in a training-camp fight in 2014.

The Patriots were undeterred. In March the team sent a fourth-round pick to Chicago for Bennett and a sixth-rounder—pennies on the dollar for a tight end 14 months removed from the Pro Bowl. Upon his arrival in Foxborough, Bennett was confronted by a stark reality: the relentless peer pressure to be completely prepared that flows from Tom Brady to the last man on the practice squad—another aspect of the Patriot Way.

"Individual goals aren't important to me anymore," Bennett says. "Winning is a lot more fun than any of that."

Bennett, who will be a free agent at season's end, wants to remain a Patriot. Belichick usually asks his pending free agents to give the team a hometown discount—better to play for less money and win in New England, the coach's logic goes, than earn more and lose somewhere else—and Bennett may be inclined to go for such an offer. His voice can be heard on radio commercials in the area, and he has big dreams of little kids throughout New England reading his book. "Each step is like, Mah-ty: They put an H in my name; I don't have an H in my name," he says. "But that was pretty cool. I've never really experienced that at this level." Bennett says his wife and young daughter enjoy Massachusetts.

"I can guarantee that every person in that locker room loves Marty," says linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a team captain. "The emotion and excitement that he brings in here is definitely much needed on a day-to-day basis because working here isn't always the easiest thing."

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Kyle Van Noy talks to the media after practice at Gillette Stadium on October 27, 2016. (Getty Images)

He was at the doctor’s office in Detroit when his cellphone rang on October 25. "You've been traded," Lions general manager Bob Quinn told Kyle Van Noy.

"Where?" Van Noy asked.

"You're going to the Patriots," Quinn replied.

Van Noy—a third-year linebacker who was sent to New England along with a seventh-round draft pick in return for a sixth-rounder—nearly dropped the phone in shock. Within hours, he was on a plane heading to Foxborough, unsure of his football future. But then, as he walked into the Gillette Stadium locker room, he immediately sensed that the Patriots organization had little in common with the one he just left.

"It's totally different here," Van Noy says. "The head coach is established and the expectations of everyone here—from coaches and players—are incredibly high. You don't want to be the one who messes up."

At the time, this transaction appeared to be nothing but a ho-hum deal. For four days Van Noy, a former second-round pick out of BYU, backed up starter Jamie Collins, who made the Pro Bowl in 2015. But less than a week after Van Noy was acquired, Collins was sent packing to the 0-8 Browns for a third-round compensatory pick. ESPN's Adam Schefter then reported that Collins, a free agent after the season, was seeking "Von Miller money," a reference to the six-year, $114.5 million contract Miller signed with Denver last summer.

What did this episode tell us? For starters, Belichick didn't care for Collins' stance on his future contract—history has shown what this means in the Patriot Way—and the New England brass smartly secured his replacement at a bargain-basement price before booting Collins to the NFL hinterlands. We also learned there is no such thing as an inconsequential trade under the Belichick regime.

"The expectations of everyone here—from coaches and players—are incredibly high. You don't want to be the one who messes up."


The Van Noy deal looks even better now. In college, the 6'3", 243-pound Van Noy was a pass-rushing specialist, compiling 26 sacks and 62 tackles for losses as a three-year starter in Provo, Utah. But in Detroit he was used as an off-the-line linebacker who rarely rushed the quarterback.

Belichick has turned him loose. In Van Noy's first action as a Patriot on November 20 against the San Francisco 49ers, he rushed the passer on 12 of the first 29 snaps he played. The results were impressive: He had one sack and five quarterback pressures in New England's 30-17 win. Van Noy is now an every-down linebacker, manning the spot Collins once filled.

"I'm still getting more comfortable each week," Van Noy says. "But I'll tell you this: I'm working my tail off for this team. This place is just different than anywhere else. It's win or go home."

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Michael Floyd extends his arm across the goal line for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on January 1, 2017. (Getty Images)

He lives alone in a hotel at Patriot Place, an area of shops, restaurants and hotels only a three-minute drive from Gillette Stadium. Most mornings he rolls out of bed shortly after dawn breaks and eats breakfast in the players' lounge at the stadium. He typically leaves the facility long after dark.

Michael Floyd is a quintessential Patriot Way player: a talented wide receiver whose trouble with the law made him toxic to 31 of the 32 NFL teams.

Hours after the Arizona Cardinals flew home from a game in Miami in Week 14 of the NFL season, Floyd was found asleep behind the wheel of his SUV at a red light in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the early morning of December 12. He was arrested for DUI. Police recorded his blood alcohol content at .217 percent. Two days later, the Cardinals waived Floyd—the team's first-round draft pick in 2012 who was arrested on a DUI charge at Notre Dame in 2011.

"I'm putting my head down and doing the best I can to win the trust of everyone here. I owe them that."


Only the Patriots put a claim in for Floyd, who, like Bennett, is set to become a free agent next month. But New England, which is paying Floyd nearly $1.3 million for three regular-season games and at least two postseason contests, was thin at wide receiver, and Floyd possesses undeniable skills. Two years ago he caught 52 passes for 849 yards and six touchdowns.

So what has Floyd done since arriving in Foxborough? He's spent more time at Gillette Stadium in the last month than perhaps any other player, logging hours poring over the playbook with third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Floyd says he has yet to visit nearby Boston—with its forbidden fruits—and has no desire to do so.

"I'm all about one thing, man: work," Floyd says. "I'm putting my head down and doing the best I can to win the trust of everyone here. I owe them that."

Floyd made two head-turning plays in New England's regular-season finale against Miami. First, he broke four tackles to score a touchdown. Then he flattened a Dolphin defender about 40 yards downfield to spring Julian Edelman on a 77-yard touchdown catch-and-run as New England cruised to a 35-14 victory.  

"Michael has fit in here since the day he got here because we've all seen his dedication and commitment," says linebacker Barkevious Mingo, who was traded to the Patriots from the Browns in August. "The standard here is high, incredibly high. You've got to really want it and prove every day that you've got that desire."

Floyd struggled during much of Saturday night's game—in the second quarter a pass bounced off his hands and was intercepted; in the third quarter he was called for offensive pass interference. In the locker room after the game, Brady bee-lined it to Floyd and put his arm around his newest wide receiver.

"We're going to need you next week," Brady told Floyd. "We're really going to need you."

Floyd then turned and walked out into the cold January night, presumably heading to his hotel. From the couch to the conference championship game: It's the Patriot Way at work.

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Martellus Bennett misses a catch while being hit by Texans safety Corey Moore during the AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2017. (Getty Images)

One of the last players in the locker room after Saturday's playoff game was Martellus Bennett. He told a reporter that he didn't want to talk until he was dressed. The group around him grew from two to 10 to 25 as he slowly pulled on his sweatshirt, gently placed his cellphone in his right pant pocket and carefully placed four gold chains around his neck just so. Never let it be said that the man doesn't know how to milk a moment.

He finally turned to speak. The assembled reporters leaned in, as if the words were about to be thundered from on high.

He was asked about the Patriots' ugly win against the Texans. "An ugly date is better than no date," he said.

He was asked about only catching one pass and dropping a few others in his first playoff game with the Patriots. "It's like going out on a first date with a girl you really love," he said. "If she steps in a puddle, or you get in a car accident, it's not great. You have a story to tell your kids if you get married, but you want the first date to go very well, and I think I was struggling on that first date. I dropped my plate on my date and all kinds of shit was going on, but at the end of the day, it turned out to be a great date."

Bennett then limped out of the locker room. He turned right down a darkened corridor, his eyes searching for something.

He slipped past two security guards manning a cordoned-off area. His head swiveled left and right, left and right. Then, sitting at a table, he saw her.

"Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" his three-year-old daughter, Jett, yelled.

Daddy pulled her close to his chest, lovingly.

Just then, he sure looked like he was home.

Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including The Mannings, The Storm and the Tide and Carlisle vs. Army. Anderson, also an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, April, and their son, Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71.

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