If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times. Go ahead, say it together. The NFL is a copycat league. The expression is as cliche; as Bill Belichick's now famous, "It is what it is"; but truth be told it is true and it is indeed what it is, which is to say both accurate and a cliche.
But the Patriots way of doing things involves several elements that make them hard to copy. First of all, they have a future Hall of Fame coach walking the sideline and that's quite obviously difficult to find. Landing a potential Hall of Fame quarterback in the sixth round helps as well and certainly has an element of luck attached to it.
They also have a well-oiled mechanism of first identifying, then agreeing upon and finally signing or drafting the right players. Their personnel procurement system is established and followed by scouts who know what kind of players for which to search. The head of that process, Scott Pioli, is on the same page as Belichick, knows what type of player the head coach is looking for and finds it with the help of his staff. If Belichick and Pioli disagree, they move on without ego or insecurities inhibiting the process. Tha, too, is fairly unique.
Beyond talent, the Patriots also have been able to accumulate selfless players who are willing to make sacrifices for the team while giving up some personal recognition. For those players who weren't necessarily that way when they arrived in New England, the pressure to conform to that school of thought exists in the locker room where a solid, established veteran group has a way of leaning on a newbie while pushing him to buy into the mentality or be filtered out.
"New England has done a great job of that," Jets Head Coach Herman Edwards said, "but I think all teams try to do that. I really do. I don't think any team sits here and says you don't try to get good players or you don't try to get team guys. We all try to do that. They have a special formula going right now. They have a great staff -- although they lost some coaches -- the players buy into the team concept. I think that's probably the most important thing."
The fact that everyone tries to do what New England has done, but has yet to prove they can proves it's hard to copy their model. Then there is the ownership factor.
The support and patience from ownership, and upper management in the case where a general manager resides over a coach, also is critical and not always present around the league. Many coaches are given small windows of opportunity to alter the direction of a franchise and provide instant success. When that doesn't happen quickly, there is pressure to make a change. But that process makes it difficult for a coach, or a GM in some instances, to implement a sound plan that is successful in the business aspect of team building and its salary cap management as well as on-field results.
Patriots Owner and Chairman Robert Kraft accepted Belichick's plan and then allowed him to implement it knowing a step back was inevitable before any leap forward could be taken. Not every coach has that luxury, and the lack of support or patience can dictate moves that aren't always the best for either immediate or especially long-term success.
"I would say most coaches do not get an opportunity," said Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who was fired after three seasons as the Browns head coach upon their return to the NFL as an expansion team in 1998. "The Krafts definitely gave Bill an opportunity to implement his plan and they stayed the course and the rest is history. It's paid dividends. Is management patient enough to let it develop?"
Not always, which can put pressure on football decision makers to make unwise big-splash types of moves, the kind Belichick and Pioli avoided upon taking over in New England while trying to right a sinking salary cap ship.
"There has to be a defined plan to where we are not going to make that big splash," Palmer said. "We're going to develop our team and this is how we're going to do it, but you have to give us time. I think that's the whole key."
"Everyone studies everyone, without a doubt," Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin said. "What they've done has been outstanding without a doubt. The early years when they accumulated a lot of players, everyone looked at that. We did a little bit of that ourselves last year because we needed the numbers. They also were very wise with how they maneuvered their personnel with their trades and how they got extra draft picks and what they did with them obviously. It's an outstanding performance on all fronts -- personnel-wise, playing-wise, coaching-wise. Certainly when that happens in our league -- everyone refers to us as a copycat league -- but when that happens, we all study it and take a hard look at it and we're no different than anyone else."
But finding enough of the right players and not missing on too many is critical and is something that the Patriots have done well. Back in 2000, Belichick's first season, and one in which the team finished 5-11, the Patriots added numbers because they had to in order to fill out the roster with inexpensive veterans and rookie free agents. But the following year, they began adding more of their kind of players, guys like Roman Phifer, Bryan Cox, Mike Vrabel, Mike Compton, David Patten and Marc Edwards to name a few. While the quantity was there, hindsight also proved there to be plenty of quality. And you simply can't get lucky that many times.
"I don't know that they are [copy-able]," Palmer said. "I think they have a chemistry, a direction from the top to the bottom that is well defined. They have put players in position to succeed. It's a question of whether they are going to give people the time put a plan into affect. You look at coaches -- you look at Dick Vermeil, he's 4-12 and the next year he's in the Super Bowl. Management gave him time to develop his plan. You look at Bill Belichick, he was 5-11 and started off 0-2 and 1-3 the next season, but he stayed the course and management gave him the opportunity to do that and be successful. Those are important things as far as the development of a program."
Bills Head Coach Mike Mularkey may have the best approach to copying the Patriots and that is to simply preach smart, team football citing the Patriots as an example of how that simple dynamic can play such a huge role in success.
"It's hard to even explain how they've done it," Mularkey said. "It's easy for me to get up in front of [my] team because what I preach, they do. I can use them as an example that if you play smart football and you don't beat yourself on Sundays, if you have players that push each other, you don't have coaches pushing the players, you have guys that are playing for each other and making sacrifices for each other and a team that's physical, you've got chances to win every week. And they consistently do it week in and week out."
If any NFL head coach can mimic what New England has done, it's Cleveland's Romeo Crennel, who just finished a four-year stint as Belichick's defensive coordinator. But he sounds like he won't even try to copy New England's way, which may not be a bad thing since he might be forcing a dynamic into a situation where it doesn't yet fit.
"I don't know that I can bring anything from that program," Crennel said. "But I bring myself and who I am and what I believe in and the things that I know are important to winning football games. So that's what I'm going to bring."
Those things helped New England win football games over the past four years and should help Crennel in his first head coaching job. But the key for New England may be that all the elements in place have fit together to form a complete puzzle.
The Patriots have the right guy at quarterback, which not every team has, and the talent level combined with all the other elements in place are what make the program work. It"s awfully difficult to follow their model without all of the aforementioned pieces to their puzzle.
But as long as the NFL remains a copycat league, teams will try to mimic successful programs. With three Super Bowl wins in four years, the Patriots are as successful as any team in recent memory. Still, don't expect many teams to successfully copy the Patriots.