When the January wins turned to losses and off-field embarrassments tarnished the image, it became fashionable to roll one’s eyes when people in New England mentioned “The Patriot Way.”
But, year in and year out, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady laugh all the way to the playoffs. With the Patriots, no player is bigger than the system. Or put another way, no player is irreplaceable.
The Patriots — in town Sunday as yet another Dolphins season of uneasy hope begins in South Florida — operate with bloodless determination. They would rather discard a player a year too early than a year too late. Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, abruptly traded by Belichick last week after nine years of service, is just the latest example. Presumably not even Brady is safe, given a long enough time line.
Belichick will never win a popularity contest. But he has won 10 of the past 11 AFC East championships. And the only two constants during that run: Brady and his system.
All this is just a long way of saying something that is obvious but often overlooked: Coaching matters in pro football. A lot.
Which is why the Dolphins, who have been chasing the Patriots since the turn of the century, are brimming with new-found optimism. There’s talk of scoring 400 points this season — which hasn’t happened here since Dan Marino was 20-something.
“I think the only option is to get better,” receiver Brandon Gibson said.
But how, exactly? Aren’t they essentially the same collection of skill-position players that scored the seventh-fewest points in the league last year? How can they expect to become a top-10 offense with the same pieces?
The answer comes when the cameras go away and the recorders are switched off:
Mike Sherman had lost the confidence of his offense last year. And Bill Lazor, his replacement, has built a fast-paced, wide-open system that is creative in every way that Sherman’s was “a little stale” a year ago, as one veteran player put it.
Another was asked: How much difference can a new scheme make?
“All the difference in the world,” he said. “Eighty to 90 percent of it is scheme.”
Joe Philbin, who kicks off his third — and if things go sideways, perhaps his final — season as Dolphins coach Sunday, takes a more holistic view.
“It’s all personnel, scheme, coaching, chemistry,” he said. “It’s not just one isolated thing. There’s no magic pill in football. There are a lot of different ways to move the ball offensively. I’m very pleased with what Bill and the staff have done to this point in time. It’s time to go play. It’s time to go play a game.”
Lazor’s system, assuming it is anything like Chip Kelly’s, works. It transformed Nick Foles into the most efficient quarterback in football last year. The Dolphins didn’t operate at Philadelphia’s breakneck speed during the preseason, but expect that to change Sunday. Players believe the Dolphins will pick up the pace on offense, beginning at 1 p.m.
But this is no video game. The players still have to make it work. More specifically, Ryan Tannehill has to make it work. Like the coach who drafted him, Tannehill is in Year 3 — a crucial time for starting quarterbacks. Complicating matters: Sherman had been his coach since college. That safety net has been removed.
“Change is always something that you have to deal with, but I have enjoyed it,” Tannehill said.
His teammates have enjoyed him running it. Charles Clay noticed a different Tannehill before the team’s first spring practice. When they first got together to throw, Tannehill was more commanding — and demanding — than in his first two seasons.
“It’s a different feeling,” Clay said. “Nobody was trying to accept 7-9 or 8-8 or whatever it is. We’re trying to take that next step. It’s just a matter of going out there and executing.”