First let me take a moment to put on flame-retardant clothing and don heavy boots. There.
Are you a big fan of the New England Patriots?
My goodness … that was a fearsome blast of flame, heat and bile!
Well, they’re back. For their sixth Super Bowl since 2001. Playing in 9 AFC championships in the last 14 years. Winning their division (the AFC East) 12 times. Their coach is now #4 in games won in NFL history (regular and playoff games combined). The quarterback owns virtually every postseason NFL QB record except a deeply-coveted fourth Super Bowl ring. And together, the coach/QB currently lead the NFL regular season wins list with 160 … next closest are Don Shula and Dan Marino at 116. There’s a lot to like or a lot to hate, depending on where you hail from.
The AFL-NFL merger (“the Super Bowl era”) kicked off in 1970, though the game itself began at the end of the 1966 season (January 1967). Modern unrestricted free agency began in the NFL in 1992. So New England’s success in the last 15 years, during a period of intentional parity between NFL teams, has been exceptional and exceptionally contested. Their victories and losses in the Super Bowl have never been greater, or less, than 4 points.
What can explain it?
General consensus is “Satan” … followed closely in the polls by “cheating at every turn and at every opportunity … plus Satan … plus Satan’s Mom’s dog.” Certainly a full-throated, if not fully-verified, hypothesis.
Nerdier fans insist Bill Belichick is actually a Sith Lord and Tom Brady is his pretty-boy protocol droid being drawn to the Dark Side, while owner Robert Kraft relentlessly undermines the NFL from within. And maybe Satan’s got season tickets at Gillette Stadium, as well. Not very plausible, I think, but the blurring of reality and Star Wars for millions has always led to some unusual claims.
Back in late 2011, a young QB named Tim Tebow had an improbable run of late season victories with the Denver Broncos, which included a miraculous overtime playoff win in Denver on January 08, 2012 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. An American journalist at the time, whose name Google can’t find for me, wrote an article about how Tim Tebow’s stellar performance triggered a crisis of confidence in his journalistic/secular heart. Maybe Tim actually did have divine support.
Secular redemption, of a sort, only arrived when poor Tim met the New England Patriots, in New England, the week after the miracle in Mile High. The Broncos lost 45-10. For the journalist, the Age of Reason had returned. Order, natural order, had been restored. And the Patriots proceeded to yet another Super Bowl as part of the Kraft/Belichick/Brady era (which they lost for a second time to the New York Giants).
Paraphrasing the journalist’s article of the time, “the New England Patriots play football like the Romans fought wars. Methodically. Relentlessly. Mercilessly.” And Tim Tebow’s supernatural charisma never quite recovered, despite a stint several years later, ironically, at a New England Patriots spring training camp.
As someone with a long amateur interest in Roman military matters, it seemed an appropriate time … here on the verge of yet another Patriots Super Bowl run … to cast a wider net … beyond cheating … beyond Sith Lords … even beyond ever-busy Satan. In the deranged period before the Big Game, let’s take said journalist’s premise, kick the tires, and take it for a spin until the wheels of analogy fall off.
Compare the Patriots and the Roman war machine using the following criteria:
- Education and Literacy
- Situational Awareness
- Organizational Focus
- Battlefield Focus
In the NFL, it’s clear that stable ownership, coaching and on-field leadership create a sustained environment for team development and prosperity. New England has had all three during its run of success. Kraft has owned the team since 1996. Belichick is the longest tenured head coach in the league (January 2000). Brady has been the starting QB since 2001, apart from a year lost to injury. Teams that have years to develop organizational quality, and to groom young players and coaching staff, have a huge advantage. A number of well-established NFL teams share the Patriot’s situation: family-owned, run by gifted businesspeople, with effective lines of succession, and a steady operational style. All are perennial playoff contenders. In the NFL, nothing succeeds like success. Extra points, then, to the community-owned Green Bay Packers who build quality teams, year after year, without such inherited ownership.
The Romans also had an appetite for centralized stable authority (post-Republic). They leveraged a professional army of legionary and auxiliary troops to create zones of safety within which their transportation links and civic developments could be constructed. They took the long view … building in stone and building to last (though academics can find a thousand little spots where they didn’t). When the Romans showed up on your border, they weren’t going away. If they did leave, they’d often reappear in a generation or two, or maybe a century (cf. Britain). They’d built a frontier or “limes” to make a point to you, and themselves, about what belonged to who. Indeed, professionalization of the Roman military in the Western Empire, followed for a further 1,000 years in the Eastern Empire, inspired later European commanders to imagine what an army should even look like. Stability, centralized command, organizational structure, meritorious promotion, literacy, and logistics. We associate these thing with successful modern organizations, both civil and military. The New England Patriots mirror the Roman military apparatus … but then so do all NFL teams to a greater or lesser degree.
Education And Literacy
The New England owner is an immensely successful businessman. The coach has an economics degree and football was his father’s trade. The QB has run one of the most complicated and dynamic NFL offenses for over a decade. The Patriots have a reputation for selecting their players for football intelligence and mental flexibility, even at the expense of raw talent. It’s not an atmosphere suitable for all personalities. New England players must cope with weekly changes in game-planning derived primarily from their opponents strengths and weaknesses. Weekly quizzes emphasize general football knowledge, military history, as well as specific keys for their upcoming opponents. And if you bump into the head coach in the hallway, you’d better be able to respond to any question posed to you on the spot. The environment is more like a military academy than a sports team — not a surprise in light of the fact that Belichick’s Dad was a football scout at the US Naval Academy.
The league itself is now a huge information gathering, dissemination, and analytic engine that pumps out Sunday’s game videos, sliced-and-diced, within hours. Each team must then develop their own methods for taking the raw information from the league and developing an archive on player and team tendencies. New England has its own Director of Football Research (Ernie Adams) who, by reputation, has a photographic memory for football formations stretching back decades. Belichick’s Belichick. Every NFL team must formulate strategy and tactics under time pressures and a schedule of opponents that shifts constantly from year to year. With playing fields that stretch to the boundaries of the continental US, and a season that ranges from the humidity of August to the frigid conditions of January, gridiron football probably sees a wider range of game environments than any professional sport on Earth. New England has established a mastery in winning under many conditions.
What of the Romans? The tiny remnants of archeological evidence we have (the Vindolanda tablets and Oxyrhynchus papyri) show us that the Roman empire depended on the efforts of thousands of literate citizens and soldiers. Purchase orders and force readiness reports had Roman origins, and Roman deadlines, many centuries ago. To rise in the ranks to centurion (non-commissioned officer), you had to read. The tombstones of Roman soldiers, across the thousands of miles of empire, show careers following a ladder of promotion and unit transfer that would look familiar to any US military man. The officers and commanders were from an elite class for which literacy and advanced education was a given. They often spoke the two dominant written languages of the Mediterranean — Greek and Latin — and their training would begin in early childhood. To a much greater degree than today, public speaking and rhetoric were essential ingredients of political/military leadership. The Romans were relentlessly educating their elites in the humanities. Their front-line troops had to cope with (for the time) complicated equipment, extended logistical chains, and a daily routine of tasks that left “playing card”-shaped marching fortresses from Scotland to Syria. In virtually all their engagements, they were coming to battle with better-trained, better-led, more literate soldiers.
“Be alert. Good speed. Concentrate on what we’re doing and be ready for the situations. OK. And I don’t want to hear anything about *what* the situations are. You just play ’em. Got it?” Bill Belichick during the training camp (via YouTube).
If you follow the NFL and have heard the term “situational football” in recent years, you can largely thank the Patriots for the term of art. The idea is to gear training and player focus around specific down-and-distance contexts. Players are drilled in what to do, and why to do it, from those indicators. Their understanding of the situation must become entirely automatic. Again, a common enough idea on many NFL teams but relentless effort on this point is why Patriots teams are unusually disciplined and have a reputation (generally deserved) of never beating themselves. A player may not be able to execute their task but they should always be doing the right task. If they aren’t, there will be consequences.
This focus on situation also means that the team as a whole can respond to the unexpected with predefined rules of thumb. Individual players can coordinate spontaneously. The foundation of this is training in realistic game situations.
“It would not be far from the truth to call their drills bloodless battles, their battles bloody drills” Josephus, The Jewish War.
Roman soldiers and non-comms were enlisted for roughly 25 years before pensioning. While their odds on survival weren’t always great, their life expectancy nonetheless matched well with civilian life. Regular food and medical care have a lot to recommend them. And the rough cycle of Roman expeditionary war in imperial times meant that legionary troops were likely to only see one or two major campaigns in their career. At the end of service, a pension and full Roman citizenship awaited.
While the surviving strategic literature of the Roman army is almost non-existent, we do have Vegetius’ De Re Militari from the late 4th century … perhaps a shadow of a literature that might once have existed. Across centuries of military situations, the Roman military had the non-commissioned officer folklore (and possibly the documentation) to draw on their experiences … from the northern glens of Scotland (57.5 degrees N.) to the deserts of the Sahara and the river banks of the Tigris/Euphrates. The orderly physical record of the Roman army on the landscape … forts, roads, bridges and training grounds changing slowly through time in response to adversaries … is an indirect sign of a military approach that held up for centuries. It’s hard to imagine that the relentless training of the legions and auxiliaries was not built around set piece military scenarios. Legionaries employed in the construction of the Hadrianic and Antonine Walls in the United Kingdom are classic examples of keeping elite troops busy with engineering tasks that would have immediate applicability to war.
Across the modern NFL, there are many management philosophies in evidence. Some coaching staff have a reputation for friendliness. Some do not. New England does not. Some teams are very relaxed about who can offer their opinion (in public or private) about what the team should be doing. Some are not. New England is not. Reflecting the coach’s philosophy, New England players are encouraged to ignore external distractions (“noise”), and focus purely on their particular responsibilities … training, study, on-field tasks. Rookies are seen but not heard. Team captains take the lion’s share of the media appearances. And legendarily, neither they nor their coach reveal much detail about what they are up to.
What is this all about? In my opinion, it’s sports psychology (actually, cognitive psychology) scaled up from the individual athlete to an entire team. A bubble is created around each player and then a bubble around the team. From the outside, the New England system appears hopelessly oppressive … but from the inside, the “attention on attention” reduces emotional ups-and-downs and lets the individual carry the focus created during training and study into a game situation — “bloodless battles, bloody drills.” The much-maligned “Patriot Way” sacrifices a great deal of individuality for optimized team behavior. And that margin of optimization allows a much higher pace of change and innovation within the organization — the customization of week-to-week “game plan offences” to particular opponents. Rightly or wrongly, New England has the reputation of changing its on-field behavior more dramatically that other NFL teams. The price that must be paid to do that is attention to detail, and players willing to work mentally and physically to their limits. Part of making that easier is compartmentalization. For New England’s players, that boils down to the team catchphrase, “Do Your Job.”
For those following this season’s Patriots Super Bowl controversy (DeflateGate), “message control” by Kraft, Belichick, and Brady has allowed the team to go from befuddled defense initially to assertive offense in a matter of a few days. In the meantime, individual Patriots players (beyond the QB) had no need, no responsibility, and no invitation to concern themselves with the external distractions. Perhaps it will work, and another Super Bowl awaits. Perhaps it won’t. But expect to see the same principles of psychology applied in the New England locker room next year, either way.
There was, of course, little need for compartmentalization of effort in the Roman army. Officers and men often came from different social classes. As mentioned above, the soldiers were professional and engaged for extended periods. The non-comms were promoted on merit and very much expected to be literate. Orders came from the top down, and the realities of imperial politics (certainly) meant that no one had any incentive to stick their nose in elite business. The references we have indicate that centurions enforced correct behaviour with aggressive beatings, if necessary. Unit level misconduct could lead to decimation. The realities of ancient warfare meant that Roman soldiers were “all in” by definition. The history of the Roman army, through both republican and imperial periods, includes episodes of complete disaster and the extermination of entire legions by Rome’s foes. Roman wars were often existential. Following and executing orders required, one would think, no additional motivation.
As mentioned above, in the Roman army, to fail egregiously, might mean facing decimation. The execution of 10% of a unit. And the absolute stakes for the losing combatants, certain slavery, often ritual sacrifice, mean that commitment to the military unit was absolute.
In the NFL, failure is treated less harshly but no less conclusively. Fail to perform at the critical moment and a young player may never play again. A constant churn of players through practice squads and depth charts warns every player that their participation is based on performance.
Under the “fear & focus”-inducing Patriot Way, players may never reach the field if they cannot show they are physically and intellectually prepared to play. Their selection may have been based on potential. Their involvement depends on execution. New England is no different than 31 other NFL teams in this regard. But the fearsome reputation of its program means that young players understand there is little leeway for them, and veterans drawn from outside the program recognize that they will have to adjust or see themselves dismissed … talent or not. A long list of talented players have blossomed under the Patriot structure. An equally long list of drafted players and free agents have found the system too onerous. The team, meanwhile, wins.
Professional sports dictates a cruel reality for players and staff. Hundreds of thousands in high schools dwindle to thousands in colleges and again down to hundreds in the pro leagues. The talented few must compete in a world where every personal attribute is tested. Physical and mental. Luck can determine where one gets a chance to play. Readiness to play must be maintained for months and years at a time, even while riding a bench. The commitment to training and study appears endless. Family and friends can be drawn into the vortex of sacrifice.
In the midst of this Herculean personal investment is an NFL business reality that seems incredibly cruel in the modern age. Injury, age, a pricey contract extension in offing, a moment’s inattention on the playing field, or simply a player’s particular skill set in the context of his team’s needs, may dictate dismissal or trade to another team with little or no notice. New England’s willingness to cut or trade valued players in the interests of the team is legendary. A team of Pro Bowlers could be fielded with New England veterans shown the door, out of the blue. Bitterness is the natural result. As has been continued team success.
What is the price for that success? What does “best interests of the team” really mean? It means sacrifice of the individual … their future, their emotions … on the altar of effectiveness. Very often it means taking those who had very little, elevating them temporarily, and then casting them back into impossibly difficult circumstances. Physically broken, financially frail, and forever out of the limelight. It takes a certain personality to risk that environment. And a certain personality to operate by the iron rules of management in that environment. While New England gets tagged with the reputation of cruel decision-making, the other NFL teams must also obey these iron rules. The room for sentimentality is mighty small.
Ancient Rome was not a spot for the sickly, the poor, the deformed, or the elderly. In the Roman army, life was harsh but often more stable and healthier than civilian life. A pension, citizenship, and modest prosperity were on the horizon. Nonetheless, the army was in the business of controlled violence, on imperial frontiers that often featured terrifying enemies. Indeed, by definition, if an enemy wasn’t terrifying and strong, chances are the Romans were rolling over them. A severe battlefield injury could mean immediate euthanasia. Medical treatment in the Roman army was notable for its sophistication but amputations or debilitating infections could see one cast out of the army to fend for one’s self. A grim, grim existence. The NFL is an echo of Roman realities but still a valid analogy. The stakes can be impossibly high.
Sixty Minutes. Play to the whistle. New England takes the cliches seriously. The team has been criticized and loathed for many years for running up the score in games. What isn’t noted as often is the number of fourth-quarter comebacks that a winning New England record can require. The bloodless battles on the practice fields, and the bloody practices on the playing fields. The mind and body must be trained to last that three hour game time. And the half-time adjustments that, if executed successfully, can take the team from playing from behind to a game-winning lead. Every method of training and coaching is geared to maintaining focus in the face of stress, fatigue, and sudden changes to strategy.
For the Romans in war, we must again hypothesize this focus and point to indirect evidence. Clearly, for a slave society like Rome, there was no question of taking it easy on a defeated enemy or letting down one’s guard. Losing armies, losing cultures, could and did face dismemberment and dispersal throughout the Roman empire to serve as slaves. Roman victory meant wealth and prestige for all involved. Military campaigns could run for decades and see the ebb and flow of Roman victory and defeat. The willingness to take advantage of opportunities for conclusive victory can be assumed, even if not proven.
The awe and fear triggered by New England’s successes since 2001 have much to do with the relentless quality of the organization. Some years they are great. Some years they are good. But virtually every year they are ready to give their four-team AFC division a ferocious competition. Every year they will contend for the playoffs. Consistency is the watchword the Patriots use themselves to describe their goal. And the organization is geared towards that in its facilities, promotion, public communications, and actual footbal program. It means the waiting list for season tickets at Gillette is ludicrously long. It means that fans are diehard and rewarded beyond all others in the league. It means that young college players dream of the opportunity to play for the Patriots, and seasoned veterans will take a discount to join the team. An institutional hunger for winning, and a perennial record of actually winning, creates its own success. In the right hands, that atmosphere can be strengthened and sustained. For Kraft, Belichick, and Brady, they’ve worked together (on the field and off it) to give themselves the best chance of success … and lived with the results and the sacrifices and the criticisms and the envy.
The persistence of the Roman Army and its legionary structure dominates much of ancient Mediterranean history. The army was the dominant line item of the imperial Roman budget. To visit the remains of a massive legionary fortress on the margins of the empire and learn that it was continually occupied for 400 years is to directly experience what military might actually means. The legions along the frontiers were the guarantors of safety and the ultimate kingmakers in Rome itself. Generations of scholars have pondered the question of why this success was sustained. In retrospect, we can certainly see that the Roman military “method” created an advantage that other cultures could not match for any length of time, except perhaps in the far East of the Empire in the shape of the Parthians and Sassanids.
Are the New England Patriots liked? Mmm, not so much. Do they care? It doesn’t appear so. They bask in the fervent support of New Englanders. “In Bill We Trust.” Their methods work and are widely, if quietly, emulated. They evoke passion, positive and negative. They are grudgingly respected and thoroughly studied. On the playing field they are often feared. A victory over the Patriots is often the high point of a team’s season.
In this, they are indeed like the Romans … feared by the weak. Respected by the moderately strong. Loathed by those who needed to throw themselves entirely into battle to stop them. And then must do so all over again in succeeding years. In the benighted AFC East, there is no respite. None perhaps, until one party in the Kraft/Belichick/Brady triumvirate retires and some alteration of the Patriot Way can be spotted.
Led by their coach, the Patriots very much seem to use the Roman model of military excellence. Prepared, methodical, somber, focused, relentless. And victorious.
Yet another battle awaits. It won’t be the last.