How the New England Patriots Use Sound Business Strategy to Win Football Games

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Louis A. Ferleger is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at Boston University. He specializes in U.S. economic history. He is co-author of "A New Mandate: Democratic Choices for a Prosperous Economy" and "No Gain, No Pain: Taxes, Productivity and Economic Growth."

During the football season, every day there are hundreds of thousands of print and web articles, blogs, podcasts, and twitter messages that provide information, maybe even insight, and as much trivia about each football team in the National Football League.  In addition, every night, and in particular on game days, there are shows that analyze, interview, and predict well in advance as well as during the game [local ESPN stations have their writers respond to chats while the game is being played].  The NFL’s prominence reached new heights a few years ago when it started its own cable network, not only to televise games but to contribute to the flood of information about NFL teams and almost anything else associated with football.

What does all this information mean?  Is it important?  Who cares?  Well, I admit, I care.  Not about reading all this info—I don’t. But some of the information is fascinating and it raises interesting historical questions.

Let’s look at one example.  Why have the New England Patriots been so successful in winning games since Bill Belichick (BB) took over as head coach?  His coaching record is stunning; other than his first year (2000), in every other year the team has won nine or more games.  His teams have played in four Super Bowls and won three.  Sustaining a high level of success is not easy in the NFL and no other team over this period (2000–2011) has been able to consistently win as many regular season games, though not always making the playoffs or succeeding in post-season play.

Why have BB’s teams won?  I think they have won because he is strong believer in the development of organizational capabilities.  From the Gilded Age to present, some large business organizations, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture, were able to accumulate organizational capabilities that have contributed to their economic success.

How does this apply to a football team?

A football team would have to plan and coordinate the development and diffusion of players, make important investments when necessary, even admit sometimes that the investment in a particular players was a mistake—that is, sometimes investments yield uncertain results—develop players who are specialists as well as generalists, and generate and accumulate knowledge that enables the team to continually refocus, adjust, and adapt to changing circumstance.  The key, of course, is to gain sustained competitive advantage (yes, win games!) and dominate the league (win Super Bowls!).  This strategy requires innovation in planning and coordinating complex specialized divisions of labor.  In other words, the team (organization) engages in a process to guide highly trainable individuals whose specialist activities sometimes get extended from defense to offense to special teams.

Enough theory.  Is there any evidence to support such a notion?  Here is my attempt to convince you.

BB stresses over and over again in his interviews that he is a big believer in TEAM.  Every year he puts together a staff that believes in his emphasis on TEAM and he looks for players in the draft and free agents who are willing to commit to TEAM.  The players must be “all in.”  That is, each player must be willing to play according to how their capabilities are developed during practices; how the coaches decide to scheme and approach every game (every game plan is different, though there may be overlapping defense schemes and offensive plays).  The players must be committed to the organizational development of skills—skills that may be only called upon infrequently.  Over the years BB has made mistakes, but he tries to move on and locate a new player or coach as fast as possible.

BB also states that statistics “are for losers.”  What I think he means is that if you are looking at the statistics and not the team effort—or how to generate high effort—you are unlikely to succeed.  There are no excuses for losing, sometimes a little praise for winning, but mostly BB states: “we have a lot of work to do.”

The Pats lead the league in personnel turnover.  You can divide the roster into three segments:  a)  untouchables [Brady, Wilfork, etc], organizational specialists who are critical to the development of capabilities across the organization (these players make other players more valuable to the organization than they would be by themselves), and whose role and activities are clearly defined and tend not to vary much over time and space;  b)  aspiring untouchables (Spikes, Mayo), those players who have shown enough potential to warrant more playing time than others—while their contributions may vary, many have moved from being general contributors to making more specialized contributions, even when their roles are tweaked week to week; and  c)  work-in-progress generalists—this last category is critical to the organization, since these players need to be able to move from position a to b, or even c (Julian Edelman usually plays two positions, receiver, return man; he now also plays cornerback and has even lined up as a defensive end).

Category c is where the team leads the league in turnovers—that is, the Pats turn over more players than anyone else.  This year, they cut players whose salaries are substantial in order to maintain organizational coherence.  They have drafted players such as Marcus Cannon, who has recovered from cancer and was recently added to the roster, because:  “Cannon mostly played tackle in college, but coach BB said last week that he doesn’t see any reason why he can’t play anywhere on the line.  ‘I think he’s athletic enough, he’s certainly big enough, he has enough power and enough quickness, so ultimately what is his best position?  Left tackle, right tackle, left guard, right guard?  I’m not sure.’” [source: Mike Reiss, ESPN Boston]

The key here to understanding BB’s comment is that he has measurable variables (strength, size, athleticism) in which he first evaluates a player; next, he asks if the player is capable of fitting into the organization, strategy-wise; and finally, how well does the player fit compared with other work-in-progress players.  In the last category, players are shuffled around repeatedly, dropped from the practice squad, added to the roster, added on Wednesday, dropped on Saturday, etc.  The key Pats fumble recovery in one game this year was made by a player added to the roster the Thursday before the game—thanks Niko!

Every week since the final cuts were made, BB and his organization, especially the director of player personnel, bring 3–5 players into Foxboro to see if they are worth including in the “work-in-progress” category.  These include players such as Kyle Arrington, who started out as a “work-in-progress” player but is probably now in the untouchable category.

One last point.  BB gets too much credit.  He admits this.  He repeatedly thanks his staff but hardly anyone notices.  He does not do all the work that is necessary to prepare for a game. He wi ll, of course, take charge when necessary.  But he is a strong believer in organizational integration and he doesn’t pretend that he can do everything.

I have no doubt that other teams that are successful use some variant of this model.  On the other hand, sometimes teams just lose.  No matter.  So the next time you sit in front of your TV or attend an NFL game, ask yourself whether the team you are watching is developing organizational capabilities.  Alternatively, just enjoy the game!

A previous version of this article misidentified the author as Louis A. Ferlenger. The correct spelling is Louis A. Ferleger. HNN regrets the error.

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