PHOENIX — The Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots are filled with talented players signed to high-priced contracts who would fit in and probably start on any other team in the NFL. That’s why they beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
Yet head coach Bill Belichick has a way of making all of them feel unwanted.
New England players and pundits have long struggled to define the concept of the “Patriot Way.”
Wide receiver Julian Edelman did a pretty good job of it when asked if the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory tastes a little sweeter given how far he’s come. Other junior colleges didn’t even want Edelman when he attended the College of San Mateo for a year before transferring to Kent State. Now he’s the No. 1 receiver on a Super Bowl winning team.
“There’s a lot of guys that have that story on this team,” Edelman said Sunday night after the Patriots’ 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. “You look at Rob Ninkovich. The guy was a long snapper in (New Orleans), now he’s a defensive end. You look at Malcolm Butler — wasn’t drafted. You look at Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick, and he just went out there and won his fourth Super Bowl — been in six.
“There’s countless examples — Ryan Wendell, undrafted; Dan Connolly, undrafted; Sebastian Vollmer, some German that never played the sport until he was like, 22. I mean, there’s a bunch of those kinds of stories, so I guess we’re just the team of misfits.”
If Brady is Rudolph and Edelman is Jerry Only, then Belichick is King Moonracer or Danzig, depending on your Misfits of choice. Belichick finds players with permanent indentations the size of Doritos on their shoulders, then pushes them to perform based on their histories of overcoming obstacles.
The Patriots were on their way to losing Super Bowl XLIX. Seahawks fans at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., already were staking their places in line at Seattle’s second consecutive victory parade.
The Seahawks had the best defense in the NFL, and they led by 10 points with 13 minutes left.
Then Ninkovich, who the New Orleans Saints liked so much that they tried converting him to long snapper, buried quarterback Russell Wilson on a stunt sack. Ninkovich, who has started for five straight years on the best team in the NFL, provided the glimmer of hope.
Brady, somehow still motivated by being a sixth round pick in the 2000 NFL draft despite being one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, was flushed out of the pocket on the Patriots’ ensuing drive. He stepped up and hit Edelman, a college quarterback who was forced to sign a low-priced prove-it deal with the Patriots in 2013, with a 21-yard bullet on third and 14. Edelman, now on a long-term contract, didn’t alligator-arm Brady’s pass despite a launched 6-foot-3, 230-pound Kam Chancellor coming for his head.
Edelman held on and kept the Patriots’ chances alive.
Six plays later, Brady hit Danny Amendola, another former undrafted player who has been highly criticized by Patriots fans in his two-year tenure after signing a $28.5 million contract, for a 4-yard score in the end zone.
It was Brady to Edelman again to put the Patriots ahead 24-14. Edelman was so shaken up after getting hit by Chancellor, a former fifth-round pick, in the previous drive that after the game, his mother had to help him off his post-game podium. Edelman still had it in him to plant and explode on a return route to shake Seahawks cornerback Tharold Simon, another low-round pick, on a 3-yard touchdown.
Leading 28-24, the Patriots’ defense had one job: Don’t mess up. Butler, so lowly regarded coming out of Division II West Alabama that he only received one rookie minicamp tryout, made an incredible play but still didn’t “finish the job.”
Wilson, a too-short third-round pick, threw a 43-yard prayer up to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, an undrafted free agent in 2012. Butler, good enough to stick on the Patriots’ roster all season, leapt up and tipped the ball, assuming his job was over. Then the ball landed in Kearse’s bread basket as the receiver lied on the turf.
It was David Tyree all over again and Butler sulked on the sideline while Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, once traded for two mid-round picks, bulldozed his way to the 1-yard line.
Butler came back on the field a play later and sniffed out the Seahawks’ play call — a pick route designed for receiver Ricardo Lockette, himself undrafted in 2011.
Butler, with a head of steam, arrived at Lockette’s destination before the receiver knew the cornerback was even on his way, and picked off the pass, sealing the Patriots’ fourth title.
Both teams were full of misfits. Every NFL team is full of misfits. But the Patriots’ misfits were better prepared and perhaps more motivated by Belichick, who hasn’t received nearly enough credit for his fourth Super Bowl ring as a head coach. Belichick loves versatile players that he can mold, but the head coach might have worn the most hats over the past two weeks as motivator, distractor, game-planner and deceiver.
Patriots players aren’t unwanted. They’re Super Bowl champions, but somehow Belichick tricked them into still thinking they’re the same players that no one wanted at that low point in their careers.
Thumbnail photo via Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images