Beyond Brady and Belichick, the Patriots' Legacy Is About Working-Class Heroes

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 19, 2015

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Blathering on and on about the New England Patriots' legacy after their 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday night would be an insult to your intelligence and a disservice to the whole concept of "legacy."

The Patriots have been great for a long time. You know that. They were great before your smartphone was smart, when Twitter was something Victorian schoolgirls did and Bluetooth was a reason to visit the dental surgeon. Their greatness is old news that was written in old newspapers.

As for "legacy," debating how the future will remember its past simply denies the present. The Patriots' legacy, in the talk-radio sense, was assured long before Sunday afternoon. What did Bill Belichick and Tom Brady become Sunday—even more first-ballot Hall of Famers?

The Patriots themselves, as you might expect, are having none of this "legacy" talk. That's not what they do or have ever done.

"I haven't had much time to reflect. We're right in the middle of it," Brady said when asked after the game to muse about a decade-plus of accomplishments.

When pressed to specifically talk about legacy, he stated, "For me, for our team, it's a journey." Then he descended into boilerplate Patriot-speak about work left to be done and a great Seattle Seahawks opponent to prepare for.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The Patriots trounced the Colts. They delivered delight and excitement that made Gillette Stadium rock, shaking the press box like a boat at sea on a rainy, gusty evening. It was a resounding triumph. Savor the moment. Savor the players and coaches who made it possible. History will wait its turn.

Legacies, histories, dynasties…they are built out of moments. Decades distill them down to important people and milestones—names and battles etched into obelisks. King Belichick, General Brady. Hero Gronkowski. But living, breathing history is built from foot soldiers and working-class heroes. The day belongs to LeGarrette Blount, Nate Solder, James Develin, Cameron Fleming and the little guys who have always made massive contributions to New England's success.

Most of them aren't "legacy" guys the way Brady and Belichick are. Yet in their own way, they defined the true Patriots legacy Sunday.

The Colts knew they had to stop Brady from connecting with Rob Gronkowski. Belichick knew they knew. So Gronkowski lined up in the backfield in the first quarter, then motioned wide left, forcing Indianapolis into an adjustment that left linebacker Jerrell Freeman covering Julian Edelman in the slot. A short completion set up Blount at the goal line. In a close facsimile of Beast Mode, he downshifted into the heavy-traction gears and grinded through a heap of blockers and defenders until he was two yards deep in the end zone.

The Patriots played hide-the-Gronk again for their second touchdown. Gronkowski motioned to the far left. Then Tim Wright motioned across the formation. Finally, the snap, and Brady hit fullback James Develin on a short flare to the right. Confused? The Colts weren't, not quite, but Develin was one-on-one with one yard to gain against linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, a no-win situation for a defender with no margin for error.

"I kept saying it wouldn't be worth it unless I was fighting for it," Develin said of his first postseason touchdown reception. "It was just a beautiful play design, I came open and Tom hit me."

While Blount pounded the line (often with Develin leading the charge through the hole), New England's defense played the pass as though it had 13 players in coverage—every deep receiver covered, every short receiver bracketed, every Andrew Luck passing lane occupied by a spy.

Darrelle Revis sometimes covered Coby Fleener so other defenders could double up on T.Y. Hilton. Other times, he performed his Revis Island routine against the Colts' most dangerous weapon. When a receiver tried to leak out of the backfield for a screen, two defenders were waiting to stuff him for a loss. When the Colts bunched three receivers wide left, the Patriots spread their defense out in defiance of a running game they did not fear.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

When Indianapolis finally managed to make a play against New England's defense, it required Luck to roll right, elude one defender, throw over the fingertips of another, and find Hilton wedged between a well-positioned defender and the sideline. There, Hilton gobbled the pinpoint pass and dragged his feet on a patch of turf the size of a welcome mat. A magnificent play for 36 yards, but Hilton's only catch and essentially the Colts' lone offensive highlight.

"We were able to do a lot of different things," Pats linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "Guys don't know who's coming and who's dropping. It brings out a lot of versatility."

It was brilliant chess, the kind we have seen for over a decade. What's noteworthy is how ordinary, even interchangeable, so many of the pieces were. Develin, Wright, Shane Vereen, Brandon LaFell, Hightower and a brace of defenders, even Edelman or Blount—most are players any team could have had. But then, who were David Patten, Jermaine Wiggins, Kevin Faulk and Antowain Smith long ago in 2001, except everyday players who kept coming through in once-in-a-lifetime situations?

But the most unlikely contributors Sunday were the offensive linemen—not just as blockers, but as part of the elaborate rope-a-dope that defined this new chapter in Patriots (let's use the word) history.

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 18:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts reacts in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots in the 2015 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Sixth offensive lineman Cameron Fleming kept shuttling in and out of the game, usually announced as an eligible receiver. Sometimes, Blount thumped behind Fleming, the extra blocker. Other times, Fleming simply pass protected. It was a Chekhov's gun tactic after last week's four-lineman controversy and a strategy that provided extra blocking but the threat of much more.

And then, with Fleming blocking on play after play and the Colts lulled into false security that extra linemen would do nothing else, New England announced starting left tackle Nate Solder as an eligible receiver.

Fleming was still in the game as a sixth lineman, but a new formation wrinkle put Solder on the left end of the line. The Colts sensed nothing suspicious until Brady play-faked to Blount, pivoted and flipped the football to Solder, who a moment earlier was throwing a cursory block but now had no defenders between him and the end zone, 13 yards away.

"We've been practicing that for years," Solder said, though he also admitted that Brady threw footballs to him "very few times" in practice. He also admitted to not being the niftiest playmaker with the football in his hands. "I had blinders on at that moment. I went straight ahead. I blacked out. I don't remember half of it."

Just when you think nothing the Patriots do could surprise you, they have become the team of postseason surprises.

"I don't know, maybe we have more tricks up our sleeve," Brady said with a twinkle in his eye.

Belichick and coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia called masterful games. Except for one mind-bogglingly misguided throw to Gronkowski in double coverage, Brady was brilliant. Gronk eventually graduated from decoy to weapon when the Colts were on the mat. 

But the true legacy of the 21st century Patriots is one of resilience, persistence, flexibility and adaptability, of working and growing and changing and evolving. And really, isn't that a worthier legacy than a story of glittering heroes with some magical ability to "just win"?

These Patriots are as much about kinship and the everyday grind of practicing and learning to work together as tactical excellence.

"There's a special karma with this team that I've felt in training camp," team owner Robert Kraft said after the game. "It's great to see it come to fruition."

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Kraft told a story of seeing a group of role players staying late on the training camp practice field on a hot Friday summer afternoon.

"They were just joshin' around and having fun," Kraft said. "I don't remember guys just hanging around and doing that on a Friday afternoon.

"They enjoy each other's company. And I think it means they trust each other."

They trusted each other Sunday night. They trusted left tackles and blocking fullbacks to catch wet footballs for touchdowns. They trusted defenders to handle complex assignments against a great quarterback. They now trust each other to prepare for the latest, toughest challenge of their careers.

So stop counting Super Bowl wins and losses, comparing this dynasty with that one and fussing about legacies. The Patriots don't want to hear about it.

"You can't dwell on how many you won, how many you lost," Vince Wilfork said. "It's all about now."

Legacies are for tomorrow. History is alive, and the Patriots are still giving us extraordinary moments with the help of some wonderfully ordinary people.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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