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The New England Patriots Playbook
Inside the Huddle for the Greatest Plays in Patriots History
By Sean Glennon
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2015 Sean Glennon
All rights reserved.
THE BUTLER DID IT
With a Single, Perfect Play, an Undrafted Rookie Becomes a Super Bowl Legend
February 1, 2015
When it mattered most, Malcolm Butler stopped being Malcolm Butler.
For a moment in time — arguably the most important moment in the Brady-Belichick era, and certainly the biggest in the 13 years since Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI — Butler became the spirit of the 2014 New England Patriots, the personification of a gritty squad that simply wouldn't quit.
Butler's big play, the goal-line interception that turned tragedy to triumph for the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, was the perfect finish to a season in which the Patriots repeatedly found themselves seemingly on the brink of collapse only to find a way to triumph.
New England was counted out — with questions raised in the media about Tom Brady's future — after a stumbling, thoroughly unimpressive 2–2 start that reached its nadir with a Week 4 drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. "Let's face it, they're not good anymore," ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said following that loss. And Dilfer was anything but alone in believing the Patriots had finally hit the wall after 13 seasons of excellence.
Then the Patriots ripped off seven straight wins, starting with a 43 — 17 dismantling of the previouisly undefeated Cincinnati Bengals and culminating in consecutive decisive victories over the division-leading Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, and Detroit Lions. The Patriots' end times had been successfully delayed. And the team continued looking like a powerhouse through the end of the season.
Still, despite having seized the top seed in the AFC playoffs, the Patriots appeared doomed yet again — this time to an early exit from the tournament. In their divisional-round battle with the Baltimore Ravens, the Pats twice fell behind by 14 points. And even after they finally broke through and took the lead for the first time in the game late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots needed to hold off a Baltimore offensive surge and overcome uncharacteristic bad clock management before they were able to advance.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots put the Colts away easily, only to find themselves the next day confronted with allegations of cheating resulting from a poorly managed NFL investigation into charges New England had played the first half with underinflated balls. Deflategate's domination of the sports news cycle during the two-week buildup to the Super Bowl was perhaps the only thing that prevented the oft-repeated opinion that the Patriots were sure to be overmatched in the game by the defending champion Seattle Seahawks' stifling defense from becoming the main topic of conversation.
And then there was the game, surely one of the most memorable, and probably one of the greatest, Super Bowls ever played.
Twice in the first half, the Patriots took a seven-point lead only to have the Seahawks tie the score in dramatic fashion. Then in the third quarter, due in no small part to Brady's second interception, the Seahawks took a 10-point lead and appeared to have taken control of the game. No team had ever rebounded after trailing by double digits in the second half of a Super Bowl.
But the Patriots did on the strength of two masterful fourth-quarter scoring drives and two Seahawks three-and-outs forced by the New England D. "There's no mystery here, fellas," coach Bill Belichick had advised his defense. "It's trusting each other and everybody doing their job."
With 2:02 to play, the Pats took a 28–24 lead on Brady's fourth TD pass of the game. All the defense had to do was hold on. And wasn't that a familiar story?
It got more familiar still.
With the clock ticking down and the Seahawks at the Patriots' 38-yard line, quarterback Russell Wilson launched a deep pass to Jermaine Kearse near the right sideline. Butler, playing in place of a struggling Kyle Arrington, made an athletic play on the ball. But Kearse pulled off a spectacular, improbable catch, batting the ball into the air repeatedly while on his back, spinning, until he was able to secure the ball. Only a heads-up play from Butler prevented Kearse from getting up and walking into the end zone.
Still, the Seahawks had the ball at the Patriots' 5-yard line. And they had the league's best running back, Marshawn Lynch. Things looked grim. Lynch carried the ball to the 1-yard line on first down, and there was little doubt the Patriots were about to lose another Super Bowl because of a virtually impossible catch.
And then came the moment when Butler, an undrafted free-agent rookie out of a Division II school, the University of West Alabama, made one of the biggest plays in Super Bowl history.
On second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Seahawks saw the Patriots lined up as if expecting a run play — which is exactly what everyone in America expected. Seattle called a slant.
Butler recognized the Seattle stack alignment from film study. He recalled being beat on the same play in practice. He knew where the ball was going.
Aided by an incredible effort from Brandon Browner that prevented Kearse from setting a pick, Butler broke on the ball a nanosecond before intended receiver Ricardo Lockette. He rocketed from his pre-snap position three yards deep in the end zone, shot past Kearse's desperately outstretched arm, and, at the 1-yard line, threw his shoulder into Lockette's and muscled the ball away for a game-winning interception.
Had Butler merely knocked the pass down, the Seahawks surely would have scored on third or fourth down. Had he hesitated at all, Lockette would have made the catch and scored. Had he failed to read the play correctly, he might have left Lockette open on an outside route.
There was exactly one play Butler could have made to end the game. By preparation, intelligence, perserverance, and force of will — by trusting Browner and by doing his job — Butler made exactly that play. And the Patriots were on to a trophy ceremony and a victory parade.
THAT'S YOUR TIGHT END
The best thing about the 2014 Patriots season was that it ended with the team's fourth Super Bowl championship. The second-best thing? That's something of a matter of perspective. It might have been that the season provided evidence that, early season speculation to the contrary notwithstanding, Tom Brady was not in a rapid state of decline. Or it might have been that Rob Gronkowski was back. As in back for real. For two full years, it had seemed like Gronk's series of injuries might never end. Gronk had played much of the 2011 AFC Championship Game, as well as Super Bowl XLVI, with a high ankle sprain. In Week 11 of 2012, he broke his left arm, returning just in time for the final regular-season game and the playoffs, only to rebreak the arm in the Patriots' divisional-round win over the Houston Texans. His absence was felt in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He returned halfway through the 2013 campaign only to suffer a season-ending knee injury seven games later. Again, in his absence, the Patriots faded in the playoffs, losing the AFC championship to the Denver Broncos. But Gronk was there to start the 2014 season. And when the Patriots hosted the Broncos in Week 9, he reminded Pats fans that he was the best tight end in football, making a spectacular one-handed grab above his head (with his brace-covered left arm) while leaping backward amidst a swarm of Broncos defenders at the goal line. One play later, the Pats had put the game out of reach. And in Super Bowl XLIX, Gronk was invaluable, catching a touchdown in the second quarter and converting two crucial first downs during the game-winning drive in the fourth.CHAPTER 2
Adam Vinatieri's Impossible 45-Yard Field Goal Changes Everything Forever
January 19, 2002
The greatest kick Adam Vinatieri ever made — probably the greatest kick anyone ever made — didn't come at the end of a Super Bowl. In fact, it didn't come at the end of any game.
It came at the end of an era, the one in which you could always count on things finding a way to go wrong for the Patriots, no matter how good the team might be and how hard the players might work to change the franchise's fortunes.
Vinatieri's 45-yard boot through the driving snow in Foxborough to tie the 2001 Patriots with the visiting Oakland Raiders marked a radical change in direction. The moment was miraculous not only for the fact that the kick connected under nearly impossible conditions, but for the very fact that the Patriots were ever in a position to attempt to tie the Raiders with the clock ticking down in regulation. It was miraculous because it happened to the Patriots — a team that for 42 years had always come out on the wrong end of the biggest moments in the biggest games.
From the AFL's first-ever game — lost by the heavily favored Pats to the Denver Broncos — to the 1964 regular-season finale that was supposed to propel the Patriots to an AFL championship rematch with San Diego but ended up sending Buffalo to the title game, robbery in Oakland in 1976, spontaneous internal combustion in 1978, the right stuff at the wrong time in 1985, and betrayal by the head coach in 1996, the breaks had always managed to beat the boys.
And as the divisional-round playoff game against Oakland moved toward a close, it appeared the Patriots were looking at more of the same. It appeared, in fact, that the Raiders were going to bring the Patriots back down to frozen earth.
The mere fact that the Patriots were hosting a second-round playoff game reflected the degree to which the team had outperformed expectations. The Pats had lost their franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, in Week 2 of the regular season when a cheap hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis caused an internal injury that threatened the quarterback's life. They'd fallen to 1–3 behind backup QB Tom Brady only to rebound and, winning the final six games of the season, finish 11–5. They took the AFC East title and captured the conference two-seed.
The Raiders, though they'd stumbled into the playoffs after starting the season hot, had handled the Jets fairly easily in the wild-card round. And while both teams' offenses had struggled playing through heavy snow that covered the field at Foxboro Stadium and continued to fall hard, creating near-whiteout conditions at times, Oakland entered the fourth quarter with a 13–3 lead.
The Patriots fought back with a solid touchdown drive midway through the period. And they saw their hopes kept alive just inside the two-minute mark, when what initially appeared to be a Brady fumble recovered by the Raiders was ruled an incomplete pass.
But the Pats hadn't managed to make much of their second chance. They stalled at the Oakland 28, where they faced fourth-and-nine with 32 seconds to play. And they sent out the field-goal team to try a desperation kick that would have been tough in optimal conditions.
As Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders points out, "I don't know how much snow makes a difference, but I know field-goal percentage goes down in cold weather. That's just a fact."
It's also a fact that it was hard to see 10 yards away in the snow that night. And that Vinatieri had to kick from atop four inches of packed snow. And, according to long-snapper Lonie Paxton, officials placed the ball lace-side down at the line, requiring Paxton to snap accurately and Vinatieri to kick accurately despite the laces being packed with snow, a factor that can throw off trajectory.
Still, Paxton delivered the ball, holder Ken Walter planted it securely atop the glacier, and Vinatieri found his footing and delivered.
The ball came out low, rose up just above the level of the crossbar, seemed for all the world to hover in the frigid air — as if it somehow knew a turning point was at hand and wanted to force everyone to recognize the weight of the moment — and carried through the uprights.
The Pats won the toss in overtime and, after a drive that lasted eight and half minutes of game time, Vinatieri booted an academic 23-yarder to win the game and advance the Patriots along the path to Super Bowl XXXVI.
There was no knowing for sure that night how significantly the stars were realigning for the Patriots, but it was clear at least one thing had changed. The big moments in the big games really could go New England's way. Finally.
BOUND FOR CANTON?
Kickers, as a rule, don't have an easy time getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Jan Stenerud, who enjoyed a 19-year career kicking for the Chiefs, Packers, and Vikings, is the only pure place-kicker ever enshrined in Canton. (Though George Blanda and Lou Groza both made the Hall of Fame, both made significant contributions at other positions.) There's no reason to believe Adam Vinatieri won't someday join Stenerud in the Hall. As Stenerud sees it, stacking the fact that Vinatieri kicked winning field goals with time expiring in two Super Bowls — XXXVI and XXXVIII — on top of a career replete with successful clutch kicks should be enough to do the trick. "Do I expect him to join me in the Hall of Fame?" Stenerud says. "Absolutely I do. He has had two of the biggest kicks ever in professional football and a tremendous career. I hope that he will be there, and I think he deserves it." Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders takes a more pragmatic route to the same conclusion. "There's a difference between being the best and being in the Hall of Fame," Schatz says. "Adam Vinatieri doesn't have the best kicking percentage of all time — it's very good, it's just not the best — or even the best clutch kicking percentage. He's had more opportunities for clutch kicks than any other player because of the teams he's played for. But once you retire, all that matters is what you did. And what he did was he made all of those kicks."CHAPTER 3
SETTING UP ADAM
Brady-to-Brown Brings the Pats into Range for a Super Bowl XXXVI Win
February 3, 2002
Super Bowl XXXVI didn't end just with a kick.
Yes, there was a kick. One that made history, that launched a dynasty, and that profoundly altered the legacy of two franchises.
It was a hell of a thing.
But there was a lot more than that. There was also a drive to set up thatkick. A drive that forced the entire football-watching world to sit up and take notice of the young quarterback who directed it. And there was a key play by a savvy receiver who made the whole thing count.
If you've lost track of that fact, it's time to go back to the tape. Because it's stunning now just as surely as it was stunning on February 3, 2002.
Of course, back then the mere fact that the Patriots had the ball and a chance to win at the end of regulation was a bit of a poser.
It certainly wasn't supposed to go that way. The St. Louis Rams were supposed to roll the Patriots and capture their second Lombardi Trophy in three seasons. The Rams, after all, were an offensive powerhouse, anointed as all-but-certain champions before the preseason began.
The Rams put up 503 points during the regular season. One of the teams they beat en route to a 14–2 record was New England, a squad that at least appeared at that point to be struggling to find its way.
The Pats were in their second year under head coach Bill Belichick. hey'd finished 2000 with a record of 5–11, and in the off-season they'd seen a radical remaking of the roster. Nearly a hird of the 2001 team was made up of newcomers, many of them castoffs from other franchises.
Then in Week 2, the team had been forced to make an even bigger hange. Franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe — who'd signed a ecord 10-year, $103 million contract in the off-season — took a ideline hit from linebacker Mo Lewis in a game against the New York Jets. The hit partially sheared an artery in Bledsoe's chest, and the quarterback wound up hospitalized after the internal injury dumped nearly four liters of blood into his chest cavity.
Bledsoe was lost for most of the season, replaced by Tom Brady, who had been a sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft.
Brady made a splash in his first start, leading the 0–2 Pats to a 44–13 victory over the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts. Then the team settled into a hot-and-cold pattern. The 24–17 loss to the visiting Rams in Week 10 dropped the Patriots' record to 5–5.
Excerpted from The New England Patriots Playbook by Sean Glennon. Copyright © 2015 Sean Glennon. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Steve Nelson vii
When It Mattered Most 1
On the Offensive 49
The Best Offense Is a Good Defense 87
Special Consideration 128