Talent doesn't explain the success of the Patriots and Eagles
Posted by admin on 30th January 2018

The New England Patriots lost their best wide receiver to an ACL tear before the season started. Two months later, Patriots defensive captain and Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower tore his pectoral muscle, ending his season.

In early December, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz – in the midst of a breakout season – tore his ACL.

Each team experienced enough upheaval to have derailed their seasons. Yet, each will be playing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4.

While many NFL analysts deal with easily observable factors – individual performance, weather, play-calling and match-ups – it’s often what can’t be seen that determines a team’s success.

Inside and outside of sports, I’ve studied what makes some teams thrive and what makes others falter. Because talent goes only so far, it’s important to evaluate a team’s structure and mindset to determine its true strength.

Having the ability to adapt to adverse or unpredictable situations plays a big role. So do “collective efficacy” – a team’s shared belief that it can attain a given goal – and “interdependence,” whether a team believes each member is valuable.

By considering these three latent team characteristics, we can dig deeper into how the Eagles and Patriots made it to Super Bowl LII.

Belichick’s system: Know your role

In a 2012 study, I charged four groups of students with solving a murder mystery.

Some groups were told that each member had a distinct role, and that they would need to rely on everyone’s expertise to solve the mystery. Unsurprisingly, these groups did the best.

Interestingly, groups whose members each had useful information – but weren’t told that the information each possessed was necessary for the team to perform well – did the worst. This happened because, on these teams, individual members thought they could solve the mystery on their own.

How might this translate to football? Well, most teams are equally motivated to win the Super Bowl. But none likely understand the role and abilities of each player – and the need to coordinate – better than the Patriots. This is because head coach Bill Belichick’s system is designed to emphasize specific roles linked to specific abilities.

For example, in 2007, Belichick traded for undersized wide receiver Wes Welker. On his previous team, the Dolphins, he had been an average player. But Belichick had a role in mind for Welker, bringing him to New England with the specific purpose of playing in the slot.

Importantly, in Belichik’s system, Welker didn’t have to outrun and outjump the opposing team’s biggest, fastest defensive backs. He just had to do one thing well: Give quarterback Tom Brady a short, underneath passing option. Welker ended up thriving; his production exploded, and he redefined a position now occupied by Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.

This type of system serves two functions. First, it allows the players and coaches to understand each player’s strengths, weaknesses and responsibilities. It creates what management scholars would refer to as a “transactive memory system” – a “group mind” where each team member knows what each other one is good at. This naturally builds interdependence by identifying the specific skills each player needs to contribute to the team. Second, it makes it easy to adapt to adversity, setting up a dynamic where players can easily be plugged into roles to replace teammates lost to injury.