FOXBORO -- How many times have you heard the Patriots utter the phrase “Next Man Up”? So often that -- if you’re like me -- you’ve become numb to it. Besides, isn’t that what the sport is all about? There's going to be attrition. It’s a league-wide thing. It has to be.
But unlike other franchises, which come unglued at the first sign of adversity, the Pats have managed not only to get by but often thrive.
The most recent example came Sunday, a 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. The previous week against Atlanta, the Pats' defense had finally played like we believed they were capable . . . but then lost their most impactful player, Dont’a Hightower, during that game to a torn pec muscle that will likely cost him the rest of the season. Yet this unit, not only without Hightower but also starters Malcom Brown, Stephon Gilmore and nickel corner Eric Rowe, limited Philip Rivers to 212 yards passing. How is that possible?
“I think it starts with Coach [Bill] Belichick, his leadership, the way he’s coaches,” said Matthew Slater. “The way he’s prepared every man on this roster -- from Tom Brady to the last guy on this practice squad -- everyone is prepared the same way. The expectation, the bar, is the same for everyone and it’s like that every single day. So when you get into a situation where a guy’s number is called, it’s not new to him. It’s not totally foreign. Yes, he’s asked to do something a little bit different, but Coach and his staff have done the best they can to try and prepare guys for those situations.”
“It’s not foreign to us,” said Duron Harmon. “We’ve been down a lot of players since I’ve been here. [Rob Gronkowski] went down, [Jerod] Mayo, Vince [Wilfork] . . . guys who are good players, players we lean on. But year in and year out, we find guys who just step up and do what they need to do: Just be consistent and play good football for us.”
Rex Burkhead is relatively new to this organization, coming over during the free-agency period last offseason. But as the son of a coach, he recognizes the attention to detail and what it translates to, not just for the first guy on the roster but the last as well.
“Lots of preparation here from the mental side, the physical side,” he said. “You really have to be on top of it . . . I think it’s kudos to our coaching staff for getting that next guy prepared. That’s the mentality that’s been here in the past and they prove that when those guys gets a chance, they do well.”
Burkhead recalls numerous times being quizzed by Belichick or another coach as you go from one meeting room to the next, or veer off toward the weight room. That’s nothing new in Foxboro but it’s not like that everywhere else. Certainly not in Cincinnati, where Burkhead was for the first four years of his career.
When you talk to players from different organizations, you truly understand how different that part of the equation is. One newer Patriot told me “it’s so [bleeping] stressful” and it “makes you hate them at times.” But “at the end of the day, they’re making sure you’re on your toes. That you’re involved. You can’t argue with it. Those Lombardi Trophies say it all.”
So Belichick and his staff get rave reviews for making the “Next Man Up” mantra not only a thing, but a thing that works. However, this isn’t just about the big brains in the corner offices. This is about the players buying in.
That’s not always easy; consider the egos involved. Yet from the top of the roster down to the bottom, the Pats usually get full commitment across the board.
“You know a guy like Tom [Brady] makes guys like myself, or guys that don’t play a ton of receiver, feel involved,” said Slater. “A guy like Devin McCourty making the practice squad safety feel like he’s involved. I think there’s a great deal of player leadership.”
Part of that leadership was lost, though, when Hightower was forced out of the lineup. The Pats had to lean on the erratic Elandon Roberts and a slowed veteran like David Harris and put even more on Kyle Van Noy’s plate. That’s less than ideal, but what else can you do?
“It’s hard, but you have to,” said Harmon. “No one is going to give us the production that [Hightower] did because no one is the player that High is. High is a special player, a special talent player. But you can’t sit here and harp on it. We have to find ways to get production that he [gave the Patriots] out of different people, whether it’s one person doing all his jobs or different guys coming together to do what he did. Maybe it’s three or four guys. It sucks we lost him, but worrying about that isn’t going to help us win games. It has to be the next man up. It has to be that mentality because it’s going to make sure that everybody has confidence in each other going out there and playing good ball.”
It sounds easy, but the reality is it’s far from easy. Johnson Bademosi isn’t suppose to find out shortly before a game against the Jets that he’s not just going to be a special teamer, but he’ll be the starting corner opposite Malcolm Butler and never come off the damn field. But when Gilmore’s concussion symptoms popped up late in the week, or early in the weekend, Bademosi got the call and he responded like he had been there and done that before. Why?
“I would say trust, and you build that trust through practice,” noted Harmon. “I would say Bademosi is the perfect example. Him getting ready for the Jets game. He didn’t know he was going to play all week until Friday or Saturday morning, but for him to be in the meetings, asking questions -- even when he wasn’t starting -- then in practice, playing good football and being consistent when he was thrown in . . . that’s how you build trust. That’s everybody here. Everybody wants to win. Everybody knows how important winning is to us in here. So everybody on this whole roster goes out each and every day and tries his hardest just to not let the team down.”
“Certainly, I think on an individual by individual basis, you have to take a lot of pride in being a professional and understanding [that] I may have this role but I could get called into [a different] role, so I have to prepare myself for all of these roles,” added Slater. “And I think when you get guys that are professional and you get guys that are dedicated to their craft, guys that are invested in the concept of team and doing what’s best for the team . . . when you get in those situations, you have confidence in those guys.”
That confidence is earned in Foxboro and makes the “Next Man Up” a part of this organization’s DNA. Without it, injuries like the one to Hightower or to Julian Edelman could derail a season long before the playoffs roll around. But not here. No how. No way. It’s just not allowed, from top to bottom.