It’s well-established Bill Belichick loves his Sun Tzu.
And there’s one simple observation from the ancient Chinese general/military strategist/philosopher that currently applies in the NFL.
“In the midst of chaos there is opportunity.”
COVID-19 has sunk every business into a situation where resilience and adaptability are the coin of the realm. And in the business of professional football, few organizations can compare to the New England Patriots in terms of dealing with adversity.
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They are actually a gold standard for any business at accepting a bleak set of facts and seeking solutions on the fly (the final minute of Super Bowl 49, the second half of SB51) or realizing a long-term plan has been altered by something unforeseen (Tom Brady getting better, not worse at the age of 37).
It’s not a surprise they are seen as well-positioned to deal with the very different landscape heading into the April 23-25 NFL Draft.
“For some teams, it does create chaos,” longtime NFL exec Scott Pioli told me this week on the Patriots Talk Podcast. “But for teams like the Patriots, I really don’t think it does. We’ve heard all the stories and some complaining that’s gone on by teams about how difficult this is, but teams that have a system in place and that have personnel that know how to run the system [have an advantage].”
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Pioli, now an analyst with CBS Sports, is a five-time NFL Executive of the Year. He helped build the Patriots dynasty in nine-season tenure here. He then worked for the Chiefs and Falcons and had success in both spots.
This is where the Patriots institutional knowledge and “no days off” mentality can make a huge difference, said Pioli.
“The Patriots have a very good system in place,” he said. “They have so much continuity at the leadership positions that they know what they’re doing and it really won’t be that difficult.”
Pioli went on to question the validity of complaints by some teams that they are having a hard time preparing adequately for the draft because their access to players is so limited.
“I sent out a tweet from the East-West Shrine game that said people wonder how the Patriots sustain things. Some people talk about culture…in this tweet, it was 7 a.m., and there were four people doing interviews with players at the breakfast tables. There’s 32 teams in the league. All four scouts doing interviews were from the New England Patriots.
“I put it out there because to me this showed one thing will never change with the New England Patriots is how hard they work,” Pioli said. “[Director of College Scouting] Monti Ossenfort, [College Scouting Coordinator] Brian Smith – two guys that were there 100 years ago when I was there – and two other younger scouts, they were the only ones there. I bring this up because so many people are talking about how difficult it is right now, they need more time, they’re not getting time to spend with players.
“The reality is you’ve had a full year of tape to watch these players. You’ve had all of the All-Star games. You’ve had the Senior Bowl, the NFLPA Bowl, the Small School Bowl, the East-West Shrine Game, you’ve got all of these days to interview players, spend time with them, your scouts, your coaches if teams had been doing their work they would have gotten this stuff done.”
Pioli wasn’t done. By the Combine, he said, teams should have most of their business done.
“We had another 330 players that were at the NFL Combine,” Pioli pointed out. The [evaluators] that were doing their work and coaches that were doing their work rather than hanging out and enjoying Indy, they will have gotten all that work done.
“[Those 330 players] also had physicals while they were there. Doctors and trainers were able to get their hands on the players. I know this about the Patriots. When they go to those events, when they go to those things, they are locked in and focused. I’m not saying other teams aren’t. But they are one of those teams that does their due diligence and is working night and day.
“Ninety to 95 percent of the work is done by the time the Combine ends,” he added. “The hay is in the barn. These area scouts have been to the major schools at least three times since last spring. They’ve talked to the coaches, they’ve talked to the assistant coaches, they’ve talked to the people in the building trying to find out who the players are in terms of character. Some of these scouts have met with these players. And again, you’ve got all these All-Star games, the combine. They have sat across the table...They’ve gotten to know them.
“You’re only allowed to have 30 players come to your facility [for private visits],” Pioli added. “And you do some private workouts. Each position coach will do between one and four of those individual private workouts. But most of the time in those meetings is spent on the mental and interpersonal. That stuff can be done [remotely]. Is it perfect? Is it what we’re used to? No. But the reality is no one’s life is normal right now. And our less than normal in the NFL is still pretty darn good.”
To Pioli, complaints about access to players, technological hurdles and any inconvenience an NFL team is encountering are tone-deaf.
“When I hear people complaining that they can’t get on private planes to go meet individually with a player or they haven’t had enough time in person with a player…I don’t know about you but I know there’s a lot of fans that are listening right now who have friends, family, siblings that are hourly-wage workers that are out of work that have real problems,” Pioli pointed out.
“We have our civil servants – police, firemen, medical and emergency room personnel – people working on the front lines that have real problems and are having real issues doing their day-to-day job. Try doing that job. They are talking about technology issues at the draft. I talked to my sister who’s a high school teacher and over 60 percent of the kids she’s teaching don’t have devices at home. Fifty percent don’t have internet. So, please stop crying to me about what technology problems you’re gonna have on that day when you can pick up the phone and do things. There are real problems out there [to consider]. Real leaders find a solution. They don’t spend time and energy on what is wrong.”
The Patriots are well-prepared and organized every year. That doesn’t mean the draft is easier for them. It’s a crapshoot. Bad luck with injuries, bad projections on players and gambles that come up empty can still happen to the teams, even if they’re up at 7 a.m. doing their interviews at the Shrine Game.
But the Patriots – because of how they do things now and always have – are in a better spot than most. They desperately need a good draft. And in this relative chaos, the opportunity is most definitely there.
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