1) Give our readers a brief background about your book Management Secrets of the New England Patriots.
James Lavin: As part of my economics dissertation at Stanford, I proved empirically that "high performance work organizations" exist and that employees in such firms work harder yet enjoy their work more. As a lifelong Patriots fan, I realized Belichick's Patriots are a superb example of a high performance work organization. So I set out to write a book that tells the Patriots' story using players' and coaches' words as much as possible, basically letting them tell their story. I found so much fascinating material that the project expanded into what will be a trilogy (first two volumes published in 2005 and 2006). I've received "thank yous" from football, basketball, and hockey coaches and executives at the high school, college and pro levels who say they've learned valuable lessons from Belichick's Patriots. At least three NFL playoff teams have read my books.
2) When researching the book, you obviously delved deep into particular strategies and behaviors of the Patriots organization, from the NFL Draft to free agency. When the Patriots approached the 2005-06 off-season with the pending free agency of David Givens, Willie McGinest and Adam Vinatieri, what were your expectations for those players to return?
Lavin: I knew [The Patriots] couldn't keep them all because other teams are willing to pay a premium for veteran Patriots. Having studied the Patriots' success, many teams now place greater emphasis on character and work ethic than in the past. (League-wide interest in Randy Moss and T.O., for example, has plummeted over the past few seasons.) Every team values proven winners in its locker room, guys who can persuade teammates of the hard work and sacrifice required to win a championship. And demand for Patriots is even greater with Romeo Crennel in Cleveland, Eric Mangini in New York, Rob Ryan in Oakland, etc. because these former Patriots coaches have strong relationships with Patriots veterans and value their ability to serve as communication bridges between coaches and players. Mangini brought in Matt Chatham, Bobby Hamilton, Tim Dwight and Hank Poteat. As demand for Patriots veterans rises, it becomes harder for the Patriots to retain them.
So I wasn't surprised to see these players leave. No team can have a Champ Bailey-quality player at every position. The Patriots value kickers, but giving in to Vinatieri's salary expectations would have harmed the team at other positions. The Patriots brought two NFL-caliber kickers into training camp, either of whom would have done well at a fraction of what Vinatieri is costing the Colts. Patriots fans can fantasize about keeping every star. But the Patriots need to maximize performance per dollar paid. Their cost-benefit analysis said Vinatieri's price tag was too high. I thought they made the right decision. They smartly refuse to over-pay, so I trust them to make smart personnel moves.
The flip side of other teams craving Patriots is that many Patriot-type players on other teams are willing to accept less to join the Patriots. I bet Jason Taylor would take a pay cut to move to Foxboro.
When other teams are willing to pay a premium for your players and free agents are willing to play for less, it's a recipe for turnover.
3) Obviously the negotiations with former Patriots receiver Deion Branch didn't go well, and the Patriots had to trade their primary pass catcher at the beginning of the season. What do you feel was the turning point in those negotiations and do you think it could have (or should have been) salvaged?
Lavin: I was dead wrong on this. I did not expect Deion to hold out on his team. He was one of my favorite Patriots because he was such a team player and had declared "Foxboro is my home" in response to a question about making more money as a free agent. So I expected he would play out the last year of his contract, and I suspect the Patriots expected the same. His agent said he would if the Patriots would promise not to make him their franchise player, and the Patriots refused. It's likely Branch saw that Brown was the only other veteran at his position and decided he would never have greater leverage to sign a big deal with the Patriots than he had last summer. But the Patriots-again I'm speculating-realized they set a bad precedent in 2005 by giving in to Seymour while he held out, so they felt they needed to be tough with Branch or risk a flood of underpaid Patriots holding out for more money. It's a sad outcome because Branch and the Patriots had such great chemistry. I doubt they could have worked out a long-term agreement because the sides were so far apart on the money and the Patriots wanted to avoid rewarding another player for holding out.
4) When the season started, the reality of the Patriots offense was a unit that had only one receiver who had ever caught a pass during the regular season, Troy Brown. What transpired with the negotiations with Branch obviously affected this situation. Do you think the Patriots had intentions of adding other receivers, and if so why didn't they?
Lavin: A season ago, the Patriots made a strong offer to Derrick Mason (who chose the Ravens for less money because his wife didn't want to move to New England). Had they anticipated losing Branch and Givens, they would have acquired a solid veteran as insurance months before they traded for Gabriel, and Brady would have had time to get in synch with the new receiver. With Caldwell, Jackson, Brown, etc., they had a good stable of potential #2 and #3 receivers. So I think they would have been in good shape, except that they underestimated Branch's greed (as I did too).
Also, given the salary cap, it's risky to acquire a costly #1 receiver when you need to save salary cap room to work out long-term deals with guys like Dan Koppen, Daniel Graham, Asante Samuel and Deion Branch. So I don't think they felt they could afford to acquire a star receiver as long as Branch was still under contract. Branch wasn't even a free agent, yet he got $39 million from Seattle, which also surrendered their #1 draft pick. If that's the market rate for a non-Pro Bowl #1 receiver, I think the Patriots would rather start two #2s and use their savings on other positions.
5) Some former Patriots have talked about the decision to leave, and although they've typically avoided badmouthing the Patriots on their way out of town, some have quietly grumbled about how they were treated in Foxborough to their new teammates. Do you think that has affected the team's ability to recruit or sign free agents?
Lavin: I doubt it. First, many former Pats have only wonderful things to say about the team. Second, the complainers' complaints are things that don't bother Patriot-type players. No smart NFL player (and the Patriots are interested only in the smart ones) believes the Patriots have stupid coaches or executives.
Everyone wants to think they're worth more than they're getting paid (or offered). Smart NFL players understand the salary cap and the way it prevents the best teams from re-signing all their stars. Smart NFL players also understand that the only way to field a Super Bowl-caliber team is to "underpay" on average. Players who value winning over maximizing their income are willing to make that tradeoff. Others aren't. The Patriots don't want players who value money over winning.
Similarly, the Patriots have a deserved reputation as a grueling, competitive team to play for. The NFL's Allen Iversons who think football is about fall Sundays rather than a 365-day-a-year profession will never consider the Patriots because they despise practicing and training as intensely as the Patriots do. Again, that doesn't hurt the Patriots because they don't want that type of player.
The players eager to join the Patriots are competitive, confident, dedicated, passionate, and less concerned about money. Such players understand what the Patriots are about and aren't bothered by the badmouthing.
6) Eric Mangini left Foxborough for a head coaching job with the New York Jets. What has made him so successful so quickly in New York?
Lavin: He's done a great job of copying the Patriots model. From bringing in character guys to focusing on daily improvement to using high draft picks on the trenches rather than skill positions to mixing up his game plans and attacking opponents' weaknesses to using clever motivational gimmicks, he's copied the Belichick model. I expected Nick Saban would do much the same, but Saban doesn't value character in his personnel decisions nearly as much as the Patriots, and he was too severe a disciplinarian (earning himself the name the "Nicktator").
7) If, or when, Tom Brady is no longer leading the Patriots, do you think the team will have the same level of success?
Lavin: As long as Belichick and Pioli are around, the Patriots will remain a championship contender. Belichick will always attract and teach great assistants. And Pioli will do the same for the scouting system.
Brady is a special player, no doubt. His ability to dissect defenses, sense and avoid pressure, and pass precisely are amazing. So too is his passion and his ability to motivate those around him. But every great coach seems to find (or coach) himself a great quarterback. Does the quarterback make the coach look good? To some extent. But a great coach can do wonders for a quarterback, just as a lousy team can make a great quarterback look incompetent. (Just ask anyone drafted by the Lions.)
When the Patriots drafted Brady in Round 6, they rated him higher than Tim Rattay but were also considering Rattay. With Belichick and Weis' coaching (like advice to throw to whoever's open and avoid interceptions rather than look for big plays that often result in turnovers), could Rattay have won three Super Bowls? Unlikely. But I bet the Patriots would have won one or two.
8) Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick have been the subject of much speculation as potential candidates for jobs in other cities. Obviously other teams appreciate what these two have done together. Do you see one or both leaving New England for a job with a team like the New York Giants?
Lavin: No one knows what Belichick's contract situation is. Both Pioli and Belichick profess to find great challenge in trying to maintain success over a long period of time. And in the NFL-which punishes teams for success and where most teams not named "the New England Patriots" have as many good seasons as bad-long-term success is indeed a challenge. They have a supportive owner who doesn't meddle yet offers sound advice. They have great facilities. They have a wonderful relationship with each other. Would they want to start from scratch elsewhere? I doubt it. Pioli turned down $3 million/year from the Seahawks. I believe they want to leave a legacy in New England. But I didn't expect Saban to leave Miami, so what do I know?
9) The Patriots lost a lot of experience when Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, and to a lesser extent Eric Mangini left. Do you think the Patriots had a harder time than they originally anticipated in replacing them with new coordinators?
Lavin: When so much talent walks out the door so quickly, it's hard to regenerate. But there's no greater coach of coaches than Belichick. Witness Eric Mangini's rise from ball boy to potential Coach of the Year in his rookie season. The Patriots went 12-4 this season, so there's still great talent on that assistant coaching staff. Belichick's assistants in Cleveland weren't big names then, but they all are now. That staff was loaded with talent, and they helped each other improve. I imagine much the same is true in New England today. Belichick doesn't hire fools. And he trains assistants better than anyone. Belichick promotes from within, and developing people takes time, whether they're offensive tackles or defensive back coaches. So, I imagine he would answer your question with "It is what it is." He's just trying to get everyone to improve daily. He's not going to hire some hot-shot coordinator to throw out the Patriots system and force players to learn a new playbook. The solid system that's in place is more valuable than hiring a famous play-caller.
10) Do you think the Patriots have enough potential to return to the Super Bowl this year?
Lavin: Absolutely! We'll probably have to beat the Jets, Ravens, Chargers and Saints or Eagles to do it, but we have a legitimate shot. With Wilfork back, Caldwell in synch, Watson and Harrison (hopefully) returning soon, and the potential for Chad Jackson to break out, I like this team's chances against anyone. I also expect our offense will be more explosive in the playoffs as they dig into their bag of tricks. I could see the Patriots losing to the Ravens or Chargers, and there are too many strong AFC teams for any team to feel confident it's headed to the Super Bowl, but I think New England has a better chance than anyone. The AFC playoffs will be fascinating.
James Lavin is the author of Management Secrets of the New England Patriots, an in-depth look at the Patriots organization and how it has achieved it's level of success. Find out more about Lavin's book at www.patriotsbook.com.