FOXBOROUGH — When Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio and the rest of the Patriots’ personnel staff build the roster from season to season, they use extensive research to determine which players they’ll sign and which players they’ll draft.
They have an idea of how each player might perform on the field, and a sense of his personality, but they never really know how the roster will mesh until well into the regular season.
It has to be tested, and how the team survives those tests, the ups and downs of the season — injuries, off-field problems, wins, losses — is shown on a week-to-week basis.
The trials the 2013 Patriots have endured have been well chronicled, and began months ago when receiver Wes Welker departed for Denver in a messy divorce from the team he’d been with for six years. There were multiple surgeries for star tight end Rob Gronkowski, and a murder charge for rising star tight end Aaron Hernandez.
The completely revamped offense was a mess early in the season (more punts than first downs against the Jets in Week 2). Injuries began piling up.
And then there were the holes New England started getting into: 27-21 to the Jets in the third quarter in Week 7; 17-3 at the half against Miami a week later; 24-0 at the half against Denver in November; 26-14 in the fourth quarter to the Browns in December.
As the Patriots persevered, one phrase started coming up again and again around Gillette Stadium: mental toughness.
It’s not something you can see, manufacture, or predict. But getting every player working toward the greater good, to put aside his interests for the interest of the team, to believe that injuries, even to key players, can be overcome and three-touchdown deficits against future Hall of Fame quarterbacks can be erased, are necessary elements for a successful team.
And this Patriots team, perhaps unlike others in recent years — the 2009 team comes to mind — has mental toughness in spades.
The ’09 squad was simply lacking. It didn’t suffer many major injuries until Welker’s torn ACL in the regular-season finale, and it certainly didn’t have to deal with a standout player being arrested in the offseason and charged with a major crime.
But as it went 10-6, including a 2-6 mark on the road, that 2009 group coughed up second-half leads, broke down defensively, and in general just couldn’t hold it together when games were on the line, as evidenced by the fact that all but one of those six losses were by a touchdown or less.
Current Patriots who were on that team agree that the composition of that roster was vastly different than the composition of this year’s team, and it lacked the leadership and wherewithal to positively weather adversity.
That is not an issue with the 2013 roster.
“You’re always trying to find that right chemistry and mix. We’ve had some really good teams, and all of them had different identities. So this year, I think we’ve developed a little bit of our own,” Tom Brady said.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Belichick said of discovering a team’s true identity. “I think it starts the first day of OTAs and the first day of training camp and goes all the way through the season. The chemistry and your team relationships are changing throughout the course of the year. When do you know what it is? I don’t know. I’d say certainly you know a lot more by midseason than you know in May or August or September, because you’ve been through it more.
“You’ve been more battle-tested. You’ve been through more weeks of preparation. You’ve been through more real games, regular-season games. You’ve been through more ups and downs, whatever challenges your team faces over that period of time, which every team faces a number of them. You get a better feel for individually and collectively how they’ll deal with those.
“You see teams that finish at the bottom of the league one year finish at the top of the league the next year. You see teams that finish at the top of the league one year finish at the bottom of the league the next year. That’s because there are so many changes and variables that occur during a football season that until they occur, you just don’t know how it’s going to go.”
Belichick isn’t big on comparisons and rankings, but it’s clear this Patriots team has made an impression on him for the way it has persevered, not just in winning the AFC East, not just in earning a playoff berth, but in earning a bye as one of the top two seeds.
“I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done and how many times they’ve been able to do it. We’ve had a lot of tough, competitive players play here and we’ve had other tough, competitive teams” Belichick said. “I don’t know where one ranks or the other ranks but I certainly think this team has shown examples of that many times. I think we’ll need it — if we’re going to be successful, I think we’re going to need it going forward.”
Brady also sees something special in this group, which hosts the Colts on Saturday night in the first of what the Patriots hope will be three playoff games, the third coming Feb. 2 in Super Bowl XLVIII.
“When you get everyone going in the same direction as a football team, that’s when you’re dangerous,” Brady said. “That’s when everyone believes in one another and everyone’s cheering for one another and everyone’s depending on one another and everyone’s coming through for one another and then you get your chance — boom — you take advantage, and that’s some of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of.”