FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots split up after practice Wednesday, headed to weddings and hometowns and old college stomping grounds for a few off days during their bye week, leaving behind the rest of New England with a fascinating juxtaposition.
This time last year, the Patriots were surrounded — externally, at least — by a sky-is-falling sentiment precipitated by a 2-2 start and an ugly loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on “Monday Night Football.” Some pundits declared Tom Brady finished, the dynasty over.
“Everyone was saying we were done at this point,” Jimmy Garoppolo said. “Look what happened.”
Everyone knows what happened. New England is 16-2 since the Kansas City debacle. That includes a 10-2 tear to finish 2014, another Super Bowl title, and a 3-0 mark this season. It doesn’t include Brady’s other win, the one against the NFL in court.
The hot start, with a franchise-record 119 points through three games, has led some to the opposite end of the speculation spectrum, to chatter about a potential run at perfection and comparisons with the 2007 team — an unthinkable conversation a year ago.
What lessons can be gleaned from the drastic change in performance and perception? Taken as a whole from the players’ perspective, the past year underscores the importance of a goal high-level athletes share: maintaining a degree of emotional stability, not getting too high with the highs or low with the lows.
“Don’t believe the hype. Either way,” said Matthew Slater. “Last year we were written off. This year everybody is ready to say what we’re going to do — this, that, and the other thing.
“Three-and-0 isn’t going to get you anything in this league. The ship can turn quickly if we don’t do what we need to do. We need to keep our focus on one game at a time and take it from there.”
That one-game-at-a-time mantra is a favorite for the Patriots, and it is largely written off as cliché. But there is legitimacy to the approach, according to Adam Naylor, a Greater Boston sports psychology consultant who works with Northeastern student-athletes, among others at the Olympic, professional, and collegiate levels.
Naylor describes his work as teaching athletes to have perspective. They care about the score, of course, but they are not scorekeepers. Instead of getting caught up in the final tally, they should focus on how they got there.
“It’s always easier to go to the tangible as a human being; outcomes are tangible,” Naylor said. “Athletes learn how to make those other little things tangible.
“It’s this idea of learning to celebrate something other than the outcome. You feel [happy after a win], but it’s not worth celebrating until the season is over. ‘Yeah, we won, cool.’ Acknowledge and move on.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. Naylor — through his private practice, Telos SPC — was in Virginia this week giving lectures to college coaches and athletes. After one talk, an attendee approached him to say he sounded just like Bill Belichick. The observation didn’t come as a surprise.
“This is how Belichick talks: ‘On to the next game. We played well,’ ” Naylor said. “He’s a grump and a jerk about it most of the time, but he’s saying all the right stuff. He practices what he preaches. He models what he wants to see.”
Belichick’s mind-set seems to trickle down to his players.
Here’s Naylor: “That’s really the art of it, learning what’s truly a success or failure. It sounds so trite, and I think people discount it. But if you . . . care about those things, you win when you’re supposed to win.”
And here’s Patriots tackle Nate Solder talking about how he planned on closely examining his footwork and hand placement: “I’m going to watch film from the last couple of weeks objectively. I’m going to know if I didn’t do something right, and I’m going to have to work on those things. If I overlook those things and say, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter because we won,’ then you’re missing the point because those things can bite you later.”
Learning to think this way is a process, Naylor said. It’s natural to be excited about wins and bummed about losses. To remove oneself from that emotional level of reacting requires a certain type of maturity.
How one acquires that maturity varies from athlete to athlete.
Slater acknowledged it was “definitely tough,” but the longer he played, the more he figured it out. Now it’s his job to help the younger players learn to do so.
Garoppolo called it “mental toughness,” which he said Belichick instilled in the team via, well, its physical counterpart.
“A huge thing is in practice, he always makes the conditions, the situations, whatever it may be, harder than they’re going to be in the game,” said Garoppolo. “You get to the game then, I think that’s part of the mental toughness — you’re used to it. You’ve been there, done that.”
Then there’s veteran lineman Alan Branch, who took a more hands-off approach.
“They say, ‘Man plans, and God laughs,’ ” Branch said. “You can jump to any conclusion you want. That doesn’t mean it’ll turn into reality.”
To that end, the Patriots are wholly downplaying any suggestions that this team will approach the accomplishments of the 2007 team, which went 18-0 until it lost in the Super Bowl. For as much as the Patriots talk about tuning out outside voices, several players reacted with an eye roll that suggested, yes, they’ve heard the comparisons, and yes, it’s a little early for that.
“It’s craziness,” Solder said.
And if the last 12 months have taught them anything, it’s that circumstances can change in a hurry. So for now they’ll enjoy a little time off, then think about Dallas.
“You have to let people talk,” Garoppolo said. “It’s a good thing that they’re excited — that’s definitely a positive, it’s a good problem to have. It’s just our job to let it go in one ear and out the other and do our thing.”