Posted by: Nate | December 4, 2007

A Huge Slice of Humble Pie

The Boston sports scene has been rejuvenated in a big way since the beginning of the decade and has encompassed our three major sports teams (no offense to the Revolution, but most people just don’t care about you). The New England Patriots were the leaders of this trend, starting to rebuild their organization in a team oriented manner many years ago and laying out a blueprint that the other two have followed to a degree. The Pats success has been evident, winners of the 2001, 2003 and 2004 Super Bowls and sitting at an impressive 12-0 this season after escaping Baltimore with a tough win last night.

The Red Sox, after 86 seasons of futility and the devastating exit from the 2003 playoffs, won the World Series in 2004 and again in this 2007 season employing a similar philosophy to the Pats in focusing on the team aspect of the sport.

After being one of the NBA’s most feared and decorated franchises for decades, the Celtics wallowed in futility, mediocrity and lack of focus for many years with only the improbable run to the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals to hang their hats on. In what had to have been a last ditch effort to save his job, GM Danny Ainge pulled off two blockbuster trades to bring perennial All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston for our first round picks and half of last years team. So far, this has paid off as well, as the Celtics have one of the best records in the NBA and the next generation of the “Big Three” has played very unselfishly together.

What brought about this rejuvenation? When did it start and who were the key players in making it happen? It seems clear to me that winning begets winning, and that once the Patriots became so successful, the other major franchises in town looked to their example to re-shape their respective teams into champions as well.

Dating back to 1994, when Robert Kraft bought the Patriots and prevented them from moving to St. Louis the team has not only improved dramatically but it has developed a strategy for continuing to win even within the limitations of the salary cap. His promise to bring a title to New England has been fulfilled several times over, and his commitment to fielding a winning team has played a major role in their success. In 1996 the Pats made a Super Bowl appearance, losing to the Green Bay Packers. After going through several different coaches, including Hall of Fame caliber coach Bill Parcells, the Patriots hired Bill Belichick to be their head coach in 2000 and they haven’t looked back since.

Under Belichick, who had previously been on the New England staff under Parcells in 1996 as an assistant head coach/defensive backs coach, the Patriots have had one losing season. That was his first season at the helm and the 5-11 Patriots record reflects largely on the beginning of a philosophical change that he implemented on the team. It was no longer going to be a team comprised of big name stars and me first attitudes. He has systemically revamped the team image to that of a large family where everyone pitches in and is ready to play any role asked of them. Most famously was when they were introduced for the 2001 Super Bowl as a team instead of individuals, which had been the long-standing trend in the NFL, although there are numerous other examples. Some of the more prominent ones are wide receiver Troy Brown filling in at defensive back when the secondary had been depleted by injuries; Mike Vrabel, one of the starting linebackers, coming in as a tight end and catching touchdown passes; linebacker and 18 year veteran Junior Seau serving as a fullback in goal line situations; and star receiver Randy Moss playing free safety at the end of games to bat down Hail Mary passes. As Belichick has said himself, the only player on this team with only one role is QB Tom Brady, everyone else is ready and willing to do anything asked of them to help the team win.

It is this culture of team first, us against the world mentality brought by Belichick to the Pats and the invaluable support of owner Robert Kraft (monetarily and otherwise) that has led to their growing legend and emerging dynasty. Players are even taking significant pay-cuts in order to play for the Patriots and the chance to win a Super Bowl ring as they recognize that the culture of selflessness and team unity create a winning environment (see Moss, Randy).

The Boston Red Sox, while not operating under a hard salary cap like the Patriots, have been largely successful in recent years due to a similar philosophy of team oriented play and valuing a good team chemistry. The turning point, in my opinion, came when the team decided to hire Theo Epstein as General Manager in November of 2002. He came in with a completely different perspective on player evaluation and what made a winning team from the previous GM and coupled with the new ownership group of Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino and John Henry has completely changed the face of the team. The Red Sox had long employed a strategy of trading prospects for veteran players in an effort to get over the hump and win a World Series. This plan proved to be largely unsuccessful and also served to deplete the minor league system for the team as well, hurting their ability to perennially be a contender.

Under Epstein and Co. this all changed and a commitment to building a strong farm system through the raft mostly has paid off in spades recently. Jonathan Papelbon, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are all products of that farm system with many of them looking to be pieces of the organization for years to come and also huge contributors to their title run this year. In addition to bringing up a crop of young players, Theo has made numerous trades and acquisitions over the years to help bring veteran leadership to this team as well as make it a World Series contender.

Many of these moves were controversial, some didn’t pan out, and other were a rousing success but the bottom line is that Epstein is not afraid to make any move or deal any player if he thinks it will improve the team which is a skill that needs to be commended. In this day and age, complacency won’t win championships. Trading away the franchise player in Nomar Garciaparra in 2004, letting another franchise player and HOF’er in Pedro Martinez walk in free agency and not overpaying for Johnny Damon and letting him sign with NY were some of the more daring and beneficial moves he has made as well as trading for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. All of these players played a role in winning a title for the team in 2004 or 2007 but when their use was up or the price got too high Epstein didn’t bend to the wills of the rabid fan base. Granted, it helps to have the safety net of massive financial resources so that when your moves don’t pay off you can absorb the financial hit (see: JD Drew, Julio Lugo, Eric Gagne, Matt Clement, Wade Miller et al.). That being said, emphasis has been put on developing young, talented players who can be cost controlled as well as making bold moves for veteran leaders in order to shape a cohesive, unified and selfless team and the dividends will continue to pay off. This off-season especially exemplifies that, with the resigning on Curt Schilling and Mike Lowell, arguably at a discounted rate then they could have gotten elsewhere, demonstrates both the team’s willingness to pay for chemistry and leadership as well as the players desire to a be a part of a winner.

With regards to being part of a winner, that is where the Celtics find themselves currently after the trades for veteran All-Stars Garnett and Allen. Combined with franchise player Paul Pierce this threesome immediately made this laughingstock of a team into an instant title contender because of their abilities and leadership on the court and their willingness to take a hit in personal stats and glory for the betterment of a team. All three are at the point in their careers where they are focused on winning a championship and are willing to do whatever it takes to do so. Listening to Pierce’s desires in the off-season as well as recognizing his job had to be on the line after years of “rebuilding”, GM Danny Ainge finally pulled the trigger on the two major deals the team needed to be a contender. With these three leading the team an a cast of talented, although mostly inexperienced players around them, the Celtics look to also be embracing that selfless team first attitude that has proven so successful elsewhere in New England.

The only difference between these three clubs is that while the Sox and Pats were essentially retooled from the top down and that environment of selflessness, patience and unity were preached organizationally, their players remade the Celtics. KG, Pierce and Allen all have the same goals in mind and are at the points in their careers where it isn’t about the money, fame, All-Star appearances but about being on a winning team and they are leading that group accordingly. I am convinced that Doc Rivers (the coach with a losing career record) and Danny Ainge (the GM with the spotty record at best) are more of a hindrance than a support in this goal and that any accolades they receive this season should be largely attributed to the players and their desire to be champions.

It is clear that in New England the focus is on creating a winning team and being unified in that goal from the rookies to the oldest veterans. With this attitude and energy, high caliber players want to be a part of those teams and you can continually sustain winning teams. Avoiding the temptation to create fantasy lineups (looking your way Isaiah…) and to balance stars with role players has been a cornerstone in the revitalization of the sports scene here and we are truly in the midst of some very impressive living history right now. Here’s hoping after a Patriots and Celtics championship we all celebrate the sports trifecta together will a big slice of humble pie.

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Responses

  1. what about the bruins?!


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