Condemning Glamour With Fire: Recruiting Free Agents In 2022 & Adapting To The”Palm Tree” Era

July 23, 2022
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In recruiting pursuits throughout the world of football, whether it’s the rise of NIL and the transfer portal in college football or the prioritization of sunnier cities and larger markets in the NFL, extraneous factors are starting to influence recruiting.

The NFL is coming off a set of offseasons where some of the most successful free agency teams are like Tampa Bay, Miami, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas – i.e., big markets and sunny climates. Places that are attractive to live in are starting to approach the reality of being able to assemble extremely talented superteams potentially.

Why Is This Relevant To Patriots’ Free Agency Recruits?

Despite being well-rounded, we face this change because the current New England roster lacks certain star quality. The Patriots’ free agent success has faltered a bit since the departure of Tom Brady, and the lack of deep playoff runs doesn’t help either. Even in aggressive free agency cycles in 2021 and 2022, the Patriots have stuck with the approach of targeting players that fill their roster needs rather than landing star players.

Meanwhile, they’ve had to watch star players like JC Jackson leave in free agency and watch conference and division rivals get more substantial, with Vegas landing Davante Adams (and several New England players) and Miami landing Tyreek Hill, among others. This is only exacerbated by players and media retroactively diminishing the Patriots and the patented “Patriot Way” based on the last two seasons. This begs the question: what does New England need to do to create a culture conducive to recruiting the best of the best?

Unity, dedication, and a thirst for winning will define the modern-day “Patriot Way” that will attract talent – from the Boston Herald.

Can College Football’s Oklahoma Sooners Provide A Blueprint For New England’s Recruiting Strategy?

When someone thinks of attractive places to live and the flagship locations around the country, most would not have Norman, Oklahoma come to mind. And even for one of the most storied programs in college football history, NIL and the transfer portal came at the Sooners at full force and did everything they could to topple the recruiting ability of the program.

We flashback to right after the 2021 season. With little time for Oklahoma to plan for it, Lincoln Riley executes a move that he had likely been planning under the table for over half the season. He takes a considerable contract to move to sunny LA and the USC Trojans. He brought OU’s starting QB at the time, freshman phenom Caleb Williams, and receiver Mario Williams. Many of Oklahoma’s skill players had entered the transfer portal within a week. Simultaneously, recruits of their prospective class of 2023 were reversing their commitment and instead going to teams and locations where their NIL value would be higher, including USC.

At the time, the program was at a bit of a loss. The sudden realization of the smaller market they were and the potential for sleazy, financially driven moves like this to undermine the decades of history to make had Norman, and the entire future of Sooner recruiting, reeling. For all of about a month, that is. Oklahoma did not take this lying down by any means. Sooner legend and former coach Bob Stoops said it best: “Oklahoma is more than one coach or player”.

In quick succession, the Sooners went on their recruiting spree. They grabbed transfer QB, Dillon Gabriel, from UCF and re-hired their former defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who won multiple national championships with Clemson as head coach. On the offensive side, they grabbed Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, known for his positive and growth minded relationships with players and innovative schemes. This new look for Oklahoma is defined by qualities that the Riley-era team didn’t have – physicality, intensity, and awareness on both sides of the ball.

After OU’s spring game, where they got to show off a bit of their new identity in front of a packed house, undecided members of the class of 2023 got a glimpse of the defining qualities of Sooner football: grit, passion, and pride. After that, Oklahoma gained a flurry of recruits (re-overtaking USC in the class of 2023 rankings), and now, their current look has players that focus on the football side of things over the extraneous factors.

Where Does This All Translate To The Patriots & Their Recruiting Efforts?

A reader may wonder, does any of this translate to recruiting in the NFL and the Patriots? The answer lies in the description of Oklahoma’s new (rather, rediscovered) set of traits. They’re a lot like the Patriot Way. The Patriot way and the motto of #DoYourJob have been about ignoring the panache and focusing on good, old-fashioned football. Currently, the Patriot Way is seen as a weakness of the organization, but it has always been a strength. The key moving forward, however, is to show that strength.

These last couple of seasons have been a bit of a rebuild for New England, as would obviously be expected when replacing the best quarterback of all time, and being led by a young, albeit promising passer. However, the quick upward trajectory of the rebuild still lies in the Patriot way.

The road back to being a destination and a dreaded opponent to play lies in honing and building that culture more vigorously than the first time the dynasty was built. The only thing, after all, that can compete with all the panache and flair of bigger markets, is a refined, entrenched culture driven by the insatiable desire to win. Combined with the fact that Boston is still a fairly big market and is entrenched in a tradition of sports history, passion and excellence, there’s a real potential for a new and improved Patriot Way that re-establishes the allure of Foxborough.

Like the Sooners’ current roster and recruiting pipeline, the goal in New England is to acquire players with the perfect mix of talent and dedication, ones for whom the Patriot way isn’t just bearable. It’s the only way. So, if the Patriot way is already established in New England, how can it be strengthened and adjusted to create this infallible brand in Foxborough, one that is stronger than ever and that allows the organization to be at the top of recruits’ list, be that for free agency or trading?

How Can The Newest Variant Of The Patriot Way Take Shape?

Winning. This may be a bit on-the-nose, but the best way to demonstrate that you’re successfully building a winning culture is simply winning. Of course, this isn’t to say that the system is broken if the Patriots aren’t Super Bowl LVII champs. But, the Patriots should ideally show some improvement from their former selves. Last season, the Patriots improved from 7-9 and no playoff berth to 10-7 with a playoff berth but ended on a sour note with a 30-point loss to Buffalo.

With a number of roster changes and the second-year development of Mac Jones, ideally, the Patriots improve their regular season by a game or two and maybe make the divisional game if not better. If they can do this, the team can vault into the minds of fans and players as a reborn contender.

Harmonization of the coaching staff: In the Patriots coaching staff there are a lot of reasonable minds with a lot of capability and insight. Those combined perspectives certainly help enrich the development of the Patriots’ roster and game plans. However, the lack of clear titles and structure can also be a double-edged sword, and many players may be uncomfortable with that kind of system. Ultimately, while the current system will work in its way, the current team and efforts to recruit new players would be helped by identifying more prominent roles on the team.

Already the flagship leader of the Patriot Way for multiple decades, Bill Belichick leaves little to be desired regarding his head coaching ability. However, if his staff can harmonize, the identity of the team can be even more imposing as a unit.

Allow for a healthy level of fun: One of the more valid criticisms of the Patriot way is the constant stern way practices were conducted. While maintaining the intense general atmosphere throughout the season, allowing for a little bit more frivolity and light moments during practice may be an overall good idea in terms of the mental health of players on the team and their desire to keep chugging along through the Patriot way. In addition, it can aid the overall perception of the organization from a recruiting standpoint.

A moment that comes to mind is in the 2022 Pro Bowl. Mac Jones rattled off a big run, and while he was stopped, he continued to the end zone and, upon reaching, hit the griddy, much to the delight of Patriots fans and the entire Pro Bowl crowd. With an organization and fanbase with high expectations, little moments of frivolity like that can release tension and prevent players from needing to unleash that lighter side after touchdowns, causing their teams 15 yards.

The Bottom Line

The Patriot Way is here to stay and could be the key recruiting vehicle for the Patriots moving forward. By building a honing a unified environment focused on the goal of winning, excelling, and leaving it all on the field, the organization can recruit and retain a batch of players that combine natural talent with the perfect amount of perseverance and dedication.

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