FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots were frequently labeled cheaters before their latest Super Bowl victory and labeled cheaters afterward. Their quarterback, Tom Brady, has been roasted. Their head coach, Bill Belichick, has been skewered. The entire franchise has often been sullied.
But their locker room has remained constant. One mind. One voice.
This is a valiant feat. Other NFL locker rooms have cracked under much less duress.
How do the Patriots do it? Why have you not heard a single Patriot from that locker room publicly rip the quarterback, rip the coach, rip the franchise? Or toss a teammate into a tub of ice water and watch it posted by another teammate on social media? Or become embroiled in a teammate bullying scandal? Or punch and break their quarterback's jaw smack in the middle of the locker room?
What is it about the Patriots – as they open a defense of their championship against the Pittsburgh Steelers here on Thursday night – that makes their locker room more singular, mature and united?
"We just kind of keep an even keel in our locker room," Patriots safety Patrick Chung said. "We keep a consistent idea of getting your job done. We try not to make it too emotional or too much of anything. [Former nose tackle] Vince Wilfork used to really help it jell, for sure. But we all do it in our own way. We all try to take part in keeping control of it."
Belichick provides clarity of locker room expectations. His assistant coaches add a hammer. Veteran players lead. Conformity is stipulated. Rogue players are instantly and cruelly cut. High-risk attitude players from other teams (including running back Corey Dillon and receiver Randy Moss from past years to current Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount) routinely fall in step here.
One mind. One voice.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch spent four seasons in Arizona, two in Seattle and one in Buffalo, and is now beginning his second season with the Patriots.
"I think the different thing about this locker room from my previous NFL experience is that here you have to understand you have things you need to take care of yourself," Branch said. "I take care of me. I do my role in here. It's just like in a game when a play is over that it is all about the next play. Pick yourself up and make the next play. Control what counts. The coaches put a lot of responsibility on veterans' shoulders. The young guys get in the locker room and see how everyone is acting a certain kind of way and follow suit.
"When you have the right kind of locker room, it's a different feeling. It's sort of easy to describe a bad one. It's kind of hard to describe a good one."
NFL locker rooms can be a combustible mix, a blend of races and religions and personalities that either divide or coalesce. Few in the NFL deny that what happens in these locker rooms, like in practices, often transfers to games.
You play like you practice.
You also often play like you live.
This view, and recent locker room blowups, are causing NFL teams to twirl, to dance with new locker room visions. Is it only the players' domain to run and shape? How much should management and coaches try to influence their locker rooms? Should they attempt to micromanage and control it?
An NFL team that is not asking these kinds of questions and creating clear answers is a team that will crumble and sink this season.
In the Giants' 2012 training camp, Jason Pierre-Paul dumped teammate Prince Amukamara into a tub of ice water as teammates hooted and as then Giants punter Steve Weatherford videotaped and posted it. In November 2013, then Dolphins player Richie Incognito bullied teammate Jonathan Martin in unsavory ways. And this summer, then Jets linebacker IK Enemkpali punched and broke the jaw of quarterback Geno Smith in the Jets locker room.
These three incidents helped put a spotlight on NFL locker rooms, the culture, the environment, what makes a good one, what makes a bad one and what exactly is permissible.
History says the locker room is the players' sphere. Their place of refuge. Theirs to mold.
"Everybody has a different perspective," former NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington said. Arrington played most of his seven-year NFL career in Washington.
"Some locker rooms have cliques," he said. "Some corners are rowdy. Some corners are dignified. Some corners have guys talking about fishing and hunting and the newest bows and arrows. Some corners have guys strictly talking about chicks. Some corners are talking about God and their beliefs. There is not a foolproof plan to make all of that work together. But it boils down to respect and accountability. If you can find a way to get those two things in your locker room, it can work.
"Sean Taylor was doing an interview once and I threw a cream pie in his face. I had no idea his eyes would get irritated from the foam. It did. I apologized profusely for it. He accepted it. I felt bad. But I had hazed before. I had put a hot mix in players' jock straps. I had put water in a guy's helmet, put it in the freezer and when he later reached for his helmet it was all black ice. Some stuff is rite of passage. Some stuff is over the line. I do think guys are getting softer. A little more sensitive. A little more politically correct. I wouldn't say that is a good thing. Or a bad thing. It's a life thing. Today you just have to find ways to govern and manage."
How? By employing security personnel in the locker room? By installing a bevy of cameras?
"I don't think you can police a locker room like that," Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said. "What's next, hallway monitors? Escorts to the bathroom? They're men. It's up to educating them and them doing a better job with that education. You teach them and expect them to be pros. Everyone has squabbles. But knowledge is power.
"Let's be real, football is an edge game. You've got to be kind of an edge person to play it. When you are at a BBQ people may say, 'Let's go in the backyard and shoot hoops.' Or, 'Let's go back there and toss a Frisbee.' Nobody suggests going into the backyard and running full speed and hitting each other as hard as they can. So, this is just a part of it and it surfaces in a variety of ways. You think you've seen a lot in this game, but there is always more that can happen to a football team. You get the right character with the right talent and you have the right locker room."
NFL executives say that creating that combination is an increasing challenge. Some of them view many of today's young players as part of a generation who grew up as especially spoiled athletes. They are incessant me-first personas, executives say. Some NFL general managers rarely visit their locker rooms.
Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is the opposite.
"I don't know who those GMs are, but I grew up in the locker room," Newsome said. "It's not a foreign place for me. I'm probably in our locker room once or twice a week. I do not see players as totally different now. No, they do not listen to the music that I did in the '70s. But every generation has its own music. Their own way. This generation is different in that it has to understand that social media can be the downfall of anything and everyone in the locker room."
Former NFL coach Bill Cowher agrees.
Cowher said that because we live in "a more transparent world" than when he coached (his last season was 2006 with the Steelers), that increased media coverage and social media is highlighting locker room incidents and player behavior that used to occur undetected and would always be handled quietly in house.
Cowher said his strength coach and trainer knew the pulse of his locker room and that remains a blueprint for many NFL teams today. He said the locker room is the players' but it also has to be "ours."
He said a head coach today cannot be successful without knowing the pulse of his locker room.
"I don't think it's anything the head coach needs to take on personally," Cowher said. "But he must have the right dynamics in place. That can be finding leaders in there you can go to. Guys who think like you. Guys who are as competitive as you. They give you that pulse. And then you have to create that trust so they can come to you and know you are going to address things fairly and not just to send a message. I think coaches today really have to do this effectively to be able to address locker room issues in the early stages so that they do not become major issues.
"I think more than anything in these NFL locker rooms of the present and future is that these younger players, the 21- and 22- and 23-year-olds, they have to be respectful of what you are trying to build.
"They may not all agree or even understand, but they have to respect it. That's the thought you must send as a head coach for that locker room. Because all players want three things: Structure, direction and accountability. You do that and you build a winning locker room."