MINNEAPOLIS -- The first epoch of this perpetual Patriots dynasty was built around defense. That's where the team's best players resided, where continuity was greatest, where resources were spent.
Organizational priorities shifted by 2007. And in the Gronk era, Bill Belichick's teams have consistently featured explosive offenses and (mostly) good-enough defenses defined by incredible roster turnover and one steady captain leading the way.
"I don't think anybody understands what Devin McCourty does for this team. At times, I don't think I understand how much Devin does for this team," McCourty's position coach, Steve Belichick, told me this week.
It'd be an overstatement to call McCourty Tom Brady's counterpart on New England's defense, but their roles are more similar than you think. Nearly every Patriots defender asked about McCourty referred to him as the "quarterback of the defense," the man who knows their roles and erases their mistakes before they happen, the unquestioned leader of their group.
Like Brady, McCourty is lauded for his preparation and for how he applies his film room work to split-second adjustments before the snap that can save an entire game. Bill Belichick noted that only one other Patriot (Jerod Mayo) earned the right to be a captain in his second season during Belichick's tenure. Both Belichick and son shower praise on McCourty like he's a member of the family, albeit one with all the football talent they lacked. It is not an overstatement to say McCourty is as respected and revered inside the building as any Patriots defender in the Belichick era.
"It's sad how little recognition McCourty] gets because he's so, so good," Steve Belichick said. "People talk about the moving parts of the [Patriots defense. Devin is not one of them. That speaks for itself. He does so much for the other 10 -- really 15 -- guys on this defense that nobody sees."
And there has been an incredible amount of moving parts, especially this season:
This second wave of the Patriots' run truly started in 2010 when New England drafted McCourty and Rob Gronkowski with their first two picks. The team has earned a bye in the playoffs in the eight seasons since, a run doubling the previous record, with McCourty evolving into Belichick's torchbearer for how things should be done on an ever-morphing defense.
That has been an especially necessary trait this season, with seven key contributors on defense joining the team in 2017. Many of them, like veteran linebacker James Harrison, defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois and linebacker Eric Lee joined the team during the season. Others were afterthoughts, like undrafted rookie defensive tackle Adam Butler, former Bengals special teamer Marquis Flowers and fourth-round defensive end Deatrich Wise.
There are undeniably talented players throughout the Patriots' secondary, and defensive end Trey Flowers is incredibly underrated, but this is perhaps the motliest crew on defense Belichick has ever taken to a Super Bowl. This season's roster has featured a whopping 24 players who were 2017 free-agent signings, undrafted rookies or added via trade. Half of those guys came on defense, including three current starters (CB Stephon Gilmore, DT Lawrence Guy and Lee). Cobbling together a Super Bowl defense like this is not so different than the 2001 Patriots offense, a group that made key plays and let the other side of the ball win games.
"When [Devin] speaks, people listen," Slater said. "It's hard to put into words what he means to this football team."
Let's try anyhow.
The first quality McCourty's coaches and teammates credit is his intelligence. Gilmore said this plays out during the week of preparation for the game, but especially on the field when reacting to an opposition's formation and shifts. Cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer has been with McCourty since he was drafted in 2010 as a cornerback, and he marvels at how the 30-year-old knows all 11 players' assignments. That helps McCourty get teammates aligned in the right spots, and the safety keys everyone to certain tendencies during the game.
"You learn more every season," McCourty explained. "You become more confident in what you are doing, so it allows you to be more vocal. You know what guys need to hear, you know what certain guys don't need to hear."
McCourty credits a mental rolodex of situations going back eight seasons; he has the ability to quickly call up solutions when the Pats' defense gets in uncomfortable spots. Fellow safety Patrick Chung said that McCourty's knowledge ultimately allows his teammates to make plays. Chung also noted that much of his communication with McCourty is now non-verbal, with a certain look before a play saying enough. With younger players, McCourty is more vocal.
"There's no stat on NFL.com for talking and communicating, but I think he would rank pretty high," Steve Belichick said.
The second quality mentioned is McCourty's versatility. He is the glue to the defense in large part because he can handle so many different roles.
"He does a tremendous job in every area," Bill Belichick said. "He plays cornerback, strong safety, free safety. He gets involved with every aspect of the kicking game and coverage units. He has a lot of different responsibilities, working with linebackers, corners and, of course, safeties. I can't say enough about the job he's done this year and every year."
Yes, so much focus tends to be placed on what's new with each individual year's Patriots roster, something I've written about plenty in Super Bowls past. But the true nucleus of New England's reign lies in the franchise pillars on each unit -- guys like McCourty who establish continuity on an ever-changing roster.
McCourty was uncomfortable talking about himself during the week, telling me "don't believe" all the nice things his coaches and teammates say about him. That sort of praise-deflecting attitude fits right in with Belichick. McCourty has been around his coach so long that his Patriots ways seep into other parts of his life.
"My wife gets mad at me all the time when I hit her with some Bill phrases at home and she doesn't want to hear it," McCourty said.
While speaking Belichickian to your wife is a rare mental error from McCourty, his noted work ethic should help rectify any problems on the homefront. There are hard workers throughout every team, but when multiple Belichicks say that no one does more behind the scenes than McCourty, you tend to believe them.
That's what a lot of the appreciation for McCourty comes down to: trust. The trust he engenders in his teammates and the trust from the rest of us mortals that he's as good as everyone says. Steve Belichick is right: Few fans or media members -- including yours truly -- can fully appreciate the value of a deep safety, in part because he's often not on the television screen and no one knows his assignment on each play. It's a position, not unlike quarterback, where so much of the work is done before the snap.
"He's an outstanding player and even a better person, better teammate," Bill Belichick said. "I couldn't be prouder to coach a player than Devin McCourty -- he's right at the top of the list."