NFL: Pro Bowl-Play Football Celebrity Flag Game

Former Patriots great Willie McGinest, shown during the Play Football Celebrity Flag Game at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex last week, says the Pats’ team-first mentality is the reason for its long-term success, which started 17 years ago, on Feb. 3, 2002.

ATLANTA — It doesn’t take much prodding to get Willie McGinest to talk about the first one.

The linebacker/defensive end won three Super Bowls as a New England Patriots linebacker, but it’s the first one, the 20-17 win over the Rams in 2002, that stands out.

He’s been retired for 10 years now, but in his role as an analyst for the NFL Network, he can see in the current Patriots squad, traits and traditions that began in the 2001 season.

“When 9/11 happened, that sparked a whole thing for us as a team. That’s why they still run out together as one today. Our mantra was: If we were going to win, we were going to have to do it together as one, kind of like our country came together as one after that devastating act happened,” he said. “We thought of ourselves as America’s team because we were the Patriots, and our colors. Coming into the season it brought us together as a team and we bonded. We played a certain way together, team versus individualism. For us that’s where everything came together.”

Bill Belichick continued to foster that team-first approach. McGinest said the coach’s greatest strength is convincing players to continue to buy into that concept during his entire run in New England.

“The toughest thing in any professional sport is to get a group of men to buy into the team concept, putting team first over individualism. Knowing that your role may change every week, knowing that the game plan may change every week,” he said. “This staff is the best. They do an incredible job at evaluating talent and putting them in certain positions and understanding how they need to build a game plan around those players. Most coaches and coordinators are stubborn. ‘This is how I’m doing it and players have to adapt.’ In New England they adapt the system to the people they have playing in the uniform. That’s special.”

McGinest said because of that, players are less likely to earn individual honors and more likely to earn wins.

“We suffer a little in terms of accolades because our numbers aren’t what people want to see. Our numbers didn’t matter. Our stats didn’t matter. Winning games was the only thing that mattered to us,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything for the world, I know the guys in the locker room wouldn’t change anything. It’s about winning. There’s a lot of players and teams with great stats. They’re at home.”

McGinest often still refers to the current Patriots team as “we” as his connection outlasts retirement. He, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown and Rodney Harrison all met for dinner in Atlanta early in the week to catch up and reminisce.

“We had a foundation of men that Bill chose to keep when they came there to build this team off of. You had to have the personality, the mental toughness. He wanted smart guys,” McGinest said. “We started something in New England with guys that were there before him with certain type of work ethic and camaraderie and holding each other accountable. Now that’s just how it is. Tom has taken all those things that existed to a whole other level. I’m not surprised he’s still performing and still going strong.”