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Antonio Brown, The New England Patriots, And Who’s To Blame When Things Go Bad At Work

Let’s just get this out of the way: I’m sick of talking about Antonio Brown. Over it. Done. Bored to death with his antics and his self-destructive ways.

But he just won’t go away. And he’s upped the ante by signing with one of my favorite organizations: The New England Patriots.

Since the Cleveland Browns took less than one week to answer my questions about whether or not head coach Freddie Kitchens could guide his team to believe in their potential, the Patriots are now the most bizarre chemistry experiment in professional sports.

It feels odd just typing that sentence; for 20 years, the Patriots have been the sporting equivalent of bran flakes—consistent and powerful, if a little bland. Under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriot Way has become a cliché, shorthand for the pursuit of excellence in all things.

Which is why so many people are excitedly turning their eyes to Foxborough. After two decades of outsmarting everyone else in the NFL, a lot of fans are ready to see one of New England’s “smart” moves backfire.

They’re anxious to see Brown blow up the Patriots’ locker room.

My disgust over the persistent Patriots hate aside, I’m not so sure that’s going to happen. I’ve studied the Patriots for years now, eager to learn what I can about their culture and their ability to create such consistently great teams. What I’ve learned is the secret that so many other NFL teams seem to ignore, and—assuming the Brown experiment works—it’s what will keep things ship-shape in Massachusetts this year.

The players won’t put up with Brown’s BS.

Sure, you hear a lot about Belichick and his iron fist, but the real power of the Patriots culture is found within the locker room. There is a higher level of expectation and accountability there that will either hold Brown in check or shove him out the door. They turn an unyielding light on one another’s performance, whether you’re a scrub or you’re Tom-Freaking-Brady.

We doubted them in 2004 when they signed Corey Dillon. We doubted them when they traded for Randy Moss. Heck, even a year ago, when they signed the troubled Josh Gordon, everyone said it wouldn’t work.

Until it did.

Dillon got a Super Bowl ring. So did Gordon. Moss was one game away from one (and the NFL’s second perfect season). We’ve watched as an endless cycle of unknowns, retreads, and untouchables have trudged their way North to the land of champions, and we’ve watched over and over again as those leftovers joined the pantheon of legends.

It’s all because of the players. They put the team first. They demand excellence from one another. They have a low tolerance for disruptive or destructive behavior—a malcontent gets one warning, and if the message doesn’t connect, players aren’t afraid to march to the coaching staff and front office to request that malcontent’s release.

So, Antonio Brown’s leash is not only short, it’s held by his teammates.

I love this because so many cultures don’t hold guys like Brown accountable. They look the other way or privately grumble, and even if someone does choose to step up, there’s not always a unified group of guys standing behind him. In many locker rooms—in all sports—the headaches are an issue for management, or the coaches, or the owner.

Problems with peers are almost always someone else’s problem.

Maybe you’re nodding your head at that last statement. Maybe you’ve been part of a culture where no one is willing to step up to the plate and bang the drum for excellence, or you’ve born witness to a co-worker creating all kinds of drama without so much as a reprimand.

Here’s my question: what did you do to combat it?

I’m not asking if you were a snitch, or office cop, or that teammate who keeps a running record of every pet peeve committed around the kitchenette.

Instead, I’m asking if you worked hard with your peers to create a culture of excellence that not only could withstand those kinds of antics, but wouldn’t put up with them in the first place?

Because that’s how a culture goes bad—the people allow it. Too often, we’re unwilling to fight for the one thing that can make the most difference in our working lives. The Patriots don’t have that problem; they’re willing to go to the mat to preserve their standard of excellence, and as a result, they keep destroying records and collecting rings.

We’ve all had a bad teammate, and it’s easy to point the finger at them when the culture takes a turn for the worse. But the rest of the team owns a share of the blame as well—and the best teams own that responsibility and make sure it’s felt by everyone.

Maybe Antonio Brown upends the Patriot dynasty—maybe he’s finally the bridge too far that undoes everything New England’s built. I’m watching with rapt attention, but if I’m being honest, I don’t think it’s likely. The team is simply too strong, too invested in their culture to let one man bring them all down.

I wonder, is that true for your team?

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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