Doug Flutie had watched from afar and was impressed. He appreciated how the Patriots had an uncanny ability to redefine themselves during games.
Then Flutie joined the team for the 2005 season and the firsthand experience reinforced those feelings.
"You'd see it a number of times. It was a close ballgame for a while, then all of a sudden, they're doing different things and they're invincible the rest of the way," Flutie said. "Being there to see it, I think the thing that stood out to me was how Bill [Belichick] and the coaching staff, the guys upstairs, would make the right type of switch at just the right time."
In many ways, that knack for the quick switch has become a trademark of the Patriots under Belichick.
Last Sunday's AFC Championship game was yet another example, specifically on offense.
The Patriots tried a little bit of everything over their first eight possessions. They had four receivers on the field for nine plays. Three receivers lined up for another 11 plays. A more balanced two-receiver, two-tight end package was deployed for eight plays. The team also dabbled with a two-running back set for seven plays, sometimes splitting a fullback out wide as a receiver.
Yet nothing seemed to work with consistency, and the game had reached a critical point midway through the third quarter, the Patriots leading, 14-12, when the coaches went a bit deeper into the playbook. The call was for a personnel pack age that included one receiver, three tight ends, and one running back.
It turned out to be a key alteration, the offense calling on a power running game that took control.
On the first play with three tight ends, Laurence Maroney ripped off an 18-yard run. Three plays later, Maroney ran behind three tight ends for an 11-yard gain. Early in the fourth quarter, Maroney gobbled up 20 yards out of the grouping, which set up the team's final touchdown.
To Flutie, it was classic Patriots football. Even more impressive was that the Patriots had not deployed the personnel package since the sixth week of the season, against the Cowboys.
"They have everything in their arsenal, but to me, knowing when to go to it is the impressive thing," Flutie said, noting that the decisions are usually based on creating an advantageous matchup.
The Patriots' list of impressive in-game switches is a long one this season.
In the regular-season finale against the Giants, the defense had struggled to generate a four-man pass rush against quarterback Eli Manning, so a change to more five- and six-man rushes in the second half turned out to be the key alteration.
When the Colts had early success running the ball against a nickel defense in an early November matchup, the Patriots more aggressively closed down the gaps in the second half by slightly altering their technique.
In the third game of the season, against the Bills, the Patriots had planned to overpower them at the line of scrimmage in the running game. But when the Bills played a diamond front, with linemen covering both guards and the center, the Patriots morphed from a smashmouth style to a spread passing attack.
Those are just a few examples, as players say that ability to switch at a moment's notice is an important part of the team's makeup.
"You have to be able to adjust if you want to win, bottom line," said tight end Benjamin Watson. "You go into a game with one game plan, and then it changes a quarter into the game, or a quarter and a half into the game. We'll be on the sidelines and they'll say, 'We're going to go with this, two tight ends, one tight end, no tight ends,' and that's just how we play. We're used to it, because that's how we practice, so we carry it into the game."
Belichick has noted that the adjustments can occur as early as the first series of the game. ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, the former Broncos offensive lineman, has called the Patriots the best adjustment team in the NFL. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio made the point that preparing for the Patriots is the equivalent of preparing for six offenses because of the constant adjustments.
Steve Sidwell, now retired after a 22-year NFL coaching career spent mostly as a defensive coordinator, believes part of the reason the Patriots' in-game switches are possible is because they have a veteran core of players.
So it's not only that the Patriots' coaches call for an adjustment. It's that they have the personnel to pull it off.
"The difficult thing about making in-game adjustments is if you can do something to where it can be executed during the game without making a mistake," Sidwell said. "That's one of the things about an experienced team. As coaches, you're saying to them, 'Hey, we have to be prepared to make adjustments; we're going to expect you to make adjustments.' I think that's probably one of the reasons the Patriots are good at it. They have a real veteran team. The good teams do things more than one way and expect their guys to be able to know it all, so if one way isn't working, the next way might, and they're able to pull it off."
Flutie felt the Patriots' switches were often seamless because of the preparation that preceded them. "It really starts on the first day of training camp," he said.
Flutie was struck by the detail with which the Patriots operated in their "situational football," so he wasn't surprised to learn that Belichick had placed footballs in a freezer prior to a practice leading up to the chilly AFC Championship game.
"Whether it was the two-minute drill, a last-second field goal and what hash mark they wanted the ball, or how many seconds were left, it was very meticulous," he said. "It was the most detailed of any place I had been."
That, in turn, has produced a team with a hard-to-miss adaptable approach.
"It made you be prepared for everything," Flutie said. "I think that helped players ultimately adjust a bit easier to what was happening on the field."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.