Don't get confused- this is the National Football League where everyone works hard. Everyone goes to the office, sits through meetings, practices on the field, eats (mostly) right, and competes on Sunday.
But there's two types of work in the NFL: the work that's given and the work that is sought after.
At this point in the season, the teams are filled with players that crave work in the latter category; it's why they're successful and it's why the same usual suspects have made the playoff season an expectation. It's why teams like the Buccaneers and the Raiders try to acquire veterans like Logan Mankins and Justin Tuck. It's the hunt for leadership and the inherent desire to do more than what is given- and to instill that passion through the entire roster.
Bill Belichick's A Football Life aired back in 2011, offering a glimpse into the Patriots 2009 season. It was unprecedented access to the best coach in football and it showed the type of players he wants on his team.
"I just can't get them to play the way they need to," Belichick stated after a primetime 38-17 loss to the Saints in 2009.
And at the root, the issue wasn't with Belichick forcing his defiant players to perform in a certain fashion; it was about how the players themselves wanted to play. Whether it was Laurence Maroney or Adalius Thomas, the Patriots had players that either didn't buy into the message of the locker room, or thought themselves above it.
After seasons of a self-regulated roster, where leaders like Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi ensured the way they need to play was the only option on-and-off the field, Belichick found himself with a roster that could no longer sustain itself.
Belichick opened up a yard sale on the roster in order to purge itself of the less savory players. Over the next few years, there were players who bought into the system, but they couldn't perform at the high level required on the field, and some who weren't a fit- yet the team continued to produce and the team inched closer to success.
This year, it seems as if the roster turnover has been completed. This has been described as one of the best locker rooms the media has seen in a while- and it's a roster that loves to work.
You've been seeing literature about individuals all season, even if it didn't connect. It started with Tom Brady in training camp, working after practice with Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis. It's about Brady's offseason, learning how to be more mobile in the pocket, to give himself another element to keep him at the top of the league.
It's about Belichick and Brady not taking anything less than perfection as an option, even if it's just about blocking during the Pro Bowl. It's their long hours together, their film review, and their desire to win.
"The best player has to be the hardest-working player, and that's what you have with Tom Brady," [former safety Rodney Harrison] said. "They call him a pretty boy, with the mansions and the model wife, but he deserves those things. At the same time, no one works harder, or longer, than Belichick."
It's with Rob Gronkowski, never giving up on himself or the team, rehabilitating from injury after injury after injury. His fight to get back on the field, and his literal shedding of padding to declare his return to the league. While he might have a party animal persona, he will always put the team and his career first.
"He's one of the hardest working guys I've ever been around," says former offensive coordinator, and current Texans head coach, Bill O'Brien. And now Gronk is back on the top of the league.
It's with Vince Wilfork, also returning from injury, and how he shows the rest of the locker room how they need to prepare in order to be in the best possible shape for game day.
"I think first and foremost understanding Vince and what a great player he is and a great leader and a great work ethic that he has," [defensive coordinator Matt Patricia] said earlier in December. "I think everything that Vince does starts at the beginning of the week and builds towards Sunday.
"His preparation week-in, week-out and the way that he approaches and the mannerism and the professional in which he attacks the game is outstanding. It’s a great example for the rest of our players, defensively and offensively, to look at and it’s really something that’s great from my standpoint to be able to point to and say ‘Hey, this is how you work; this is how you get better.’"
It's with Darrelle Revis, coming over from teams with losing traditions, becoming the final variable for the calculus that is a Belichick defense. Revis has the competitive spirit that resounds throughout the locker room and he is known to never take a practice play off, never mind a snap in the actual game- an ideal counter to Brady's dream of offensive perfection.
Revis described his drive for greatness as "a sickness about just trying to be the best, trying to be the best at our craft and trying to do anything we can to just be awesome and be elite."
It's a quality that is shared with everyone on the roster, everyone on the coaching staff, and everyone in the front office.
It's a sickness, a passion, and a drive to reach a point where there's no doubt that the Patriots are the hardest working players on the field. Belichick finally has the players that can play the way they need to play.
And in reality, these are players that would work hard whether or not Belichick even asked.