2000s Patriots are NFL's most impressive Dynasty
There has been a “dynasty” in each decade of the NFL’s existence; the 1960s Packers, the 1970s Steelers, the 1980s 49ers, the 1990s Cowboys and the 2000s Patriots. Teams that have dominated the league for an extended period of time, all of them exceptional.
Vince Lombardi’s Packers won 5 championships and the first two Superbowls, leading to the Superbowl trophy bearing the Hall of Fame coach’s name. The ‘70s Steelers have 10 members in the Hall of Fame. The 49ers had the best offensive tandem in the history of the game with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, along with the smartest coach the league has ever seen in Bill Walsh. The Cowboys were the first team ever to win 3 Superbowls in 4 years, and have their own plethora of Hall of Famers including Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Larry Allen.
The 2000s Patriots, however, are the most impressive dynasty of them all.
I realise that this is a difficult sell. After all, the Patriots are more hated than the food servers at fat camp. Hated or not though, the Patriots are sitting atop the NFL mountain.
A Dynasty is Born
In 1994, owner James Orthwein sold the New England Patriots to Robert Kraft, a millionaire businessman and lifelong Patriots fan. This marked the beginning of a monumental turnaround for the franchise that was once unfortunately named the ‘BS Patriots’.
Then in the year 2000, a dynasty was born. Kraft hired Bill Belichick as the new head coach. Weeks later, the new coach and his staff selected the little known Tom Brady, a quarterback from Michigan and the 199th overall pick of the 2000 NFL Draft. Kraft, Belichick and Brady, Boston sports fans’ version of the Holy Trinity, had come together.
The Patriots began a journey that year that has so far culminated in 5 Superbowl appearances, three Superbowl championships and 10 divisional championships in the last twelve years. They were unquestionably the dominant team of the 2000s.
If the Patriots had won all five of those Superbowls, not only would Tom Brady be walking around sporting as much bling as Mr. T, but they would be without doubt, the greatest dynasty of all time too. As it happens, they only have three Lombardi trophies sitting in the cabinet at Gillette Stadium, and I still have some convincing to do. So here goes.
First of all, I want to address “spygate”. In 2007, The Patriots were found to be violating NFL rules by videotaping the New York Jets’ defensive signal calls. It then came out that Belichick had been doing this since he came to the team in 2000. He and the Patriots were very publicly shamed and heavily fined by the league.
A lot of people try and discredit the Patriots’ success by using ‘spygate’ as the illegitimate reason for their success. That argument doesn’t work for me.
The Patriots have a record of 76-20 in the regular season since spygate happened; they went 70-26 in the same period of time before the scandal. If the Patriots fell off a cliff in 2007 and became a mediocre team, then their success could be discredited. The Patriots haters, people like Terrell Suggs and Hines Ward, would have some ammunition. But what actually happened is the opposite. The Patriots have been the best franchise in football since. Brady has actually gotten better since they stopped taping defensive calls.
Critics will point out that the Pats haven’t won a Superbowl since spygate. While that’s true, it still doesn’t prove their point. New England has still managed to play in two Superbowls, a feat in itself, and came as close as you can possibly get to winning it all both times. Were it not for David Tyree’s catch in Superbowl XLII, or Wes Welker’s drop in Superbowl XLVI, the Patriots might have 5 championships instead of 3. Those plays didn’t have anything to do with the Patriots taping the Giants’ play calls. Spygate, frankly, has been about as irrelevant as it can possibly be in factoring into the Patriots on-the-field legacy.
Counting your Superbowls
If you count the Superbowl titles of each dynasty, and use that as the sole indicator of greatness, then the Patriots aren’t the best team ever. The ‘70s Steelers and the ‘80s Niners won 4 titles, while Lombardi’s Packers won 5.
Superbowls alone, however, are not always the most accurate indicator of greatness. It’s just the easiest. The Patriots could have won 5 titles if those two or three plays had turned out different. Every Raiders fan will tell you that New England shouldn’t have even been in Superbowl XXXVI after the infamous ‘tuck rule’ game. Baltimore fans will tell you about Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal in 2011 that prevented them from a shot at the silverware. Chargers fans will tell you that Marlon McCree’s fumble after intercepting Brady in the 2006 playoffs is the reason the Chargers weren’t in Superbowl XLI (even though it was only the divisional round). Tennessee fans speak in anguish about coming up just one yard short of a title in 1999.
Luck often plays a larger hand in such moments than we like to admit as sports fans. Entire legacies can be tied to those moments if you don’t look further than what is in the trophy cabinet. True success needs to be measured over the length of seasons and careers, and not just playoff games; success that can’t be tainted by moments of luck. That kind of success is displayed not just in January, but all the way from season kick-off in September.
Tipping the Cap to the Pats
The problem is that the Patriots don’t stand out against the other dynasties, in the regular season or in the playoffs. The Patriots win record compares pretty similarly to all those other teams over a ten year period or so. They’ve all won plenty of division titles. They’ve all had consistent double digit win seasons. They’ve all had at least three Superbowl titles. They all have players heading for, or already in, Canton. There is nothing on paper to suggest that the New England Patriots are any better than the dynasties of the decades before them. So, what makes them better?
To my mind, it is this: they are the only team to do it in the salary cap era.
The salary cap was introduced in the NFL in 1994. Every team in the league from that moment on had to keep its wage bill under a pre-set total or ‘cap’. It is a rule that keeps teams from collecting too many highly paid players, and is one of the many ways the league tries to maintain as much parity as possible.
Every other NFL dynasty has had the luxury of keeping a group of stars together for an extended period of time. Luxuries like having Jerry Rice and Joe Montana together for 8 straight seasons, or having Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth on offense as well as having the ‘Steel Curtain’ defensive line.
The Patriots haven’t had that luxury. No team in today’s league could carry that many stars on its roster. The salary cap does not allow it. Take, for example, that New England’s 3 Superbowl winning teams which had 7 skill position pro bowlers between them; the Dallas Cowboys early ‘90s champions had 17 by comparison.
Re-Inventing, Again and Again
Because of the structure of today’s NFL, the Pats roster has been a revolving door of players for a decade. Over their twelve years (and counting) of dominance, Belichick has had to adapt the system to fit around the players, constantly reinventing the team and creating a new team ‘identity’.
In 2001 New England won its first ever Superbowl. They did it while cast as the underdog, with a scrappy but unspectacular defense, and no real stars to speak of. That ‘underdog’ label was the first of many identities for this Patriots dynasty.
In 2003, the squad had changed. They won their second Superbowl title with an elite defense (ranked 7th in the league) and a mediocre offense (ranked 17th in the league). That was the era of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Ty Law. Strong defense and strong character became the Patriots’ new identity.
In 2007, the offense exploded. Tom Brady suddenly had weapons to play with in the form of Wes Welker and Randy Moss, and boy did he make it count! That unit scored 589 points in the season, an NFL record that still stands. Brady and Moss both set individual passing (50) and receiving (23) records for touchdowns in a season. New England were suddenly an elite, vertical offense, and statistically the greatest offense of all time. That was their identity.
In 2008, Bernard Pollard collided with Tom Brady’s knee just minutes into the Patriots’ season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. Matt Cassel stepped in, and everyone gave up on the Patriots’ season, except Bill Belichick. He was faced with a situation he was familiar with; winning with your backup quarterback. They ended up going 11-5 with Cassel under centre, which was a special achievement considering what Cassel had done in Kansas City over the past few years. The Patriots were not the team that relied solely on the arm of Brady to win. They garnered a little more respect, and that became a part of their identity.
In 2010, the Patriots no longer had Randy Moss, but were building around Wes Welker and their two rookie tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Defending between the numbers became a priority for opposing defenses, as the Pats reinvented the offense to focus on attacking the middle of the field. That became their identity.
In 2011, the Patriots ranked 2nd on offense and 31se on defense. The offense, without a doubt, carried the team to the Superbowl. They were labelled a one-dimensional team but it didn’t matter; nobody could beat them anyway. One-dimensional was their next identity.
From anonymous underdogs, to elite defense, to historic vertical offense, to a one dimensional passing team, the Patriots have changed more than any team over the course of their dominant decade. No-one else has done it quite like they have.
The Pragmatic Patriots
They didn’t have the best team ever assembled. That accolade probably belongs to the ‘70s Steelers. They haven’t been successful for the longest time; the 49ers were dominant for almost two decades with Joe Montana and Steve Young. Bill Walsh is a better offensive mind than Belichick has been, and Chuck Knoll possibly a better defensive mind. In terms of winning games and winning championships, the Patriots didn’t do anything that hadn’t already been done by the other dynasties.
What sets them apart is that they did it in more difficult circumstances. They morphed and changed their schemes and players, while still balancing under a salary cap, trying desperately to dethrone them. They beat the cap, they’ve never lost that winning touch, and they’ve created a legacy unsurpassed in NFL history.
That is what I believe; and if the Patriots’ next Superbowl victory comes before their next losing season, everyone else will believe it too. What do you think?