The most incredible dynamic of the Patriots win Sunday night was actually not the furious comeback itself. It was that Super Bowl 51 extended the newest benchmark for the longest running success story in NFL history. It means the Patriots have now won Super Bowls with the same coach and quarterback 15 years apart. No other franchise even comes close to that durability with a central cast of characters.
But should history actually look at this as one elongated thread? It’s not really a central cast of characters, just two iconic pieces. Or is it actually three different teams in succession, all with success, merely under the same helmet and jerseys? There was the core that won three in four years ’01-’04, then a relatively different squad that lost to the Giants in ’07 and ’11, and now another iteration that has won two in the last three years. When the Patriots ripped the hearts out of the Falcons almost nothing was consistent with that first incredible night in New Orleans in February ’01. The staff was entirely different. The roster was completely turned over. There were only two familiar faces: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Of course, those are also the two most important cogs in the machine.
It’s an interesting question because we’ve never had this before. No football dynasty has actually turned over its entire roster and staff and still won championships. The Packers of the ’60s had mostly the same pieces during their five titles from ’61-’67. That was only a seven year period. The Steelers of the ’70s were essentially the same team in all four of their Super Bowl wins from ’74-’79. Same with the Cowboys of ’92, ’93, ’95, although they did hire a new head coach for the final ring. The Niners had the most turnover from their first in ’81 to their last in ’89, swapping Jerry Rice for Dwight Clark, Roger Craig for Rickey Patton, Charles Haley for Fred Dean. Because it still had Joe Montana at the helm, we consider it one long-running dynasty, but we don’t add Steve Young’s championship in ’94 to that resume, because at that point even the coach and quarterback had changed.
What is the definition of dynasty? It can’t just be the helmet, because no one connects the dots between Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers and calls it one long singular entity. Must it be under the same coach? Because if so that would mean the ’89 Niners title under George Seifert would be voided. Must it be either the coach or quarterback? If so, then hypothetically the Dolphins Super Bowl appearances in ’82 and ’84 would’ve been connected to their ’72 and ’73 teams, despite being completely different squads (one based on power and defense, the last on Dan Marino’s magical arm), simply because Don Shula was on the sideline.
If we do take the Pats of the last 15 years and consider it one long dynasty, where does it rank? It’s number one in duration, and nothing even comes close. It is simply breath-taking that any club can turn over a roster so consistently, be limited by a salary cap, and draft near the bottom of every round, yet so consistently compete for championships. The best historical comparison is Tom Landry’s Cowboys, who were quarterbacked by Don Meredith, Roger Staubach and Danny White, and made it to NFL and NFC Championship Games consistently over two decades. New England never endures losing seasons, never suffers through non-playoff droughts or Wild Card embarrassments. It is nearly impossible to have this level of winning for this long in this league.
But how will historians look at the Pats 20, 30, 50 years from now? I believe the longevity will be admired, but the individual teams will be marginalized. Here’s why. In ’06, NFL Network launched it’s incredible series, “America’s Game.” NFL Films produced masterworks, taking inside looks at the first 40 Super Bowl winning squads. It had a panel of experts rank the top 20 champions of the Super Bowl era, and only one of the first three Patriots champs made the list: The ’04 team came in at #9. While America’s Game is still produced annually for the winners, NFL Network does not go back and rank them. So we don’t know where NFL historians rate the last eleven years of champs. But we almost never hear these current Patriots ranked among the all-time great teams.
I asked two historians I admire most in the industry to rank the best of the Patriots editions. I allowed them to choose any season, including the ’07 team which went undefeated until losing the Super Bowl to the Giants. Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald has covered every one of these teams (and the Parcells squad in ’96 that lost to the Packers in the Super Bowl). “To begin with, you have to eliminate all the teams that did not win the Super Bowl, including 2007,” Buck says. “Looking at what’s left, I would definitely go with the ’04 team. They had a tenacious defense, Brady, and don’t forget Corey Dillon came in and rushed for 1,635 yards. That’s more rushing yards than the entire team had the year before. Brady had statistically better seasons later on, but this was a very balanced team.”
John McClain has covered the NFL for nearly four decades for the Houston Chronicle, and is a Hall of Fame voter. He says the ’07 squad was the best of the Patriots dynasty even if it lost. “But if I had to pick one from a victory, I’d go back to the team that was a 14-point underdog to the Greatest Show on Turf,” McClain tells me. “They had great linebackers, Richard Seymour, Ty Law, a young Tom Brady. To me, when they won that game on Adam Vinatieri’s field goal, they were loaded on both side of the ball. That first one to me is special, because I thought for sure the Rams would win that game. It put the Patriots and Tom Brady on the map.”
This is the tough part of the Pats historical rankings. The best team of its run coughed it up in the Super Bowl, and having just watched the Falcons do the same, Pats fans should be able to put this into perspective. It’s hard to call this Atlanta team the greatest in franchise history after puking up a 25-point lead. I agree with Buckley, I believe that ’04 team that had a dominant defense with perennial Pro Bowlers, Brady with four years of starting experience, and a powerful run game is the best of the five Lombardi teams. But it will never rank up with the ’72 Dolphins, ’85 Bears, ’78 Steelers or ’89 Niners. And neither McClain nor Buckley mentioned either of the last two Pats winning squads.
This is not the Patriots fault, but an unfortunate reality of the modern NFL. We don’t have historically great winners anymore because the league has no more historically great teams. When I pointed out on my show during the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl there were no great teams in the NFL this year, I was accosted my some listeners. But any team that could look as bad as the Pats in falling behind 28-3, and any team that could be as self-destructive as the Falcons with that lead cannot be considered great. The Pats have been the best of a middling class of NFL teams for years. Since that America’s Game list came out we’ve had 11 more champions. None would crack the top 20, and most likely wouldn’t even make a top 30 list all-time. When the last dynasty, the Cowboys of the ’90s, were wrapping up three in four years there were only 28 teams, while free agency and a salary cap were in their infancies. Today, there’s four additional franchises (meaning 200 more players), plus penalties for overspending, and an ever-sophisticated free agency and draft.
The issue is the league is more watered down and historic greatness is virtually impossible to achieve now. The Seahawks had a good opportunity at a concentrated run of titles with a legendary defense, but had to eventually let parts walk because of escalating salaries. The Patriots depth of talent in ’17, just doesn’t rank near those ’03 and ’04 teams. It shouldn’t much matter to fans in Boston. The Duck Boat parades feel the same in ’17 as they did in ’02 (unless you’re completely jaded and overstuffed with titles). But in terms of long-standing greatness, no matter how much you win these days, it probably will not derive the same admiration down the road. Belichick is actually the greatest roster builder in NFL history, because he’s able to create winners despite never-ending turnover. That same shifting roster also means we will never attach iconic brilliance to any of his specific teams. But he’s found the roadmap to winning in this NFL, and that should be enough.
D.A. hosts 6-10 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.