It will take a while, and some reflection, to put these New England Patriots into historical perspective. The NFL has been around for 97 years, through several eras and leagues, and so there’s no definitive statement to make about where the Patriots rank with the greatest teams of all time — except to say that they’re absolutely in the discussion.
The MMQB looked at the best teams in league history over at least a 12-year period, and here were the interesting findings about where the Patriots of 2001 to 2016 rank with them:
• New England’s regular-season winning percentage of .766 over these 16 seasons is the best of any team in league history in a span of at least 12 years.
• New England has won 14 division titles in those 16 seasons, the highest rate of division/conference titles won by a franchise over that span.
• Including playoff games, no team over a long term has averaged as many wins as New England, 13.8, in a season. That, of course, is helped by the fact that playoffs have expanded. But it’s still an impressive number. The Patriots’ 13.8 wins are a full win better, on average, than San Francisco’s 12.7 wins from 1981 to 1998.
• What makes the long-term greatness of the Patriots unique in league history is that the same coach, Bill Belichick, and quarterback, Tom Brady, have led the team in every season of their 16-year run … and there’s no sign either is going to step away soon. No other coach-quarterback pair has been together for such a length of great play, and that longevity is particularly impressive considering the rate of coaching changes today.
Every year we think the Patriots must be close to the end. Belichick turns 65 in April; he’s said nothing about his future plans, but no one thinks his departure from football will come soon. Watch him on the sideline. Do you ever see stress? You don’t. Maybe there is inside, but the game doesn’t seem to eat him up the way it has others. Bill Walsh retired at 57 after having been talked out of quitting a couple of times in the years before that, and he never returned to the sidelines. Belichick has coached in the NFL for 42 seasons. It’s just hard to see him, at least soon, do anything else.
Brady turns 40 in August, which means his last football game in his 30s was quite possibly the best in his life — the 34-28 overtime win in Super Bowl LI against Atlanta, rebounding from a 25-point, second-half deficit. He always has said (and repeated recently) that he intends to play football into his 40s. Why quit? At 39, Brady had his second-highest passer rating ever, and his touchdown-to-interception differential this season, 35-to-5, was better than Joe Montana had at any age.
That’s the amazing part of this great run. Never do you hear either of these cornerstones talk about being weary of the game, or longing to do something else. Which means the challenge by the Patriots to the legacies of the other great long-term teams of all time will continue.
The most apt comparisons to these Patriots are two teams Belichick has greatly admired: the Cleveland Browns of 1946-69, and the 49ers of 1981-98. Both of those teams transitioned in mid-greatness to stay strong, something the Patriots have not had to do.
In 24 seasons beginning in 1946, Cleveland won eight pro football titles. That includes four titles in the only four seasons of the All-America Football Conference, 1946 to 1949. But that spell in another league should not diminish the greatness of those Browns. When they moved to the NFL in 1950, they opened the season with a 35-10 rout of the defending NFL champion Eagles in Philadelphia. Cleveland played in the NFL Championship Game in each of its first six seasons in the league, winning three times. The Browns continued to be strong until the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, playing in three league championship games from 1957 to 1965 and winning their last title in 1964. They had a winning record in every season but one from 1946 to through ’69. Browns founder and coach Paul Brown remains Belichick’s coaching idol.
In 18 seasons beginning in 1998, San Francisco won five Super Bowls and 13 division titles. The 49ers did it with three coaches (Walsh, George Seifert, Steve Mariucci) and two quarterbacks (Montana and Steve Young). They won 10 or more regular-season games in 16 straight years, the longest streak in NFL history.
In 16 seasons beginning in 2001, New England has won five Super Bowls and 14 division titles. Except for Brady being hurt and missing 15 games in 2008, Brady/Belichick has been a constant.
It’s of course impossible to crown one team over another because of differences in the game and eras. But we can draw a few conclusions.
It’s harder to stay great today because of free agency and the salary cap. As our Robert Klemko reported before the Super Bowl, the Patriots do have the advantage over other contemporary teams in that players will sacrifice money to play for a perennial Super Bowl contender. “I would have played this year for $5,” said defensive end Chris Long, who eschewed more years and money to sign a one-year, $2.3 million deal in New England. “I just wanted to be here.”
That’s a significant edge, but the greatest players aren’t going to stay for cents on the dollar. Adam Vinatieri didn’t. Deion Branch didn’t. Darrelle Revis didn’t. Lawyer Milloy didn’t. More recently, New England feared it would not be able to sign either of its two best front-seven players from 2015, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, and so it traded both in 2016. In a perfect world they’d have kept at least Jones long-term to buttress their pass rush. When Joe Greene and Jack Lambert were drafted by the Steelers, the team had control of their services until the organization didn’t want them anymore. So Pittsburgh hit the draft jackpot and won four Super Bowls and nine division titles in 13 years. That’s what makes the Patriots’ .766 regular-season winning percentage in their 16-year run so impressive in comparison — the Steelers, with much more control over their roster, were .690 over their 13-year run of greatness.
The Patriots have benefited from some mediocre competition. Certainly the Browns of the AAFC days had some cupcakes on the schedule. And this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing for New England, particularly in the AFC East: Are the Patriots just continually fattening up on a bad division, or is the division bad because the Patriots beat the stuffing out of the Bills, Jets and Dolphins every year? Also, the competition on the way to the Super Bowl was probably tougher for San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s than it has been for New England. The Niners had Bill Parcells’ brutish defenses to face during the ’80s, and then they went head-to-head with the Cowboys in the early ’90s and the Packers later in the decade. New England’s records versus their strongest foes since 2001: 14-5 against the Colts, 9-3 against the Steelers, 8-3 against the Ravens.
Societal and cultural factors, from the specter of head trauma and players quitting early to the huge influx of money into the league to the distractions of social media, reinforce how impressive New England’s run has been. Think of what distracts and divides teams these days. Immaturity — the Antonio Brown Facebook broadcast, for instance. Contract issues — Drew Brees’ and Jimmy Graham’s disputes with the Saints definitely affected the team. Early retirements — Chris Borland would have been the Niners’ defensive captain by now. The Patriots aren’t immune to scandal, of course, as the Aaron Hernandez murder investigation and conviction showed. But controversies don’t seem to affect this team. Deflategate aside, what was the biggest issue around the Patriots in 2016? A “Make America Great Again” hat in Brady’s locker? Players know that when they join the Patriots, it’s time to shut up and play football, the way their coach and quarterback do. You get in line, or you go somewhere else.
The coach and quarterback are the most important two factors in whether teams win — period. Niners: Walsh and Montana/Young. Packers: Vince Lombardi/Bart Starr. Oakland: John Madden/Kenny Stabler. Dallas: Tom Landry/Roger Staubach. Steelers: Chuck Noll/Terry Bradshaw (though I won’t argue with Noll/Steel Curtain here; it’s just that they wouldn’t have had the great run without Bradshaw). And so it is fairly comforting for a franchise to have one of the best coaches of all time and one of the best quarterbacks of all time at the top of a team.
Two other factors about the Patriots:
One: The league has twice determined that they cheated, and penalized them stiffly. Spygate in 2007 showed that New England illegally videotaped opposing sidelines, and while it’s debatable how much that helps a team, there’s no question they did it. Deflategate in 2015 was more questionable, and I do not believe the league proved its case that the Patriots slightly deflated the footballs before home games to give Brady an edge. But these things have to be part of the record, the same way it has to be part of the record that the 49ers got dinged for cheating on the cap in the ’90s.
Two: It’s possible (not saying probable; simply possible) that this era’s Patriots will have only two Hall of Fame players—Brady and Vinatieri. And Vinatieri last played for New England 11 years ago. Rob Gronkowski (more likely now after the elections of short-timers Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner), Ty Law, Richard Seymour and others will be considered. But to think a team with as much success as New England would have just two sure-fire Hall of Famers is a tribute to the ownership of Robert Kraft keeping the franchise on an even keel, and to the greatness of Belichick and Brady.