Patriots and Dynasties

The media seems quite anxious to provide an epitaph for the Patriot dynasty after last night’s 20-13 wild-card loss to Tennessee. Understandable. In today’s click-bait virtual world, it’s harder and harder to make money off of advertising. Declaring that the world is not “on fire” after all is not a hot take that’s going to pay the bills.

Since this site has no advertising (I assume WordPress, which provides the code for this blog, gets some minuscule value out of the metrics generated here – who knows – I don’t track anything myself), I can afford to keep my takes at room temperature. So I’ll start off by writing that the Patriot dynasty could be over. Or maybe it isn’t. It’s not possible, I think, to know.

I’ll pay some homage to the concept that the Patriots have a dynasty. What Bill Belichick and the Patriots have done is perhaps the biggest achievement in American sports history (I don’t know enough about soccer or cricket history to extend the claim). The NFL has a salary cap that prevents the type of talent stockpiling prevalent in other sports, or, for example, the 49ers in the ’80s and early ’90s. It’s not a soft cap, like the NBA’s. It forces teams to make hard decisions.

How would you define a dynasty? I think it requires more than one league title under a specific coach. It requires a year-to-year playoff presence. I could come up with other ideas there, but the most obvious almost-candidate is the Bears, circa 1985. They won only the one title, but had that playoff presence, and a whole host of notable players and dominating performances. If we’re trying to come up with the best single team of all-time, that team is definitely on the short list. But was it a dynasty? Five years in the playoffs, 1-for-3 in the conference championship. A remarkable run and a signature defense, but I’m hesitant to include it in a dynasty list.

What about Indianapolis, before Manning’s injury? That was nine straight playoff appearances, 2-for-3 in the conference championship, at least 10 wins in every season, one title. I’m not sure two dynasties can exist at the same time, and the Patriots beat the Colts in some of those deciding games. Does Manning and the Colts offense belong on a list of great offenses in history? Yes. But, again, I’m hesitant to include it on the dynasty list.

Long story short, here’s a list of considerations:

Broncos, 1996-98, the last team to win two straight Super Bowls – is that enough, given that the team wasn’t nearly as good in the surrounding years?
Cowboys, 1991-96, three Super Bowls – though under two different coaches.
49ers, 1981-90, four Super Bowls.
Steelers, 1972-79, four Super Bowls.
Dolphins, 1970-74, two Super Bowls and appeared in a third, including the undefeated season.
Packers, 1960-67, five championships, including the first two Super Bowls.
Browns, 1946-55, 7-for-10 in league championships (3-for-6 after joining the NFL).

What’s interesting about this list is that, more-or-less, it’s continuous. When one team’s playoff run ends, another begins the following year. That may be coincidence. After the Broncos, the Rams would be next, but that Super Bowl loss after the 2001 season means they fell a little short. Or that could be the post-cap adjustment period (it was instituted in 1994) when teams struggled to understand the new rules.

Now, the Patriots:

2001-2019, 6-3 in Super Bowls, which amounts to more appearances than any other franchise, total. They appeared in the playoffs 17-of-19 seasons. They had a winning record all 19 seasons. Since becoming, in 2008, the only team in the eight-division format ever to go 11-5 and not make the playoffs (this was the season Brady missed with a knee injury), they have won 11 straight division titles. Until this season, they had reached nine straight conference championship games, winning five. Essentially, it’s two dynasties, broken up by the season Brady missed.

If it weren’t for the facts that A) Tom Brady is 42 years old and B) Brady had one of his worst seasons statistically, no one would be all that anxious to write that epitaph.

Can we assume Brady is done? That’s a complicated question. He won’t answer it right now, even if he has a definite idea. The reason is quite simple – Belichick is known for gathering his key staff members the day after the team is eliminated and holding a long meeting. During that meeting, each position group is analyzed thoroughly and a plan is put in place to make that position group a little bit better. Often, the answer is draft priority. Sometimes (like this past draft’s first-round miss on wide receiver N’Keal Harry and subsequent drama with Antonio Brown) the plan fails. But there’s no sentimentality about the meeting. Drew Bledsoe was traded to division rival Buffalo when it was determined that Brady was the best option for the future. Bledsoe isn’t a Hall-of-Famer, but for a long time he wasn’t that far off the pace.

Brady knows that he’ll be discussed in that meeting, and he might not like hearing the results. Belichick will move on if he thinks Brady isn’t going to give the Patriots their best chance of winning a seventh Super Bowl. And I doubt Brady would have it any other way. I think (I don’t know – it’s just my assessment of the man’s insanely competitive nature) if Belichick calls him in a few days and asks him to give it one more year, he’d be delighted. And if not, a very difficult decision about whether to try his arm in another city. His physical skills may be diminished, but there are plenty of teams that would love to have him for a year or two. All the talk about franchise tags and opt-out contracts is immaterial. If he wants to play and Belichick wants him to play, he’ll play.

As for Belichick, he’d laugh at the question. Well, he wouldn’t laugh because he has too much self-control to give you the satisfaction of any kind of reaction. He is both head coach and has full control and authority from owner Robert Kraft to make personnel decisions. He has never been one of those coaches so focused on one side of the ball that he ignores any group of players. He cares just as much about the special team groupings as he cares about the quarterback position. His legacy and eventual enshrinement in Canton are both quite secure. We no longer talk about best ever, we just wonder when he’ll decide he’s had enough. At 67 years old, that may come soon. Or it may not.

Can he win without Brady? Of course he can. Some of the defenses he has put together have been best in the league. He designed an offensive system fit to Brady that worked exceptionally well. When Randy Moss became available, and Belichick realized that Moss had both the talent and the brains to expand that system, all of a sudden that system had that big-play element it lacked before and mostly afterward. He’s designed that offense to use multiple pass-catching tight ends and often none. Sometimes the running backs play a bigger role in the passing game. Sometimes the Patriots are run-first and sometimes they aren’t – often alternating from game to game. It does not belittle Brady’s accomplishments one bit to say that Belichick would still be as good without Brady. Maybe without as many titles. Both men understand that.

There’s no burning desire in Belichick to prove anything other than to approach 2020 as a new season with new challenges. It’s no secret how much he liked Jimmy Garoppolo, and hated having to trade him – holding on as long as he possibly could even though he got less in trade as a result. But that was only because he knew he could adapt his system to Garoppolo’s skills, and that Garoppolo had many of the same qualities that made Brady a great quarterback. Does he have the same in Jarrett Stidham? Probably not, but if he does, that would likely be the end of Brady’s run in New England. Regardless of what happens with Brady, I would be surprised if the Patriots don’t select a quarterback in the upcoming draft. But if you’ve watched New England over the years, it’s exactly when you most expect something that they turn around and go in a different direction.