JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It’s done. Two straight. Three out of four. The Patriots stand astride the professional football world. But please, don’t embarrass yourself. Don’t even think about invoking the dreaded “D-word.”
The New England Patriots are not a “dynasty.”
Pardon me for being a stickler for details, but as someone who makes his living playing with words, I am dismayed by the casual misuse of the English language implicit in the contention that winning three out four anything in sport constitutes a “dynasty.”
Let’s look, you and me, at just what the Webster’s New World dictionary has to say about the word “dynasty.”
1. “A succession of rulers who are members of the same family.”
2. “The period during which a certain family reigns.”
”Succession of rulers,” huh? Well, let’s see. If we’re talking about the coach, I can only see one “ruler,” Bill Belichick. If we’re talking about the owner, I can only see one “ruler,” Bob Kraft.
Now you might slip a three-in-four champion in under definition two, I suppose. Four years would indeed be the period in question during which a certain family could be said to have reigned. But please, this is by far the weaker concept of “dynasty.”
The Mings. That was a dynasty. The Romanoffs. That was a dy nasty. The Tudors. That was a dy nasty. Four years in any of those cases was but a little burp of history. It has always been understood that a dynasty is something that encompasses centuries or, at least, decades, not just a few years.
Using this guideline, there have only been three North American sports dynasties - the Yankees, Canadiens, and Celtics.
The Yankees began winning pennants in 1921, and from that year until 1964 they won 29 American League pennants (and 20 World Series) in 44 years. After a recession decade, they won American League pennants in 1976-77-78-81. There was another recession, after which they won again in 1996-98-99 and 2000-01-03.
During those 82 years, everything turned over, including their home ballpark. They started off winning in the Polo Grounds and kept on winning in both the old and refurbished Yankee Stadiums. The only constant was the seven letters on the front of the uniform: “New York.”
No American sports team has ever more aptly fit the description of having a “succession of rulers who are members of the same [i.e. Yankee] family.”
The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup 24 times from 1916-93, including 16 in 27 years (1953-79). Again, there was a complete turnover of ownership, management, coaches, and player personnel. But throughout those years there was a viable Canadien mystique. The bleu, blanc, et rouge stood for something special in the world of hockey. They were most certainly a dynasty.
The Celtics were the dominant team in the NBA from 1956-86, and the argument can be made that their era of prominence can be extended as far as 1991. That would make 35 seasons and would clearly fall into the “dynasty” category, since the only constant throughout that span was the presence of Red Auerbach, who began the run as the team’s coach and general manager and ended as more of a CEO emeritus. But as the great names changed from Russell and Cousy to Havlicek and Cowens and then to Bird, McHale, and Parish, the name “Celtics” stood for something majestic and classy in the basketball world.
Football has not produced any such team, for whatever reason. People talk about the Green Bay Packers, but their span of true prominence began in 1960 and ended just eight years later. They won five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls, but then Vince Lombardi left, the team aged, and they fell back into the great middle class of the NFL.
The Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls from 1975-80. The Washington Redskins won it all three times from 1983-92. The San Francisco 49ers won five times from 1982-95. Finally, the Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls, with two different coaches, from 1993-96.
And now we have the Patriots.
With three out of four, what the Patriots have done for themselves is gain a seat at the mythical Council of Football Greats, along with the above-named teams in the Super Bowl era. For the sake of this argument we will leave out the Cleveland Browns of the 1940s and ‘50s, who, from 1946 in the old All-America Football Conference through 1957 in the NFL, made it to a championship game 11 times and won the title seven times. But with a couple of conspicuous exceptions - quarterback Otto Graham and the incomparable Jim Brown - those teams were simply too small, slow, and essentially unathletic to stack up with teams from the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 21st century.
Should we also include the Miami Dolphins, who won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1973 and ‘74, and who, in 1972 (plus the ‘73 Super Bowl) had the only undefeated season in NFL history? Why not? Should we talk about Denver’s repeat Super Bowl champions of 1998 and ‘99? We could, especially since Denver has continued to be a viable contender in the ensuing years.
Anyway, the Patriots have earned a right to be included in that particular discussion.
Just don’t expand that topic to emply the word “dynasty,” because football has never had one. What football has had are “runs” or “eras” or some other word of one’s choice. But to use the word “dynasty” is simply wrong. What’s the use of words if they have no specific meaning? And the meaning of “dynasty” excludes those whose period of true supremacy is but a few years.
By this line of reasoning, there has been one mini-dynasty, that being the 14-year championship run of the 49ers, who at least went through two coaches, successive Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and one essential roster re-tool in a stretch that was also part of the impressive accomplishment of winning 12 regular-season games 11 times from 1981-2001.
Not having any true “dynasties” may very well be to football’s credit. Logic dictates that if the number of players involved is significantly higher than those in other sports, it would be that much more difficult to keep rolling winning rosters over and over the way it is when fewer players are needed. In football you need a whole lot of a whole in order to be relentlessly successful.
So here’s some free advice for the NFL: Rather than phony up “dynasty” teams, football should embrace its lack of them. Just say that in our sport it is just too difficult for a dynasty to exist. Say that we like it that way, we see no need to apologize, and end of story.