When Robert Kraft purchased the Patriots in January 1994, his mind was approximately 2,700 miles away. That’s where the vision for what kind of franchise he wanted to own resided as reality.
Kraft wanted to model — or remodel — the Patriots after the San Francisco 49ers, then the league’s supermodel franchise. Soon after Kraft bought the Patriots, then the Route 1 runts of the Boston sports scene, he took a trip to the 49ers’ practice facility to glean from their greatness. Kraft’s first season as an NFL owner would coincide with the last of San Francisco’s five Super Bowl titles in 14 seasons.
“I remember going out to the 49ers’ headquarters and meeting with Carmen Policy and the whole crew, Eddie DeBartolo Jr.,” said Kraft, who assumed ownership of a franchise that had gone 19-61 the previous four seasons. “You know they were on their way to their fifth Super Bowl title in 14 years and had transitioned from what many people thought was the greatest quarterback in the NFL, Joe Montana, to Steve Young. It was an amazing decade-and-a-half run of dominance.
“As a season ticket-holder driving to the games with my boys, I remembered talking on the ride home about how great it would be to have their kind of success.”
Consider Kraft’s vision fulfilled. As the Patriots face the current edition of the 49ers on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, they’re now the latter-day visage of NFL excellence, enjoying a decade-plus run of success rivaled only by those 49ers.
The student has become the tenured professor.
The Patriots (10-3) have won 10 games for the 10th consecutive season. Only the 49ers (16 straight seasons from 1983 to 1998) have accomplished that. The Bill Belichick and Tom Brady Patriots are in the midst of their 12th straight winning season. Only the Bill Walsh and Joe Montana handoff to George Seifert and Steve Young 49ers, and Tom Landry’s Cowboys, have authored more consecutive winning seasons — 16.
The Patriots have gone to five Super Bowls in the last 11 seasons and looked primed for their fourth Super Bowl title in 12 seasons. My estimable colleague, Dan Shaughnessy, is checking the tire pressure on the Duck Boats as we speak.
Sometimes lost in the Super Bowl-or-bust daily discourse, incessant debate about the worthiness of the defense and omnipresent countdown clock on Brady’s greatness, is that the paradigm of professional football is in our own backyard, thanks to Kraft.
For Patriots fans who remember the days of coaches Rod Rust and Dick MacPherson, when Patriots football was synonymous with ineptitude, it’s like watching the ugly duckling become a golden goose.
The Patriots have become the team that Brady grew up in the Bay Area rooting for, a franchise where winning is mass manufactured. He is his boyhood idol, Montana. Belichick has the same winning edge that Walsh did.
“When I walked into that 49ers building you could just feel the championship feeling there,” said Kraft. “I do remember going to their offices and meeting with them and feeling that special buzz that you get when you’re in a great environment. People know when you walk into our building that it’s very serious and very important business.”
Kraft said the biggest lesson he learned from his meeting with the 49ers 18 years ago was the value of two positions — coach and quarterback.
The key to the 49ers’ sustained success was being able to find worthy heirs at both of those pivotal positions. Seifert was Walsh’s hand-picked successor in 1989. The greatest pass in 49er history isn’t Montana to Dwight Clark. It’s Montana to Young, the baton passed from one Hall of Fame quarterback to another.
Does Kraft think about a succession plan for Brady?
“I think any intelligent businessman is always thinking of everything,” said Kraft. “But I’m confident he has more good years left. We know this is a game of so much physical wear and tear. Then there are accidents you can’t foresee or control, but as far as his playing ability. I think he’s just great.”
In many ways, the Patriots’ success — the team is 160-51 (.758) since 2001, including playoffs — is more impressive than that of the 49ers because it has come entirely in an era of self-mandated NFL parity with the salary cap, which was instituted in 1994.
They say you can’t put a price on winning. Kraft disagrees to a degree. He has maintained that winning breeds brand equity.
“Given the system we have and the success that Bill has had, I think that players do want to come here,” said Kraft. “I don’t think it’s about getting the last dollar. I think they come here and want to be part of something special. That makes me pretty proud.”
But that success has not always been enough to keep players here or happy. That was the case with Ty Law, Adam Vinatieri, Asante Samuel, and Randy Moss, who returns with the 49ers as a prodigal pass catcher.
The latest test of the brand is Wes Welker, who is playing under the one-year, $9.515 million franchise tag.
Will Welker run a comeback route to the Patriots for 2013, either via another dreaded franchise tag or the extension he deserves?
“We definitely want him here,” said Kraft. “I believe he wants to be here. He was here this year. He’s an outstanding young man. Pound for pound or inch for inch they don’t get much better than Wes.
“I hope and believe that both sides want this to get done. Right now is not the time. That isn’t the focus, but it’s something I think both sides would like to see happen. It requires both sides to be wise.”
Kraft was wise to pattern his organization after the 49ers. Now, if he wants to take a trip to the NFL’s model franchise, he just drives to work.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the number of times the Patriots have played in the Super Bowl in the last 11 years. The Patriots have played in five Super Bowls in the last 11 years.