ATLANTA — The NFL has had other dynasties — the Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the ’70s, the 49ers of the ’80s, the Cowboys of the ’70s and ’90s.
“Nothing like this,” Michael Irvin, a three-time Super Bowl winner with the Cowboys, said of the 21st-century Patriots. “This is most definitely a new level of dynasty, and it’s going to change forever what we deem a dynasty.”
The Patriots’ reign over the NFL is now in its 18th year, and their list of accomplishments is as jarring as it is inspiring.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are in their ninth Super Bowl together. Just one player, Mike Lodish, has six, and no other coach has that many. The Patriots own almost all of the records: most Super Bowl berths (11), consecutive division titles (10), consecutive appearances in the conference championship (eight). Another title Sunday in the Super Bowl would give them six Lombardi Trophies, tying the Steelers for the most all time.
“I don’t think in our lifetime we’re ever going to see this again,” said former Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, once a nemesis of the Patriots. “What these guys are doing is that special. You knew they were going to play for a while, but not this long. This is what you call a true dynasty.”
Brady and Belichick won when they were young. They won when they were established. And they’re still winning when they’re old, making four Super Bowls out of five years at ages when most players and coaches have long retired.
“Brady’s had two separate Hall of Fame careers. I mean, it’s insane,” said former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who is calling Sunday’s game for CBS. “He’s literally playing in the AFC Championship 13 out of 17 years. That’s not even a real stat, that’s a Madden-playing type of thing. I just want people to appreciate how lucky it is to watch this.”
There has been talk this past week at the Super Bowl that the Patriots are not only the greatest NFL dynasty of all time, but the greatest in all of sports, including the Yankees, Lakers, and Celtics.
“It’s really incredible,” said former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, once a top Patriots rival. “To dominate over 18 years, that is unheard of in any sport.”
The Patriots still trail the Steelers by one championship. And the 49ers did win five Super Bowls in a 14-year period (1981-94). But the 49ers had nine seasons in their run in which they didn’t reach the big game.
The Patriots have played in a Super Bowl an average of every other year in the 18 seasons since Brady took over at quarterback.
“I played in three in 17 years, and that seemed like a lot,” Steelers Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson said. “You’ve got to say arguably it’s the best dynasty that you’ll ever see in the National Football League.”
Unlike the previous dynasties in the NFL, the Patriots have to deal with free agency, salary-cap restraints, and a system designed to bring every team back to .500. Free agency and the salary cap, instituted in 1994, have made it more difficult for teams to keep their rosters intact, making the longevity of the Patriots’ dynasty even more impressive.
“Given the free agency, the salary cap, the impact of social media, the selfishness of athletes, what they’ve done over the last 19 years is the greatest single run any sports franchise has ever had,” said former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. “Their legacy was cemented, I would say, five years ago, and everything they’ve been adding on to this is just nothing short of a miracle.”
Former Raiders executive Amy Trask believes Belichick is the best head coach ever because of the NFL’s more restrictive rules. This also includes a significant decrease in practice time since the 2011 season.
“I always get the immediate pushback, ‘What about Vince Lombardi, what about Don Shula?’ Well, they weren’t coaching in the era of the salary cap, or with the sort of free agency we have right now, or with the type of collective bargaining restrictions on practice and other limitations that exist.”
Trask also credited Patriots owner Robert Kraft for building an organization that fostered so much success.
The Patriots were one of the NFL’s bottom-feeders before Kraft bought the team in 1994. Now they have joined an exclusive club: Together with the Yankees, Lakers, Duke, and Notre Dame, they are teams people love to hate.
“For us to get to the point in less than two decades where people are rooting against us because we’ve won, that’s a high-class problem and I hope we keep it going for quite awhile,” said Kraft, now at his 10th Super Bowl. “I’m actually honored by it.”
Most NFL teams are desperate for even a sliver of the success the Patriots have had over the last 18 years.
“I haven’t covered a conference championship game for a Houston team since 1979,” lamented John McClain, a 40-year football writer for the Houston Chronicle.
Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, reaching his first Super Bowl in 10 years, now has a better appreciation for the Patriots’ success.
“I think you always watch with a healthy respect and admiration for what they’ve done, and I think when you get to a Super Bowl this year and you realize how hard it is, you have even greater appreciation for what they put together,” Demoff said. “They defied the odds greater than any dynasty in NFL history. The odds are it will never be duplicated again. We all like to tell ourselves when we go to bed that maybe we have a chance, but I think most teams right now look at it and say it’s going to be an anomaly.”
Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who has two Super Bowl appearances to his credit, said he is most impressed by Belichick’s ability to continually evolve, in both scheme and players.
“The foresight and the ability from Bill Belichick to make the tough decisions,” Cowher said. “He’s not afraid to change. He’s not afraid to evolve offensively — the slot receiver, the five wide, the hurry up, now he’s going back to how he played in 2001 with the fullback. You see him constantly tweaking things.”
This third leg of the Patriots’ dynasty may be the most impressive. Brady and Belichick had already accomplished everything in the football world, yet they keep coming back for more — and mostly deliver.
“To be able to fight boredom at this time of their careers is unmatched,” Wayne said. “Man, if you could bottle up the stuff that they preach and teach and sell it, you’d be a billionaire.”
Brady, 41, has repeatedly said he plans to play for several more years, through age 45 (at least). And Belichick, now 66, isn’t showing signs of slowing, either.
“He knows what his place is in history. He’s never lost the energy to keep on going,” said Jim Nantz, who will join Romo for Sunday’s broadcast. “And I think there are more years to go on the sideline. There’s nothing he enjoys more.”
Brady, Belichick, and Kraft may yet have a few years left — and maybe more Lombardi Trophies, too. But even this eventually will end, as all dynasties do.
And that will be it. The NFL’s greatest dynasty will never be replicated.
“This will never happen” again, Romo said. “It’s just a perfect storm of a couple people that are super talented, and you’ve got to give credit to the Krafts. They built this thing. They saw the foresight to hire Coach Belichick and keep this thing going all these years. It’s really impressive.”