The Patriots dynasty is deep into its second decade, and given the degree of difficulty in putting together even two excellent seasons in a row in a modern NFL designed for parity, it must be considered the singular team achievement in professional football’s 100 years.
In fact, it’s not just one dynasty. It’s two bookend dynasties welded together by a string of excellent near-miss seasons from 2005-13. As you may recall, the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years from 2001-04, and own three in the last five seasons. They’ve been so extraordinary for so long that an 18-1 season in 2007 is regarded as a crushing afterthought.
If you still believe another franchise has accomplished anything like this in a similar span, well, your misguided fandom of that particular franchise is showing. The ’60s Packers, ’70s Steelers, and ’80s Niners were dominant in their time, but all-time? They can bicker among themselves about who is the first runner-up.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are, of course, the common threads in the dynasty, the greatest coach and quarterback of all-time individually and obviously in tandem. But there have been other commonalities and recurrences through the years: Versatile and bright linebackers and ends, obscure offensive linemen crafted into unified excellence by Dante Scarnecchia, third-down backs extraordinaire, occasional transcendent talents like Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski, and mainstay kickers Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski. After all, it was Vinatieri’s field goals — in the Snow Bowl and Super Bowl — that started it all.
(Oh, all right, if you want to cling to some of that New England cynicism and note that the Patriots have had a weirdly low hit-rate on some second-round picks, several defensive backs, and many Florida Gators, I’ll grant you that. They sure did hit the el busto trifecta on Duke Dawson.)
There’s another commonality we must acknowledge, too, one that has nothing to do with how they fare as a football team, but one that recurs annually nonetheless.
It used to be annoying. Nowadays, it hovers between amusing and desperate.
It’s the notion that this is the year that the Patriots — and Brady, specifically — decline, and the race among loud men on TV can’t hide the fear in their eyes to do so.
The Patriots had been given their first rites if not outright declared finished before they had even completed the first phase of their dynasty. After a 31-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 of the 2003 season, ESPN’s Tom Jackson declared that they hate their coach, suggesting without nuance that the Patriots, who had cut beloved but no longer impactful safety Lawyer Milloy before the opener, were imploding. They won their second Super Bowl that season.
Jackson’s declaration is the first write-off of the Patriots I can recall. It’s hardly the only one. After the Patriots were clobbered by the Chiefs, 41-14, in Week 4 of the 2014 season, ESPN’s Trent Dilfer offered this wisdom: “We saw a weak team. Let’s face it. They’re not good anymore.” They won their fourth Super Bowl that season, and an argument can be made that that defeat, which spurred Belichick’s “we’re on to Cincinnati” declaration afterward, was the wake-up call the Patriots needed to begin Championship Phase 2 of the dynasty.
Writing off the Patriots has become a cottage industry on ESPN’s blabbing-heads shows, as well as the banshees howling dumb half-formed opinions into the void on Fox Sports 1. In July 2016, First Take’s Max Kellerman said this about Brady: “Tom Brady’s just about done. It could be his next game. It could be a year from now. But he is going to fall off a cliff. Tom Brady is going to be a bum in short order.”
So far, it’s Tom Brady 3, Cliff 0. Three Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi Trophies later, and Kellerman owns the undisputed title as owning “First Take’s” worst take, a truly remarkable feat. There’s a better chance of Drew Bledsoe getting his job back than there is of Kellerman being correct within years of burping an opinion about the Patriots.
Last season, so many people wrote off the Patriots that the contrarian thing to do would have been to pick them to win the Super Bowl . . . which, of course, they did, their sixth if you’re keeping score. My favorite barker in this carnival of wrong was former Jets coach Rex Ryan, who dipped his toes into the hot-take pond and said after the Patriots lost back-to-back games in December, “I’ve been saying it for weeks now. This is not the same Patriots team. And the reason why is simple: They’re older, they’re slower, and eventually Father Time catches up to you.”
Turns out, Father Time had a worse game plan last February than Sean McVay. Did I mention the Patriots won the Super Bowl?
It will be fascinating to see who writes them off this year. ESPN’s Todd McShay expressed some skepticism in May — yes, on First Take, how did you guess? — when he said, “For the first time ever, I look at this Patriots team and say I don’t expect them to win the Super Bowl. And I don’t expect them to get to the Super Bowl.”
But that’s not exactly a bold take — it’s really, really hard to get to the Super Bowl — and McShay, good at his job and best as a draft expert, wore the look of someone trying to appease his captors.
Someday, the Patriots will fade. Brady is 42, and he was less than brilliant in the Super Bowl, at least right up until he had to be. But an awful lot of people have looked awfully foolish for years and years now trying to anticipate that fade, if not outright questing to be the first to declare that it’s happening.
I don’t know when it happens. But I do know this: The Patriots look loaded again. Brady looks at least as spry as he did at 32, and almost jarringly, healthier than he looked at 22. And I’ll believe a stack of other long-shot possibilities — Gronk coming back and retiring three times each, Brady outlasting Jimmy Garoppolo in the NFL, Vinatieri actually retiring someday himself — before I ever get around to writing off Brady and the Patriots.
This dynasty, these bookend dynasties melded into one, have lasted longer than even the most optimistic among us would have dared believe.
No one knows when it ends. We just know the names of those foolish enough to have declared the parade over right when a new one was about to begin. Remember to thank them for all the laughter through the years.