No one can deny the New England Patriots' run of brilliance at the outset of the new millennium, when they won three Super Bowls in four seasons. But lately, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady keep coming up just short when it matters most. Will the Patriots' recent run of "not quite good enough" take away from their overall legacy?
Pats have accomplished a lot since 2004I don't think so. What's the alternative? That they collapsed like the Dallas Cowboys' dynasty?
Since 2004, the Patriots have won more consistently than any team in the NFL. They made the divisional round of the playoffs six times, played in the AFC Championship Game four times and went to the Super Bowl twice. A fourth title would boost their legacy, but they are running out of chances for that.
Legacy of Belichick-Brady combo will endureEven if the Patriots never win another Super Bowl during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, the pair will still rank as one of the top coach-quarterback combinations of all time. Having won three Super Bowls in four years, both will go to the Hall of Fame.
Though eight years have passed since they last won a title, the Patriots have still been one of the best teams in the NFL. They've been to four conference title games (more than any other team in that period) and two Super Bowls, and put together an undefeated regular season in 2007. They missed the playoffs just once -- during the mostly Brady-less 2008 season, when they still went 11-5.
Since 2004, there hasn't been a season in which New England was not considered a possible Super Bowl contender. The record book won't show that when you look up title winners, but all of us who have lived through this period will remember it.
Simply put, the Pats followed up a dominant four-year period with an eight-year stretch as the most consistent winning franchise.
Spygate casts a long shadowSuper Bowls pre-Spygate: 3. Super Bowls post-Spygate: 0. Coincidence?
Sorry, but that's what it boils down to for New England. When we close the book on this era of the Patriots, it'll be, "Yeah, they were great -- when they knew the plays." It's a simple way to define a decade of greatness, but sometimes the simple definitions work. They need to win another Super Bowl to validate the other three. That's the short answer the average fan will give you when asked the 'legacy' question.
The longer, more in-depth answer? Yes, the Patriots' legacy is tarnished. Bill Belichick isn't quite the genius he used to be. New England doesn't scare anyone like it once did. Why? The Patriots' downfall began when they stopped putting incredibly dominant defensive players on the field. Hey, it's easy to be labeled a genius when Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson and other studs are protecting your goal line. When he had great players on defense, Belichick knew everything. But now that he doesn't -- and hasn't in awhile -- New England is more like the 1980s San Diego Chargers: a team that's fun to watch and can score like bananas, but will ultimately fall short because it's not well-rounded enough.
Belichick-Brady still best of an era -- though not all timeWhen Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are done, we're going to look back at their accomplishments (three Super Bowls, five AFC titles, numerous AFC Championship Game appearances) and conclude they were the best of their generation. The numbers speak to it.
But recent performances in Super Bowls put them out of the conversation about the all-time best tandem.
(Though one does wonder if we would judge Belichick and Brady differently -- the way that, say, John Elway is judged -- if their Super Bowl wins had come after the two Super Bowl losses.)
Ultimately, the title of "best of all time" belongs to the Bill Walsh-Joe Montana San Francisco 49ers. From 1981 to 1988, the pair was 3-0 in Super Bowls and 3-1 in NFC title games. (I will always contend that Montana would have made a difference in the 1992 NFC Championship Game, if then-coach George Seifert, who also won a title in 1989 with Montana, had gone with him.) Montana threw 11 touchdown passes and zero picks in four Super Bowl appearances, and he had a career playoff passer rating of 95.6.
Brady and Belichick should also slot below Bart Starr, Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. Starr's playoff passer rating of 104.8 is the only one that exceeds Montana's.
So the Patriots' dynasty should be content with the title of "best of their era" -- an era which, by the way, is not over just yet. I mean, we're talking about a team that just missed making a second-straight Super Bowl appearance. New England still has time to stake its claim.