MINNEAPOLIS -- Even as he was helping to construct the NFL's last dynasty, Troy Aikman was aware enough to know it would not last forever.
Still, he did not see the end coming.
"When we won our third Super Bowl, I would never have imagined that was the last one I'd go to," Aikman said recently. "I didn't think it was over."
Like Aikman, the New England Patriots almost certainly recognize, in the quiet moments after the confetti has been swept and the trophies are stored, that this cannot go on forever, although they may have only a vague sense of how much longer it can go on. The fortunes of the team, after all, are so inextricably linked to the very personal life decisions of two principles.
There is little doubt now that the Patriots are the NFL's greatest dynasty, besting others for quantity and longevity. The chance to win a sixth title in eight trips to the Super Bowl over the 17 seasons of the marriage of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady dwarfs even the accomplishments of the towering teams of the past. The Patriots had a higher hurdle than all of them to clear: They are the first to exist fully in the free agency and salary-cap era, which is designed to push all teams toward the middle. The playing field that is supposed to be leveled by those constructs, though, has been tilted toward New England for nearly 20 years. A helpful visual: David Andrews, the Patriots' starting center, said among his first football memories was watching the Super Bowl in which the Patriots upset the Rams for their first championship. Andrews was 9 years old.
Aikman's Cowboys won three Super Bowls in four years in the early 1990s before never going again, while the Patriots could win their third in four years for the second time. Terry Bradshaw played 14 seasons and won four Super Bowls for Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh. The closest comparison may be to San Francisco. Joe Montana and Steve Young combined for 16 seasons and five Super Bowls starting for Bill Walsh and George Seifert.
All ended, blown apart by age or arrogance, defections or decline.
The Patriots have managed to forestall those forces. But greatness rarely winds down painlessly, and despite Bill Belichick's famously meticulous planning, the Patriots are unlikely to be the exception. Cautionary tales litter NFL history, the factors that eventually dragged down other teams shadowing the Patriots now.
"It's my job to think about how we can sustain things -- that's what I've been doing for 24 years," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said this week. "It's easier to attain success than it is to sustain it."
His fellow owners could surely counsel him on what they saw at the destruction, were they so inclined. The Cowboys' collapse was the most dramatic, a champion undone when Jerry Jones fired Jimmy Johnson. The model Johnson put in place to take the Cowboys from worst to first -- draft well, stay young and fast -- was forgotten. The Cowboys eked out one more title under Barry Switzer and then ... nothing.
"Ownership didn't appreciate what it took," Aikman says now. "We didn't replace the players. That's why I think what New England has accomplished -- it's laughable, it's stupid crazy. They did what we didn't do, they made tough decisions on players, let aging veterans go and they've continued to make good personnel decisions."
The through line to the Patriots' unending turnover is the top-level play and health of Tom Brady and the constancy of Belichick. Their excellence has smoothed over the rough edges of turnover, allowing Belichick to move on from other luminaries like Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Randy Moss. Belichick has had some misfires -- Adalius Thomas and Chad Ochocinco, anyone? -- but the bedrock of his teams is his ability to unearth undrafted gems like Andrews. The Patriots were the only team to visit with Andrews before the 2015 NFL Draft.
The imminent departures of coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia to respective new head coaching jobs would seem to portend at least a temporary dip while the team adjusts to new coordinators for the first time since 2012. After the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years at the end of the 2004 season, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel both left for new jobs. The Patriots did not return to the Super Bowl until 2007, the first of their two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants that are bracketed by the two victory clusters.
"Did it kill them the last time?" asked Randy Cross, the former 49er, about the departure of the coordinators. "I love Josh, and I like all their guys, but you can't convince me the smartest football brain in the room isn't the most important brain in the room for both sides of the ball? That's the end, more so even than Tom, when Bill leaves. I don't think there is any question.
"They'll be a bookmark in that place -- there's pre-Bill and post-Bill. That's including if (No.) 12 stays. If they had found a way to keep Garoppolo, they might have had something that could have lasted. Would they have had to make that decision, where you have the most famous person not finish with your team?"
That the 49ers now have the former Patriots heir apparent is ironic, because it is the 49ers who may have provided the roadmap for how the Patriots could have extended the dynasty after Brady and Belichick are gone. They transitioned -- not exactly smoothly, but successfully nonetheless -- from the Bill Walsh and Joe Montana years to the George Seifert and Montana years and finally to the Seifert and Steve Young years, winning Super Bowls with each iteration. Feelings were bruised -- there was tension between Bill Walsh and owner Eddie DeBartolo, and Montana's departure with Young waiting in the wings was bitter -- but the 49ers' passing of the baton might have been duplicated, had the Patriots been able to hold on to Garoppolo until Brady was finished.
Alas, it was not to be. Brady has jokingly wondered aloud this week why everybody is in a rush to see him retire, and Jonathan Kraft told NFL Network that Brady has earned the right to decide when he will walk away. That, of course, is not how Belichick has managed any other veteran at the Patriots, and it meant that Garoppolo had to be let go.
Kraft has admitted that there is tension among the three principles, although he sloughs it off more as enviable creative differences than roiling dysfunction.
"We talk all the time," Kraft said of his plans to get Brady and Belichick together after the Super Bowl. "Every organization that is successful has different points of view. It's not going to be any different this year than it has been the last 10 years."
Perhaps not now, but the tenor of those talks is likely to change in the very near future. Aikman marvels at how Belichick has a process that he still, after all these years, does not waver from. He has attended practices at which Belichick has been angry about how it went. The Cowboys lost that person when Johnson was fired, and, subsequently, the Cowboys did not work in practice the same way, Aikman said. He, like Cross, believes the Patriots will be OK as long as Belichick is there, but he also sounds a note of warning even as the Patriots are on the brink of another coronation.
"I knew we were declining, you just don't know when it will end," Aikman said. "Even the Patriots, as solid as everything seems, who knows? They could come out -- I don't think it will happen -- but you don't know when the end comes."