A Dynasty Hangover
Today in sports it’s not easy to achieve success and almost impossible to sustain it. Only a few special teams over the last decade or so have achieved "dynasty" status. In basketball the Lakers won three straight titles from 2000-2002, adding two more in 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile, the Spurs won four Larry O’Brien Trophies during a nine year stretch.
In hockey the Red Wings won four Stanley Cups between 1997-2008 and the Devils once upon a time won three Lord Stanley’s in nine years. The Yankees built the most recent dynasty in baseball when they won four Championships in five years between 1996-2001. The New England Patriots are owners of the last known dynasty in the NFL when they won three Super Bowls between 2001-2004.
All these dynasties are things of the past, even though there are some remaining remnants. Kobe Bryant is still trying to drag his Lakers to another title or two. Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan have San Antonio once again in the conversation for a deep summer run.
Martin Brodeur is gearing up for another season in net for New Jersey, and his Devils fell just two wins short of a fourth Cup last spring. Across the Hudson River, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte will chase a sixth ring together this upcoming season, but their Yankees account for only one World Series banner during the past twelve years.
In Beantown Bill Belichick and Tom Brady remain a force, but they haven’t won the big one in almost eight years, despite coming up close twice to Eli Manning’s Giants. Over the last few years Brady has learned with every painful postseason defeat, that winning just isn’t that easy.
“I wish it were that easy. And maybe there were times when it has looked that easy. But I think you appreciate it when it does work. And you realize the preparation that you put into it, that it pays off,” Tom Brady said after his team defeated the Jets this October. “Maybe we’ve just spoiled some people in the meantime. Because it’s hard to win, man. It’s really hard to win.”
He wasn’t reminiscing on the glory years of long ago, but he was simply talking about winning a regular season football game. But, Brady and his Patriots know all about winning. They are coming off an amazing 12th consecutive winning season. The longest such streak since the San Francisco 49ers, led first by Joe Montana and then by Steve Young, had 16 consecutive winning seasons from 1983 to 1998.
Brady is currently ranked fifth all-time with 136 victories in the regular season, and his .777 winning percentage is better than any other quarterback to play the game. Last November he and Coach Belichick became the winningest coach-QB tandem since the AFC/NFC merger in 1970. With a victory over the Jets, Belichick and Brady surpassed Don Shula and Dan Marino for the all-time mark with their 117th win together. The Dolphins duo held the record for 16 years until the Patriots pair accomplished the feat in 35 less games.
Since Brady took the reins from an injured Drew Bledsoe in September of 2001, he and Belichick have built one of the most successful teams in sports, and transformed New England into the NFL's model franchise.
Yet, they have nothing to show for it since their Super Bowl 39 triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles. Last February when Super Bowl 46 ended and the confetti poured down in Lucas Oil Stadium, Brady was once again left watching the Giants celebrate.
It’s an image that surely resonated with Brady over the last few months, and now he sits just one victory away from another crack at that elusive fourth title. He is way past trying to prove to the world that he should have been selected higher than pick 199, but he is on a mission to cement himself as the greatest quarterback to ever lace them up.
With another Super Bowl appearance he would pass John Elway for the most by a quarterback with six. Another Vince Lombardi Trophy would tie him with Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most all time with four.
This is a very different Patriot team than the one he helped guide to three titles in four years. With the retirements of Kevin Faulk and Matt Light in the summer, a 35-year old Brady became the last remaining player from all three Super Bowl winning squads. The only other active players in the league from all those teams are defensive end Richard Seymour and kicker Adam Vinatieri.
Brady no longer throws to Troy Brown, David Givens, Christen Fauria, or David Patten, but rather Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, and a now injured Rob Gronkowski. Deion Branch, a member of two of those winning teams is still around, but he doesn’t see much action these days.
Despite the annual change of cast, Brady has continued to win, and he now finds himself in his seventh Conference Title game. On Sunday he added to his string of postseason success that stretches back more than a decade, earning his 17th playoff win to break a tie with his boyhood idol, Montana, for most by a quarterback.
"Right now our focus is just being happy to win this game and get on to Baltimore," Belichick said. "We can reflect back on some other years some other time."
After February’s crushing loss, people started to say that Brady lost his magical touch after winning his first 10 playoff games, including 3 Super Bowls. Others said that since Brady married Gisele he became soft and went Hollywood.
But, the fact of the matter is: Brady is still atop the Mount Rushmore of active NFL quarterbacks, and nobody works harder. He undoubtedly remains the elitist of the elites, ahead of Peyton, Rodgers, Eli, Brees, Roethlisberger, and the new wave of youngsters.
Peyton may own more MVPs, but he once again proved this weekend why Brady is the quarterback of this generation. With two more victories Brady will further make a case for himself as not only the top quarterback of his era, but all-time.
Two more Patriots victories would also help Belichick match Tom Landry's NFL postseason high of 20. If he gets there this season he'd also tie Chuck Noll for most Super Bowl championships by a coach with four.
They’ve been knocking on the door of history for years now, and perhaps this is the season they finally rewrite the record books and bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Boston. Since the Patriots last title the city has seen their Red Sox win two World Series, the Celtics win the 2008 NBA finals, and even the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011.
Despite the dynastic years being relatively recent, they are Boston’s team that has gone the longest since its last Championship. Brady is fully aware of this fact and his pursuit of a fourth title has come to define his career almost as much as the early championships.
Brady already has his place in football history, but he wants more. He is currently as good as he has ever been, and that fourth Super Bowl title is still out there, waiting to be grabbed.