Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the New England Patriots are going to the Super Bowl.
It’s business as usual for the NFL’s most consistent franchise—a dominant regular season, the number one seed in the AFC, an appearance on football’s biggest stage. The Patriots of the Brady-Belichick era have been so singularly dominant that their brilliance feels almost ho-hum at this point—oh, another double-digit playoff comeback, another AFC Championship win, show us something we haven’t seen before. Tom Brady is about to make his eighth Super Bowl start; only one other quarterback in history (John Elway) has been to more than half that many title games. Anything that New England might accomplish next Sunday is just icing on the cake of an already untouchable legacy. We have never seen a football dynasty like these Patriots, and when they are gone we will probably never see anything like them again. Even pointing that out feels like beating a dead horse at this point.
If you’re reading this article, I’m sure your feelings about the New England empire are already set in stone, whether you love them, love to hate them, or are simply bored by their interminable success. I’m not going to try to change your mind. But I do want to try to answer a simple question: Why are they so great? We have seen great NFL dynasties before, but none of them—not the ‘60s Packers, the ‘70s Steelers, the ‘80s 49ers, or even the perfect ‘72 Dolphins—could come close to matching the dazzling achievements or remarkable sustained dominance of these Patriots. What are the Patriots, really? Everyone has their own idea about this; today, I’m going to run through all the most popular theories and try to determine how much (or little) merit they hold.
1. THE GOAT AND HIS GANG
Let’s start with the simplest explanation, and the one that Patriots fans seem to hold as gospel: that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback (and maybe greatest football player period) of all-time, and thus the principle reason for New England’s unparalleled run of success. A large segment of Patriots fans have been saying this since the mid-2000s, but in the wake of Super Bowl LI it evolved into something of a consensus among football fans (as much as such a thing is possible). When you see a football writer mention the GOAT, there’s no question anymore as to who they are talking about.
It’s certainly hard to think of any quarterback in history who was more terrifying to watch when he played against your favorite team. He is the quarterback who can make every throw, the golden boy for whom no moment is too big. When your team has a double-digit lead against the Pats, it feels like the game is tied; when you’re ahead by one score, it feels like you’re already losing. Brady is utterly in control every time he steps on the field; even in his age-40 season, a point when even the best quarterbacks have historically regressed into doddering husks grasping desperately for the last vestiges of their former greatness, he is still consistently delivering MVP-caliber play at the game’s most important position. And, of course, he has amassed a postseason resume that is unrivaled among NFL signal-callers past and present. No athlete, not even Michael Jordan, has ever embodied the platonic ideal of a winner to the extent that Brady has.
With all that being said though….(deep breath)…I have to admit I have a hard time buying into the idea that he has earned undisputed G.O.A.T. status. While no quarterback has ever won as many games, as many playoff games, or as many championships, it’s hard to think of another quarterback who has ever enjoyed such consistently talented supporting casts and stellar coaching. Not only has he spent his entire career playing for the greatest NFL coach of his generation (and possibly all time—we’ll get to that subject in a minute), but his offenses have been helmed by top-tier offensive minds like Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels, and he has benefitted from excellent pass protection thanks to longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, one of the unsung heroes of this New England dynasty. He has also spent most of his career playing with defenses that ranged from average to top-tier, which sets him apart from most of the other great quarterbacks of his generation. Pro Football Reference has a stat called Expected Points Added that calculates how much each phase of a team contributes to the team’s chances of winning. Here is how the Patriots defenses in the era of Brady have stacked up against other great quarterbacks of the same generation:
|Quarterback||Average Expected Points Added (Defense)||Average Defensive EPA Above/Below League Average||Average Defense Ranking by EPA||# of Top-10 Defenses by EPA|
Of those four, Brady is the only one whose average defense has been better than league average by EPA; and while those Pats defenses have ranked 14th in the league on average by this measurement, Brady has had as many top-10 defenses as the other three combined—and two of Manning’s four top ten defenses were his final two years in Denver, when his own production was firmly on the decline (and while we’re here, let’s take a moment to pity Drew Brees, because holy hell, has that man had to drag some horrendous defenses). And while Brady’s teams have always been among the league’s elite, the man himself only started producing superstar numbers in the middle years of his career: From 2001-2006, he averaged an ANY/A+ of 109.3; since 2007, that number has increased to 123.4 (as with any ‘+’ statistic, 100 would be a league-average quarterback in any given year; since there has been a massive spike in passing statistics league-wide over the last decade, I am using a statistic that is curved against the league average to keep that passing surge from skewing the comparison).
In a sense, there have actually been three distinct phases in Brady’s career. In the early championship years, he was essentially a hyper-efficient game manager in the vein of Alex Smith, who limited turnovers and led a fairly conservative offensive attack on a team built around a dominant defense; the Pats had one of the best defensive units in football in 2003 and 2004, and while the 2001 version wasn’t nearly as impressive in the regular season, they absolutely carried the team to victory in Super Bowl XXXVI, holding the Greatest Show on Turf to a paltry 17 points while chipping in a pick-six from Ty Law and setting up New England’s only offensive touchdown with another turnover in opposing territory. In the middle phase (2005-2013), Brady came into his own as a star quarterback but the Pats couldn’t get it done in the postseason—in addition to a pair of crushing Super Bowl upsets, they lost comfortably to the Jake Plummer-led Broncos in 2005, blew an 18-point lead in the 2006 AFC championship game, and suffered back-to-back first round upsets in 2009 and 2010 against Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, respectively. Now, in the twilight of his career, Brady has managed to put it all together, both putting up elite-level statistics and sealing the deal in the playoffs. You probably don’t need a recap of those Super Bowls, but suffice it to say that New England has lost just two playoff games in the past five seasons, and those were both on the road against an all-time great unit—the 2013 Broncos offense and the 2015 Broncos defense.
So if you want to make the case for Brady’s unrivaled greatness based on championships, it’s fair to ask why he went through a nine-year championship drought (and went just 8-8 in the playoffs in that time) even though he was personally performing much better than he had in those previous championship winning years, and then resumed winning Super Bowls in recent years despite his level of play staying about the same. If he has some innate ability to win championships that other statistically comparable quarterbacks lack, why did it only show through at the beginning and end of his career?
The answer, I think, is that those were the phases of his career when he was in the most advantageous environment. Wins may be the statistic that matters most, but they aren’t a great metric for individual greatness in such a team-oriented sport. Don’t get me wrong: Brady is certainly one of the greatest players ever at his position, and he probably would have had an exceptional career even if he had wound up playing for a lesser franchise; I just don’t see any evidence that definitively places him head and shoulders above Manning or Rodgers or Brees, or for that matter Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas. That isn’t necessarily to say that Brady is inarguably not the greatest quarterback of all time…but I think even the most ardent Brady supporter would agree that if, say, Peyton Manning had spent his entire career playing with Bill Belichick and the type of supporting cast that Brady had, while Brady was saddled with Manning’s substandard defenses and coaches like John Fox, Jim Caldwell and Jim Mora, the conversation around them would be very different today.
And speaking of coaching…
2. NO, THE OTHER GOAT
Brady isn’t the only member of this New England dynasty whose name frequently gets kicked around in “greatest of all-time” discussions—there’s also his boss, the one and only Bill Belichick. In his 18 years at the helm in New England, Belichick has redefined the gold standard for NFL coaches, and long before arriving in Foxboro he had already established himself as one of the finest X’s and O’s minds in the game with his work as a defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells. And while his first head coaching stint ended on a sour note, he remains the only coach in twenty-five years to lead the Cleveland Browns to a playoff victory; honestly, that might be his most impressive achievement of all (I’m only 70% joking about this). Few coaches in any sport have ever enjoyed such an extended run of success.
You might be expecting me to start poking holes in Belichick’s G.O.A.T. candidacy the way I did with Brady…but honestly, the more you analyze his coaching career, the more impressive it seems. Most great NFL coaches are defined by a specific stylistic or schematic breakthrough that they helped to usher into the mainstream—think Vince Lombardi’s hard-nosed power running attack, Bill Walsh’s exquisitely designed West Coast offense, or Don Coryell’s revolutionary Air Coryell system. Belichick, on the other hand, represents something completely different—his only overarching philosophy is never stop changing. Professional football is in a state of constant evolution, and to survive you have to adapt or die—Belichick understands this better than anyone ever has.
In the early 2000s, Belichick built the Patriots around a dominant 3-4 defense. That’s not because he was a lifelong 3-4 purist along the lines of Wade Phillips; he simply realized that most NFL defenses ran a 4-3, so there would be less competition to acquire the type of players that fit a 3-4 defense (such as pure space-eating nose tackles and pass rushing outside linebackers). In 2007, he spent big on Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth, transforming the Patriots overnight into a spread-out, downfield passing attack that relied almost exclusively on three and four wide receiver formations, something few teams in the league had ever attempted to that point. As more and more teams began emulating the Patriots and using multi-receiver formations that spread out opposing defenses, Belichick switched gears again—in 2010, he drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and reconfigured his offensive scheme to revolve around the nigh-uncoverable duo, ushering in the trend of uber-athletic matchup nightmare tight ends (Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, Julius Thomas, etc.). Nowadays, in an era where spread formations with extra receivers and tight ends split wide are basically the default for NFL offenses, Belichick has once again gone against the grain; now that defenses are geared towards nickel and dime packages, the Patriots have reverted to running an offense heavily out of two-running back sets, forcing opponents to stay in their base defense so New England’s speedy multi-threat running backs (James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead) can take advantage of coverage mismatches against slow-footed linebackers. There has never been an NFL coach so adept at staying ahead of the curve.
That adaptability alone is enough to make the case for Belichick as an all-time great, but his influence extends far beyond schematics—there isn’t a single aspect of the Patriots organization that doesn’t bear the Hooded One’s fingerprints. Belichick is the final decision-maker in free agency and the draft, he crafts every one of New England’s ever-evolving gameplans, and his famously surly demeanor informs the personality of the entire franchise. His drafting has been hit or miss over the years (just like every personnel guy in the league—even the best of them frequently whiff in the uniquely difficult business of projecting the futures of 21-year old athletes), but he has shown an unparalleled ability to develop players, from high draft picks such as Vince Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, and Deion Branch to afterthoughts like Rob Ninkovich (5th round), Dion Lewis (5th round), Julian Edelman (7th round), David Givens (7th round), and Malcolm Butler (undrafted). Oh, and back in 2000 he used a 6th-round pick on a quarterback who turned out to be pretty good as well.
One more feather in Belichick’s cap (or hoodie, I guess): he has done all this in a much tougher environment than most of the coaching greats that he frequently gets compared to (Walsh, Lombardi, George Halas, Paul Brown, etc.). The NFL game of today is much more refined, complex, and schematically diverse than it was when most of those legends were in their heyday, and the salary cap makes it much more difficult to build and maintain a deep, talented roster. At this point, I don’t think it’s much of a question as to whether Belichick is the greatest coach in NFL history—he has vaulted past that benchmark, and into the conversation for greatest coach in the history of North American sports, along with such luminaries as Phil Jackson, Scotty Bowman, and Red Auerbach. But in the interest of keeping this article shorter than a Tolstoy novel, we’ll save that discussion for another time.
On the other hand, there are plenty of variables that can’t be controlled from the sideline, which brings us to our next section…
3. THE LUCKIEST TEAM IN THE WORLD
From a certain point of view, you could certainly construe this era of Patriots dominance as nothing more than an improbably long run of insanely good luck, like a heater at the blackjack table that just doesn’t end. In 2000, they used the 199th pick of the draft on a guy they were hoping to groom as a long-term backup quarterback, then watched him transform into one of the greatest ever to play the position almost overnight (as we have heard time and time again in the years since, the Patriots brass was torn between drafting Brady and Tim Rattay, a Louisiana Tech signal caller who went on to start all of 13 games in the NFL; imagine how much of recent football history would be rewritten if that spur-of-the-moment decision had gone the other way). They have spent the last 16 seasons playing in a comically weak division—their three AFC East rivals (Buffalo, Miami and the Jets) have posted a combined winning percentage of just .447 in that time frame, and the only year in that stretch that New England failed to win the division was 2008, when Tom Brady tore his ACL in the first quarter of Week 1. The closest any of their rivals came to threatening the Patriots’ AFC East stranglehold was the 2009-2010 Jets, and that team had a young Mark Sanchez playing quarterback.
As far as the championships, well…in their first title run, they scraped out a divisional playoff win because of an obscure rule that most people had never heard of (if you’re unfamiliar with the Tuck Rule, just ask a Raiders fan), then won a Super Bowl in which they were outgained by almost 200 yards. In their second Super Bowl appearance, Panthers kicker John Kasay sent a kickoff out of bounds with 1:04 remaining in a tie game, giving New England the ball at the 40-yard line and allowing them to easily move into field goal range for the game-winning kick by Adam Vinatieri. A year later, they were able to wrap up a third championship thanks in part to some famously-bad clock management by Andy Reid during Philadelphia’s attempted fourth-quarter comeback. After dropping two Super Bowls against the middling New York Giants, they got their fourth championship ring after the Seahawks famously declined to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch on the one-yard line against the second-worst short yardage rushing defense in football, and instead made what is often referred to as the worst play call of all time: a head-scratching slant route to a third string wide receiver that was (Al Michaels voice) intercepted at the goal line by Malcolm Butler! And last year…well, in case you don’t remember, the Atlanta Falcons somehow found a way to blow a 25-point lead in just over 20 minutes of game time, which included some more awful clock management and not one, but two, drives where Atlanta got in range for a field goal that would have almost certainly clinched the game, only to knock themselves back into punting territory with holding penalties…oh, and on the game-tying drive, Julian Edelman made a crucial and logic-defying catch that he wouldn’t be able to recreate if he tried a million times. And to put the icing on the cake, their path to the Super Bowl in those seasons often seemed absurdly easy. Here is a list of every quarterback the Patriots have faced in their first postseason matchup since 2005: Jake Plummer, Chad Pennington, David Garrard, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow, Matt Schaub, Andrew Luck, Flacco again, Alex Smith, Brock Osweiler, and Marcus Mariota. As impressive as New England’s streak of seven straight AFC championship games is, it sure seems like they had the easy road to get there more often than not—in terms of who they faced.
Is it fair to chalk all of that up to good fortune? In some cases, yes; in some cases, no. Let’s start with the Patriots drafting Brady. In this instance, there’s no way around it: no team has ever gotten luckier with a draft pick than New England did with the 199th pick back in 2000. I have heard some people suggest that Belichick knew how good Brady was and simply played his cards close to the vest to avoid tipping off the teams drafting ahead of him; that notion is, quite frankly, absurd. First of all, as I already mentioned, the Patriots were undecided between Brady and Rattay until pretty much the moment they called Brady’s name. Secondly, there is just no conceivable way the Patriots would have waited that long to pick him if they knew what they would be getting. New England had already used six picks in the 2000 draft, selecting six other players over Brady; if Belichick had any inkling of how good Brady would eventually be, he would have been insane to keep giving other teams the opportunity to snatch him away. Although he ended up falling on draft day due to concerns about his skinny frame and lack of athleticism, most scouts viewed Brady as a 3rd or 4th round pick going into the draft—no one expected him to still be available near the end of the 6th round. Belichick has a strong resume when it comes to acquiring talent, but even he would admit that this was nothing more than a magnificent stroke of luck. As for the other points I raised, well, a lot of them are harder to defend. While it’s true that New England has played in an incredibly weak division over the past decade and a half, it’s also hard to argue that it’s helped them significantly. Since the AFC East was created in 2002, the Patriots have posted a .781 winning percentage within the division and a .769 mark against all other teams; 36% of their losses in that time frame have come against the divisional rivals who make up 37.5% of their total opponents. And as for their relatively easy competition in the early rounds of the playoffs—that is a feature of the playoff system, not a bug. By matching up the highest seed in every round against the lowest seed, the NFL grants easier matchups to teams that are better in the regular season. The Patriots have faced plenty of first-round doormats over the years, but they’ve earned that privilege by virtue of consistently dominating the regular season.
As for the Super Bowls…yes, New England has had plenty of breaks go their way. But you know what? So has every team that has ever taken home the Lombardi Trophy. Fans like to imagine that the title always goes to the team that played the hardest and did the most to earn it, but the fact is that no team wins a championship without having some breaks go their way. It’s true that the Patriots have benefitted from more of those breaks than most franchises, but if you want to point that out then you also have to give them credit for consistently putting themselves in a position where they are one or two lucky moments away from a championship. And it’s not as if fortune has always smiled on New England under the bright lights—we’re talking about the team that was on the wrong end of the Helmet Catch here.
Of course, some fans out there have a more cynical explanation for why luck so often seems to be on New England’s side…
4. THE LEAGUE’S FAVORITE CHILD
If you are an avid consumer of NFL related media like me, you probably already saw this juicy little tidbit from the NFL Research Twitter page:
The Patriots were called for 1 penalty against the Jaguars
It is the fewest penalties called on one team in a playoff game since the 2011 AFC Championship… when the Patriots were called for 1 penalty in a win over the Ravens
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 21, 2018
For many of the more conspiracy-minded football fans out there, it felt like the NFL was taunting them by slyly hinting at what many already believed to be true—that the league will do anything to help the Patriots win, either because Robert Kraft is slipping them money under the table or simply because the NFL feels that dynasties are good for business.
I’ll dispense with this one quickly, because I don’t feel that it holds much water. First of all, it wasn’t long ago that the Patriots were in a state of open warfare against the league and commissioner Roger Goodell. After the Deflategate scandal back in early 2015 and the subsequent four-game suspension handed to Tom Brady, Patriots owner Robert Kraft went on the warpath, suggesting that the investigation was fueled by “envy and jealousy” and adding, “I was wrong to put my faith in the league. I have come to the conclusion this was never about doing what was fair and just.” And while Kraft and Goodell seem to have forged an uneasy truce in the time since then, it’s hard to believe that Goodell or anyone in the league office would be looking to create unfair advantages for a franchise whose owner was publicly dragging them through the mud just a couple of years ago.
As for the penalties…well, New England certainly seems to have a knack for avoiding yellow laundry, as well as getting controversial calls to go their way. Just this season, they had close games against the Jets and Steelers swung in their favor after two crucial touchdowns were overturned in the replay booth on questionable grounds (New England went on to win those games by seven and three points, respectively). However, I wouldn’t read too much into that. The apparent bias in close calls is likely a product of small sample size, and as for the discrepancy in penalties for and against, there’s actually a more plausible theory out there than officiating bias—namely that Belichick (possibly with the assistance of his mysterious longtime sidekick, Ernie Adams, makes a habit of studying the tendencies of whatever officiating crew will be working the Patriots game each week, so he knows what his players will and won’t be able to get away with.
That seems much more believable than a league-wide conspiracy to help the Patriots win. After all, we all know that Belichick will seize any advantage he can find…
5. THE “CHEATRIOTS”
I’m sorry, Patriots fans, but you knew this was coming. You can’t have an in-depth discussion about the causes of New England’s dominance and not at least touch on the…ahem…liberties that the franchise has been known to take in the name of winning. The twin specters of Spygate and Deflategate will continue to hang over the Patriots dynasty until Brady and Belichick finally ride off into the sunset.
I’ll spare you the extended recap, since you’re already pretty familiar with the sordid details. Spygate was the 2007 videotaping scandal that cost the Patriots a first-round draft pick and prompted Belichick to go nuclear in his anger the following season, building a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that blitzkrieged its way to a 16-0 regular season and would have delivered the greatest “F-the-haters” campaign in sports history if not for a little deus ex machina in Super Bowl XLII. Deflategate was the 2015 sequel which the NFL alleged Brady (or possibly his accomplice, equipment manager Jim McNally) surreptitiously deflated footballs in advance of the AFC Championship Game, and which spawned a series of hilarious internet comment section debates that featured people pretending to be experts on the ideal gas law while simultaneously making middle school-quality jokes about Tom Brady’s flat balls.
It’s certainly true that the Patriots have been guilty of stepping over the fine line between gamesmanship and underhandedness on more than one occasion. But I find it hard to believe that such tactics are a principal reason for their dominance (I also find it hard to believe that other teams weren’t engaging in similarly questionable behavior—it seems more likely that the Patriots just became an obvious target for suspicion by virtue of their consistent success, although I will admit that theory is hard to prove). Spygate happened all the way back at the end of the 2006 season, before Brady had ascended to his current level of play, and the Pats have now appeared in five Super Bowls since then. As for Deflategate, the game in question was a contest against the Indianapolis Colts that the Patriots won 45-7; those underinflated balls might have given Brady a slight competitive edge, but not enough to account for a 38-point swing. If you can’t root for a team that has been accussed guilty of unsportsmanlike tactics, I respect that—just don’t pretend that those tactics alone could have turned a run-of-the-mill squad into the greatest dynasty the league has ever seen.
Although, if you’re a paranoid-minded fan, you might suspect that there are even more sinister forces at play…
6. THE TEAM OF DARKNESS
Maybe all that luck I talked about earlier wasn’t just luck. Maybe, just maybe, a young Bill Belichick sold his soul to some powerful deity of the underworld in exchange for the ability to win any football game, no matter how unsurmountable the odds.
OK, I’m kidding about this one (well…mostly kidding). It’s become a long running joke, reinforced by Belichick’s vaguely supervillian-esque demeanor and the shroud of mystery he has always maintained in public. No one really believes it, but no one would be that surprised if one of these days Belichick pulled back the hood on his trademark hoodie to reveal a writhing nest of serpents where his hair should be. Every year after the Patriots have pulled off their latest unbelievable fourth-quarter comeback, one of my friends will send me a text that reads something along the lines of, “I wonder how many goats Belichick had to sacrifice at halftime to make sure the Patriots won that game.”
Again, this is just gallows humor from a bitter non-Patriots fan. On the other hand…go back and watch Julian Edelman’s catch from the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI and try to come up with an explanation for how that could have possibly happened that sounds more plausible than “the work of a dark and vengeful god”.
7. A PERFECT CONFLUENCE OF VARIABLES
So here we are. We’ve touched on a number of different explanations for New England’s dominance, ranging from the seemingly obvious to the far-fetched to the downright absurd. In the end though, I think there is no single overarching explanation for what makes this team so great—the New England dynasty is more a byproduct of a once-in-a-century confluence of favorable circumstances. This team landed the greatest coach in NFL history after he had washed out of his first head coaching job, then paired him with a top-five all time quarterback after every single franchise repeatedly passed him over in the draft. They were able to build consistently talented and well-rounded teams (in part because of the lure of playing with Belichick and Brady, as well as Belichick’s gift for roster-building), and they had the good fortune of playing in a division that never offered up a real challenge to their throne, as well as a top-heavy conference that featured few elite teams other than New England, Pittsburgh, and the Manning-era Colts and Broncos. They’ve benefitted from some good fortune, but they’ve also achieved the near-impossible feat of staying competitive in a salary cap-governed league (partly thanks to Brady, who repeatedly accepted contracts that paid him well below his market value). I don’t know if it’s better to be lucky than good, but the Patriots have proved that it’s best if you can be both. And even though their interminable dominance can seem incredibly tiresome, the sport of football will miss them when they are gone.