Well my sleeping pattern is well and truly ruined at the moment after staying up to watch Super Bowl LI (51 for those of you not fluent in Roman Numerals), but it was totally worth it! What looked set to be a huge victory for the Atlanta Falcons turned into the largest comeback ever by the New England Patriots. Down 21-3 at half time and looking a shadow of the team we’d seen dominating the AFC all season, the Pats were soon 25 points down courtesy of Tevin Coleman’s touchdown. Despite this, they managed to turn the game around to draw level with less than a minute remaining on the clock, and won it with James White’s second rushing touchdown of the night on the opening drive of overtime. This late comeback from the Patriots turned an OK Super Bowl into probably the greatest Super Bowl ever, with 24 records being set and 7 equalled over the course of the game.
When the Falcons went 25 points up, I said to my cousin that if any team could turn this around it would be the Patriots, though I admit even I didn’t think they would be able to do that. In a league designed to keep teams as equal as possible (drafting in reverse order, salary caps etc.) the Patriots still manage to dominate. Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach ahead of the 2000 season, New England have only failed to make the postseason on 3 occasions (also the only seasons they have not won their division) and have made it to 7 Super Bowls, winning 5 of them. Throughout this, they have constantly updated their squads, with new, unheard of players coming in to replace the veterans. The one position where they stayed the same (barring injuries or suspensions) is at Quarterback, where Tom Brady has been the starter ever since taking over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in the second game of the 2001 season.
The Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era New England Patriots are clearly one of the greatest dynasties in the history of modern sport, up there with Fergie’s Manchester United. Below are the reasons that I have picked out as to why they deserve this recognition.
Throughout the years, it has become commonplace for fans to look at the Patriots’ receiver corps and wonder who is actually going to stand out. Since Belichick took over, the Pats have only drafted 2 receivers in the 1st round: Tight Ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson. New England has become famous for picking up receivers that no-one else wants, either late in the draft or in trades where their current team considers them surplus to requirements.
Wes Welker was an undrafted free agent who lasted 1 game with the San Diego Chargers and spent 3 seasons at Miami before being traded to the Pats. During his time in New England, he caught more passed than any player in the league (led the league in receptions in 2007, 2009 and 2011) and also ranked top 5 in yardage. He was also selected to at least one of either the Pro Bowl or the All-Pro Team in every season with the Patriots. Though he scored more touchdowns in his first season with the Broncos, he never managed as many catches or yards in a season after leaving New England.
Julian Edelman was the 232nd pick of the 2009 draft, going to New England in the seventh round. Often used as a kick/punt returner, and even spelling as a defensive back, Edelman was frequently used as a replacement for Welker when he was not available. Since Welker left, Edelman has often been Brady’s favourite wide receiver, and it was his highlight reel catch that kept their game-levelling drive going at the weekend.
An undrafted free agent in 2008, Danny Amendola spent the 2008 season on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, and started the 2009 season on the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad, before being signed by the St. Louis Rams in late in September 2009. One of the more recognised receivers in the Rams squad, he would not be considered a star at the WR position. Though he may not be as hyped as Welker and Edelman have been in the Patriots offense, he was probably their star receiver in Super Bowl LI, making 8 catches for 78 yards, a touchdown and 2 point conversion.
Chris Hogan was another undrafted receiver, failing to make the roster with the 49ers, Giants and Dolphins before finally making the Buffalo Bills active roster after some time on their practice squad. In 3 seasons with Buffalo, he started only 6 games, but in his 1st season at the Patriots he started 14 and appeared in 15. He posted a number of personal bests in his first season in New England, including a franchise record 180 yards in a playoff game against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game (his highest yardage in an entire season with the Bills had been 450 in the 2015 regular season). A player Bill Belichick saw as having major potential, Hogan did a great job of helping the Patriots cope with the loss if injured tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Unlike the other receivers mentioned, Randy Moss was a 1st round pick (21st overall) to the Minnesota Vikings in 1998. He posted impressive stats for the first 5 seasons but then 3 seasons of injuries saw a decline in his stats, even after moving to Oakland in 2005. He was traded to the Patriots in 2007, with a number of legal controversies to his name and critics saying his skills had deteriorated. However he starred over 3 full seasons, including New England’s 16-0 campaign. After leaving the Patriots in early 2010, he never again managed to reach 30 catches of 500 receiving yards in a season.
This doesn’t even just to apply to receivers, all across the roster, New England have gone for players that no-one else considers to be valuable or who have question marks surrounding them. These players will frequently become stars in the Patriots team, often not performing to the same level if they go to another team. The Patriots, better than anyone, seem to find players who can fit into their system rather than going out and getting the big names. They are not afraid to let big players go – see Jamie Collins’ trade to Cleveland this season – as they know they will find players who can fill the void. This is very much a team rather than a group of individuals like you may find in some organisations.
The 1st quarterback to win 5 Super Bowls, Tom Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. Many critics will follow the same line as Osi Umenyiora that Brady is a very good quarterback in a very effective system. It is a fair point, considering Matt Cassel managed an 11-5 season in 2008 with Brady injured, and this season New England opened 3-1 with a combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. However, the way that Brady helped lead the Pats back from the brink on Sunday night showed the true quality that he has. Even earlier in the game, many of the incomplete passes were dropped by the receivers. He may be benefiting from the system, but it takes a great player to win as much as he has – 25-9 in the postseason – especially as he has been named Super Bowl MVP a whopping 4 times and league MVP twice.
Let’s consider some of Tom Brady’s stats as if he was a franchise (comparisons excluding New England):
- Franchise Brady has won 5 Super Bowls. Only the Steelers and Cowboys (6) and 49ers (5) can boast as many Super Bowl wins.
- Franchise Brady has appeared in 7 Super Bowls. Only the Steelers, Cowboys and Broncos (8) have appeared in as many.
- By my calculations, Franchise Brady’s 25-9 postseason record works out as 0.735. The highest all-time postseason winning percentage for a franchise belongs to the Baltimore Ravens, who hold a record of 0.652
Not bad for a player picked in round 6 (pick 199) in the 2000 NFL draft, the 7th quarterback to come off the board!
While it is true that Brady hasn’t done this on his own, he has been one of the few recurring pieces in the puzzle over the past 16 seasons and is clearly a clutch performer. He has always performed at a high level, and when he has then been given a top quality receiver like Moss or Gronkowsi, his stats have gone to another level. Matt Ryan was rightly named the League MVP this season, but if Brady had not been suspended for the first 4 games, things could have been hugely different. His completion percentage this season (67.4%) was second only to the 16-0 season of 2007 and his 28:2 TD:Interception ratio rightly put Brady second on this year’s MVP list.
He may be 39 now, but Brady shows no signs of slowing down in his quest for greatness. His ability to read the defense is second to none and his all-round game just seems to be improving as he learns when to scramble effectively, as noticed with the 1st down he gained on the ground late in the Super Bowl comeback. As long as he can stay healthy and keep the motivation, there is no reason Brady cannot continue to dominate the league for a number of years.
The puppet master
Throughout the above sections, I have mentioned about how the Patriots manage to maintain their success despite a constant replacement of top players with new, unheard of talent. Perhaps the only person who has been more of a constant over this time is head coach Bill Belichick.
Often surly and keeping his cards close to his chest when speaking to the press, Belichick chooses to let the team’s performance on the pitch speak for him. This is a player who would rather get a number of later-round draft picks rather than one top-round pick, so that he can find the players with potential who fit into the system of football that he wants to play. He also seems to know the rules of the game better than almost everyone and will often push the rules to the limit and find any loophole he can to get an advantage over the opposition, as we have seen with his use of elligible and inelligible receivers.
Vince Lombardi got a trophy named after him. John Madden got a video game series. What will Bill Belichick get when he retires?
Haters gonna hate
Only the top teams get to the point where they are almost universally hated by every other team’s fan. The Cowboy’s reputation as “America’s Team” and the Patriots’ decade and a half of dominance have led to almost all other fans having a deep hatred of them. Much of this will be down to jealousy, but of course, any little misdemeanour will be picked up on by others. I’m not saying that Spygate and Deflategate were little misdemeanours, but they have led to many fans trying to suggest (hopefully tongue in cheek) that any success is due to devious methods and league conspiracies.
The top franchises will always end up with negative press, but they can come through this and continue to not just impress, but also dominate.
It may not be until Belichick and Brady are gone that we realise just how impressive a dynasty this was. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United have not just struggled to be at the top, they have struggled to compete enough to get near the top! Will the Patriots go in the same direction? I’m sure Patriots fans will be hoping they don’t have to find out for a number of years yet.
What are your thoughts on the Patriots? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PStetheridge