Counting this year’s game, there will have been 22 Super Bowls played in my lifetime. After a 37-16 beatdown of Pittsburgh to clinch yet another AFC title, my Patriots now will have played in eight of them. Remarkable! To be clear: Seven of them have occurred during the Tom Brady & Bill Belichick era; the other (Super Bowl XXXI) took place before those two were in their respective positions, yet the team was still owned by Robert Kraft. And with their ninth overall appearance, the Pats now own the record for most Super Bowl appearances of all-time.
What’s really impressive, though, is how concentrated their success has been. Again: Eight title appearances in 22 years. Only three other NFL franchises have even been to eight Super Bowls–Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Denver. The Cowboys, to their credit, made eight appearances in a 26-year period from 1970 to 1995. Meanwhile, other teams like the Steelers (four appearances in six years during the ’70’s) and the Packers (five NFL championship appearances from ’61 to ’67) have had terrific bursts of dominance, but not quite the long, sustained success enjoyed by New England. Only the 49ers, who captured five titles in a fourteen year span during the ’80’s and ’90’s, had as great of a run.
Nonetheless, the Patriots are in rarified air in terms of long-run success, not simply in relation to other NFL teams, but in the four major American sports leagues. With a win over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, they will be unrivaled.
Let’s exclude the eighth appearance that took place with Bill Parcells at the helm and look only at the Brady/Belichick era. In short: Seven Super Bowl appearances in sixteen years. The most Super Bowls any other NFL team has been to in a sixteen-year timeframe is five. That’s been achieved by both the Broncos (’86 to ’98) and the aforementioned 49ers (’81 to ’94). Looking across the other three major American sports leagues, the only other two franchises, by my estimation, that have also made seven championship appearances in sixteen years or less are the Los Angeles Lakers, who did so twice from 1980-1991 and 2000-2010, and the New York Yankees from 1996-2009.
I know what you might be thinking, and the answer is yes: I’m disregarding famed “dynasties” like the ’60’s Celtics, the great Montreal Canadian teams from the NHL’s “Original Six” era, and even the celebrated Yankees teams from the ’20’s all the way until the ’60’s. Why? Far less competition. Winning an NBA championship in the 1960’s wasn’t appreciably harder than winning a division nowadays–there were only eight-ten teams. The Canadians won a majority of their Cups with even less competition. Even the great Yankee dynasties only had to compete against seven other teams in the American League before advancing to the World Series. In short, I’m framing this discussion around modern dynasties, because the older ones played in a completely different time period-
So, back on point. We’ve established that the Patriots are at least joined by the Lakers (’80 to ’91 and ’00 to ’10) and Yankees (’96 to ’09) in terms of sustained long-run success. Am I missing anyone? Well, not really. What I mean by “sustained success” is that there really isn’t a lull where the team is not playing at a championship-caliber level. For instance, when I referenced the Cowboys earlier as being the only other team to come close to appearing in eight Super Bowls in as many seasons as the Patriots, it should be noted that Dallas was rather poor for most of the 1980’s, missing the playoffs in six out of seven years at one point. New England, on the other hand, has never had a losing season over the past sixteen seasons and has made it to at least the Divisional Round of the playoffs in thirteen of them.
Jordan’s Bulls could be worthy of mentioning. Chicago, of course, won six titles in an eight-year stretch during the 1990’s. In terms of short-run success, that period will likely never be topped. The Bulls also made it to the playoffs every year from ’84 to ’98 after they drafted MJ. In that respect, they certainly deserve to be included in this conversation.
Here’s why the Brady/Belichick run has been better. Again, I’m qualifying this debate in terms of long-term success. New England has made seven Super Bowl appearances in a sixteen-year stretch while the Bulls made it six NBA Finals in fourteen years. On a per-year basis, that’s actually not a large difference. However, the Patriots have also made eleven AFC Championship appearances during that same timeframe. Chicago, on the other hand, made just eight trips to the Eastern Finals.
Not only that, but isn’t there something about the nature of basketball where it’s easier to have a longer period of success? Draft Michael Jordan and you’re almost guaranteed to win multiple championships in the near future. Lure LeBron James to South Beach and you’ve got the Eastern Conference on lockdown until he leaves. Strike gold by drafting Tim Duncan first overall and even a small-market team like San Antonio can morph into a dynasty.
This brings me to the Lakers’ run in the 2000’s. Seven trips to the NBA Finals in eleven years is nothing to scoff at…but I’m going to scoff at it because I’m comparing it to New England’s run of success. Los Angeles acquired two future Hall of Famers in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the mid-90’s and then Phil Jackson put the ship on cruise control for five years, winning three consecutive titles until the relationship between O’Neal and Bryant soured. But at least with Kobe still there, the Lakers were able to produce another run of success a few years later that included three more Finals appearances.
The NBA is so star-driven that it makes basketball dynasties look less impressive when compared to others from different sports. Once you land a Hall of Fame-caliber superstar, you’re almost guaranteed to have a terrific run of success (e.g. any team that LeBron has been on recently) because the NBA is less-influenced by roster depth and injuries than other sports, particularly football. While it’s certainly not easy to start an NBA dynasty, it is relatively easier to sustain it.
You could say the NFL is quarterback-driven, too. But with ten other bodies on the field, plus a defense, there’s only so much that a quarterback can control. Having experienced playing the sport, I can at least attest somewhat to how hard it is to execute even the simplest of plays given the amount of chaos that takes place during a football game. Basketball, on the other hand? It can get complex, but only to a point. When in doubt, feed the seven-foot monster you have underneath or give some space for your best scorer to go one-on-one.
To summarize, New England’s dynasty tops both the 2000’s Lakers and the ’90’s Bulls because a) it’s harder to sustain a dynasty in the NFL than it is in the NBA and b) they’ve each piled up a relatively equal amount of achievements. But what about the other great modern NBA dynasty–the Showtime Lakers? I’ll get to them in a moment.
For now, I want to turn next to the Yankees, a team that had a very similar run to this Patriots team. Like New England, New York captured multiple titles during the formative years of the “core-four” featuring Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada. Then they “struggled.” The Yankees were upset in both the ’01 and ’03 World Series’, and then couldn’t get back despite making the playoffs every year besides 2008. Of course, they finally brought home their fifth title in 2009 after assembling a stockpile of the best free agents.
Sounds a lot like New England’s run over the past fifteen years, right? Well, here’s the reason why what the Patriots have accomplished is more impressive: The salary cap. Football has one of those. Baseball, in contrast, does not. Credit the Yankees for cultivating many of their “home-grown” stars during that era (e.g. the Core Four, Robinson Cano). Nonetheless, they were able to prolong their run simply because they could spend more than the small market teams. Let me recap just a few of the free agents the Yankees spent hundreds of millions on: Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, etc. Even the gambles that didn’t pay off (e.g. Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson) didn’t effect the Yankees because they essentially had unlimited resources. Though baseball’s wealthier teams don’t have quite the same advantage over small-market clubs in the post-Moneyball era, back then it was a huge advantage. Can you imagine what Belichick would be able to do if he didn’t have cap-restrictions? My god, practically all of those seemingly premature trades of the Richard Seymour’s and the Jamie Collins’ of the world would’ve never happened. The Patriots likely would be even more dominant. In conclusion: Patriots > Yankees.
At this point, however, it’s time to pump the brakes. As it stands now, the Patriots’ dynasty ultimately falls just short to not only the Showtime Lakers of the ’80’s, but the great 49ers teams of the ’80’s and early ’90’s as well. Simply put, those Lakers teams made nine NBA Finals appearances in only twelve seasons. Regardless of whether it’s easier to sustain an NBA dynasty, those Los Angeles teams with Magic and Kareem made the Finals practically every year, winning five championships along the way. Moreover, even though the Patriots have appeared in more Super Bowls, you could certainly argue that it’s more impressive to win five titles in fourteen seasons–like the 49ers did–then go to seven in sixteen years and “only” win four.
This is why Super Bowl LI could be so monumental for the Patriots. A win would match the championship totals of each of the modern dynasties who rank slightly ahead of New England: the Showtime Lakers and the ’80’s 49ers. But it doesn’t just end there. What will separate New England’s run with a win over the Falcons from all the other modern dynasties is that they will have a great opportunity to be the best team of not one, but two decades.
With three Super Bowl titles, New England was clearly the premier team of the 2000’s. A victory in Super Bowl LI would put them on the inside track to be the team of this current decade as well. After all, they would be the only team this decade to win multiple titles. Plus, they’ve already broken a tie with Seattle and Denver for most Super Bowl appearances.
The Showtime Lakers may have owned the ’80’s, but they definitely weren’t the team of the ’90’s (Jordan’s Bulls). In the NFL, the 49ers defined the ’80’s as well, but it was Dallas who had the most success in the ’90’s. Admittedly, the Yankees may have a case to be the team of both the ’90’s and the 2000’s. The Red Sox, however, who also won two titles in the 2000’s, have a superior case mainly due to the historical importance of breaking their 86-year curse. Plus, I’ve already been over how New England’s dynasty trumps New York’s anyway. Simply put, the Patriots have a legitimate chance to become the only modern dynasty in the four major sports to be the most accomplished team of two decades.
New England has nothing else to prove. Their prolonged success during a 32-team salary cap era, replete with four Super Bowl titles, a record-breaking number of conference championships, numerous playoff appearances, and even an undefeated regular season, already gives them a legitimate case to be the greatest modern sports dynasty.
Capturing a fifth Super Bowl title would simply put them in a class unto themselves.