New England continues to roll along, more than a decade after Tom Brady and company emerged on the national conscience with the Tuck Rule Game and the upset of the Greatest Show on Turf. That is not likely to change this year, as they are currently listed as one of the top two favorites (along with Green Bay). The most recent run of success has not ended in a Super Bowl title, though, and it’s a little hard to believe that this will be the eighth season since they won the last one.
A simplistic view is that this proves that defense wins over offense. When the Patriots won three titles earlier in the decade, they never ranked higher than 7th in offensive yards. They were teams who relied on opportunistic defense and “bend but not break” principles that limited big plays (they averaged a finish of 13th in yards, but 3rd in points allowed in those Super Bowl years).
That would be very simplistic, though. They have played in five Super Bowls with a combined margin of 16 points. Keep the overall successes and failures the same, re-order the luck factors and a few plays here and there, from a field goal to a tip, to a catch of the helmet or a missed pass, and we might be talking about how the Patriots were close, but couldn’t get over the hump until the offense became dominant.
What is apparent, though, is that this franchise has continually re-invented and re-loaded itself during this run. How long can it go on? Eleven seasons with no losing records is a pretty long stretch by NFL history standards. If we know that they already made it a decade, though, that kind of changes things.
There have been 25 different stretches where a franchise has gone at least decade with no more than one losing season. Four franchises are doing that now (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Diego in addition to New England), another came crashing down last season (the Peyton Manning Colts) but may rebound quickly with another #1 overall star. Green Bay doesn’t technically still meet that requirement, but they have only two losing years since 1992. When people talk about how it is harder to build dynasties now, with the cap, I tend to think the cap is a more convenient excuse for excellently managed rosters to turnover talent anyway based on production. Elite franchises are still finding sustained excellence in the NFL.
For New England’s part, the stretch goes back to Bill Parcells and the Super Bowl year in 1996. The only losing season over that span was in Belichick’s first year as coach. The re-invention transitioned from Parcells to Carroll to Belichick, and from Drew Bledsoe to Tom Brady. The defenses have changed. Offensive personnel and philosophy has changed. The wins have not.
It’s easy to say that this run will last as long as Tom Brady keeps playing. Maybe, though, history would say these dynastic runs that surpass the decade mark are more coach than quarterback, though plenty have survived transitions in both. The Cleveland Browns survived the departure of the guy the franchise was named after, the star quarterback, and the player often picked as the best player of all-time and continued to be one of the best teams in the NFL. The 49ers transitioned from Walsh and Montana to Seifert and Young and were consistently one of the best teams for another decade. Dallas, with Tom Landry, went from Don Meredith and Craig Morton to Roger Staubach, then went to four NFC championship games with Danny White.
Can Hoyer or Mallett play the role of Danny White? Sitting a bench behind a star, then moving into an established offense. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be the case that New England is one hit to Brady away anymore than it was four years ago. The Patriots really re-loaded offensively in the middle of the decade. They are again re-tooling this year with the addition of Brandon Lloyd, changes on the offensive line, and getting younger at running back. The pass distribution has gone from more to the running backs, to the Randy Moss explosive downfield passing along with Welker, to most recently far more tight end involvement. The infusion of Lloyd means that we may see more downfield passing, though they are so versatile with both tight ends, Wes Welker, and Lloyd, that they may re-invent themselves from week to week in 2012, taking advantage of every matchup opportunity.
They are also trying to fix the defensive issues that have plagued them the last two seasons, going after DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont’a Hightower in the first round to address needs. With Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, they certainly have key pieces to build. Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty are still young and developing. If Jones can aid in the pass rush (which was led last year by 32-year old Andre Carter), Hightower can become a playmaker at the linebacker position, and other youngsters develop, then the Patriots can take a leap forward. The league may regret not taking advantage of the Patriots when the defense was near the bottom of the league.
I’m sorry to say, but the Hoodie and Patriots are not going anywhere any time soon. If they falter in 2012, it won’t be of the sudden collapse like the Colts last year or the 49ers in 1999. It will be because of injuries that drop them from the top. The one area that could limit them from great to merely good is the offensive line. They are replacing veteran Matt Light and probably Brian Waters, who has not reported and may be retiring. Getting younger on the offensive line isn’t a bad thing, as some great teams that fell apart did so by waiting too long and getting old in that group. Of course, the Patriots plan for these things and allocated a first round pick last year to OT Nate Solder, and now he must do what so many others have done over the last decade. Step in and produce, while the machine keeps rolling along.
[photo via US Presswire]