By Jason Keidel
With their fifth Super Bowl since Y2K, the New England Patriots — a corporate euphemism for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick — have made the most remarkable run in NFL history.
The Patriots are not the best team in NFL history. They can’t be, in this Wild-West iteration of free agency, where a turnstile is planted in front of every locker room. The 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers would have clobbered the Patriots. As would have the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, or the ’85 Bears, or the ’93 Cowboys. But that’s not a fair account or comparison. Those teams were able to build a team and then stand back and admire their handiwork for a few years.
Tom Brady has played with (literally) hundreds of wideouts, linemen and running backs. No team feasts better on undrafted players and discarded stars. No one has a better plan.
We abhor opaque words like “Process.” We want to appoint a player, anoint a star. And New England certainly has one in Tom Brady — who, despite our protests, established himself as the greatest quarterback in the history of pro football.
But the Patriots are more than that. It is, forgive me, the process, the secret sauce, the esprit de corps that allows them to plow on in a sport that does all it can to destroy the dynasty.
It starts with the two headliners, of course. The fact that Brady, who could have commanded biblical salaries, commensurate to stars he’s beaten routinely. Yet his average salary cap hit over the last decade is under $10 million. Sure, he dips his beak in the endorsement well, but so do other high-end quarterbacks, from Aaron Rodgers to the Manning brothers. Yet they don’t offer a hometown discount. (Eli makes around $20 million per season.)
But for this team, in this NFL age of anarchy, to stick with one head coach when the rest of the teams just in the AFC East have hired 24 since Belichick abandoned his 24-hour post as HC of the NYJ is unheard of. For Belichick to want to do the same thing, in slightly mutating form, for all these years, speaks to his monolithic commitment to his craft.
Shortly before the Super Bowl, Belichick said he looks for three things in all these unknown players who suddenly blossom under his wing — love of football, unselfishness and hard work.
Sure, we cynics could assert that these are long-held hallmarks of success, a gridiron derivative of Lombardi. But every generation tries to improve upon the prior. And, to that end, Belichick has secured the new-age algorithm for dominance.
What is the plague that befalls every budding dynasty? It is the sense that any success is the result of individual effort. So the safety who made the key interception or the wideout who scored the winning touchdown thinks he’s the link that keeps the chain intact. He becomes wrapped in a membrane of self-importance. Then, in this era of free agency, his agent speed-dials the GM and asks for money he knows the franchise can’t pay without harming the club.
So this formula of adding layers of selfless players not only flies in the face of NFL ideology, it runs against the current of human condition. We all want to think we’re special, that without us, the building will collapse.
But when the three men atop the pyramid — owner, coach and quarterback — are not only bored with praise but also have no interest in claiming a foothold on credit, then how can a second-tier player make any claims?
If you need a perfect microcosm of the Patriot ethos, consider Belichick’s early-morning presser today. Just hours after seizing his fifth Lombardi Trophy, he offered the stock bromides about teamwork and hard work, then, as only he can, declared that the New England Patriots are officially five weeks behind the rest of the league in terms of preparation for the 2017 season.
It tells you everything that the only men in a greater hurry to get off the stage than Roger Goodell are the people he entrusted with that Super Bowl trophy. There’s more work to be done. And that should give the rest of the league a deflated feeling.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.