by Michael David Smith
As soon as the Super Bowl ended (and in some cases even before the Super Bowl), New England fans and the sports media busily debated whether the word "dynasty" can apply to the Patriots of the last three years.
Those in the pro-dynasty camp, of course, point out that the Patriots have done it in an era of parity, while those who don't believe the Patriots fit the description say New England has still won fewer Super Bowls than the Steelers of the 70s, 49ers of the 80s and Cowboys of the 90s.
But there are two problems: First, how can we judge a team when we don't know what it will do in the future? If the Patriots win the Super Bowl next year, history will certainly judge them to be a great team. But if they go 5-11, they could be largely ignored in future discussions of the all-time great teams. If we want to judge the Patriots, there's really no sense in speculating about what they might do in coming seasons. We can only judge them on what they've done during their three-year run as the best team in the league.
The second problem is, how can we compare a dominant team in 2004 with a dominant team in 1974? I've tried to judge the Patriots compared to the other great teams of the past 35 years, remembering that it's harder to win consistently now than it has been at any other time in league history.
No team has won three consecutive Super Bowls, although the Packers won the first two Super Bowls and had won the NFL Championship in the final season before the Super Bowl era. Since those Packers, the Patriots are one of eight teams to win two titles in a three-year period. For the purposes of this article, I'll refer to those teams as the eight dynasties. The other dynasties are the six teams that won consecutive Super Bowls, plus a second listing for the Cowboys who won in 1992, 1993, and then again in 1995. In chronological order, the eight dynasties are:
I wanted to compare three-season increments, which is why I separate those Steelers and Cowboys teams, even though most of the top players are the same. And for the six dynasties that won consecutive titles, I've included either the record in the season before the consecutive championships or the record in the season after, whichever is better.
At first glance, the current Patriots would seem to be the worst of the eight dynasties. Their record, 40-14 including the playoffs, is the worst.
But we need to consider how much the league has changed. Winning 40 games in three years is harder now than it was even five years ago, as evidenced by the fact that the 96-98 Broncos weren't the only 40-win team during that three-year stretch. Let's take the eight other teams that won championships during those three-season increments and call them the eight other champs. Chronologically, the eight other champs are:
Tampa Bay has gone 31-21 during the past three years. That means the Bucs have won 60% of their games, which is by far the worst of the eight other champs. This is one indication that the Patriots are playing in a tougher era for championship teams than the other seven dynasties. Comparing these Patriots to the other seven dynasties by the standard of how they compare to other champs, the current Patriots won 11% more games than did the Bucs during the past three seasons. By that standard the Patriots would rank second only to the 71-73 Dolphins, who won 87% of their games in an era when the other champions, the '71 Cowboys, won 73% of their games.
And now let's consider another one of the Patriots' accomplishments: They've had a winning record in each of the past three seasons. From a historical perspective, that's not particularly impressive. All eight dynasties had winning records in each of their three seasons. But that feat is much more impressive for the Patriots than it is for any of the other seven. The Patriots are one of only four teams that has had a winning record in each of the past three seasons. Four teams. That represents only 13% of the 31-team league. (I'm not counting the Texans because they haven't been in the league all three seasons.) That's a far smaller portion of teams having a winning record in all three seasons than any of our seven other dynasties had. So the Patriots had three straight winning records when it was much harder to do than it was for, say, the 77-79 Steelers, who were one of eight teams to have three straight winning seasons, and that was in a 28-team league.
Of course, there's no way to prove which dynasty was most impressive, and no research could convince a fan of the 1970s Steelers, 1980s 49ers or 1990s Cowboys that his team wasn't the best. But when we examine how hard it is to win consistently, there's no doubt that the Patriots have done it during the most difficult era for dynasties. Comparing them to the other teams of their era, I'd rank these Patriots second only to the 1971-73 Dolphins for the best three-season team since the three-time champion Packers.
in win %
all three years
| % of teams with
all 3 years
A few extra thoughts:
- The 2002 Bucs were the only one of the eight other champs that didn't have the second-best record during the three-season increment. The Eagles have had a better record during the past three seasons, finishing a combined 39-16. When we measure the Patriots against the Eagles instead of the Bucs, they look less impressive, with only a 3% margin in winning percentage.
- As recently as 1996-98, Denver, Green Bay and San Francisco all won 40 games in three seasons. But no teams did it in 2000-02, and only New England did it in 2001-03
- In case there's any doubt that the NFL has the most parity of the four major sports leagues, consider this: Since the Packers had the NFL's last three-peat, baseball has had two, the NBA has had three, and the NHL has had two four-peats. (Pat Riley trademarked the non-word "three-peat" when his Lakers were trying to win three straight titles. Do I need to pay him royalties for that paragraph?)
- One question that occurred to me in examining this is why the 1976 Raiders aren't remembered as one of the all-time great teams. They went 13-1 and routed Pittsburgh and Minnesota in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl, respectively. They avenged their only regular-season loss (to the Patriots) in the first round of the playoffs. John Madden was the coach, Ken Stabler led the league in passing, Hall of Famers Art Shell and Gene Upshaw manned the offensive line, Ted Hendricks and Jack Tatum led a hard-hitting defense. What more does this team need to do to get more respect from history?
- What more do the Dolphins of the early 1970s need to do to get some respect? They're rarely mentioned among the great dynasties, even though they won two Super Bowls, played in a third, had an incredible record of 75-17-1 from 1970 to 1975, and, of course, had the only perfect season in NFL history.