Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, stood in the home locker room at Gillette Stadium last Sunday evening, holding the AFC championship trophy and glancing around at an elated group of players.
“This one is pretty special,” Kraft said. “I love this team. This locker room is very special. What a great group of young men.”
New England had just beaten the Baltimore Ravens to reach the Super Bowl. That really was nothing new to the Patriots, who will play in their fifth championship game in the last 11 seasons next Sunday evening in Indianapolis, all of them with Bill Belichick as coach and Tom Brady at quarterback. Belichick, Brady and the Patriots will try to secure their fourth Super Bowl title during that span when they face the New York Giants.
But this wasn’t business as usual for the Patriots and their owner. The team is back in the Super Bowl for the first time in four years, the longest drought since New England began collecting Lombardi trophies in the 2001 season. For Kraft, the return to the sport’s biggest stage comes at the end of a trying season that began with him helping to solve the NFL’s labor crisis even as he grieved the loss of his wife Myra, who died in July at age 68 after a battle with cancer.
“We knew we had an angel smiling down on us,” Kraft said.
During their run of dominance, the Patriots rarely have been seen as sentimental favorites outside New England. Fans in other cities still take to radio call-in shows and Internet message boards to assail Belichick and the Patriots for the Spygate videotaping scandal that was uncovered during the 2007 season. But even if these Patriots are far removed from being the popular underdogs who upset the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf” in February 2002, the stretch of on-field excellence crafted by Belichick and Brady will be remembered as one of the NFL’s most enduring dynasties.
“If you don’t rank them right up there with the [Vince] Lombardi-era Packers and the Bill Walsh-era 49ers, you would be wrong,” said former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. “That’s the stratosphere you have to talk about, with what Bill has accomplished and what Tom has accomplished.”
Lombardi, with Bart Starr as his quarterback in Green Bay, coached the Packers to five NFL titles plus victories in the first two Super Bowls in nine seasons between 1959 and ’67. Walsh, with Joe Montana at quarterback, coached the 49ers to three Super Bowl triumphs in 10 seasons between 1979 and ’88.
Three coach-and-quarterback combinations — the Cowboys’ Tom Landry and Roger Staubach, the Steelers’ Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw and the Bills’ Marv Levy and Jim Kelly — reached four Super Bowls together. They will be surpassed by Belichick and Brady, who are attempting to match the four Super Bowl wins by Noll and Bradshaw.
“In the worst-case scenario, even if they don’t win another one . . . they’re at least in the discussion” about the greatest coach-quarterback duos in history, said former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck. “Five in 11 years? That’s insane. And you have to remember that Brady missed a year when he was hurt. It’s pretty incredible.”
With his appearance Feb. 5, Belichick will be one Super Bowl shy of Don Shula’s record of six for a coach. Kraft contended recently that, in his view, Belichick should be considered as the greatest coach in the sport’s history because he has dominated during the salary cap era, with the league’s economic system designed to promote competitive balance.
Kraft hired Belichick after Belichick compiled a modest 36-44 record with the Cleveland Browns in his first NFL head coaching assignment, then watched Belichick lose 14 of his first 20 games with the Patriots.
“I had people sending me tapes of him doing press conferences and heads of networks telling me I shouldn’t hire him,” Kraft said at a news conference a few days before the AFC title game. “But what I learned is that this guy really knew the game. I think Bill’s brilliance is understanding what fits for our team.”
The Patriots turned things around after a 1-3 start in Belichick’s second season and won their first Super Bowl to start a run of three titles in four seasons. Those Patriots teams were known for resourcefulness and sound defensive tactics. Belichick and former front-office chief Scott Pioli made the most of less-celebrated free agent additions, and Belichick wasn’t afraid to cut ties with veteran players when he thought it was necessary.
“With Bill, I think you have to rank him up there in maybe the top three or so coaches in history at this point,” Theismann said. “You maybe have to put him in the same place as a personnel evaluator. The people come and go — Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy. . . . You create an environment where you have an expectation for your players. That’s what Bill does with the Patriots.”
Belichick has changed with the times, adjusting to life without Pioli and top coaching lieutenants Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. His team’s style of play also has been modified. The Patriots’ last two Super Bowl-winning teams had top-10 defenses. This year’s ranked 31st in the league during the regular season. But Brady threw for more than 5,000 yards in the most pass-happy season in league history.
“From the 2001 team to now, you have seen the offense evolve,” former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said recently. “You’ve seen that team evolve to where early on, the defense and special teams were carrying a quarterback who was developing. Now it’s the other way around.”
The clutching-and-grabbing by Patriots defenders against Indianapolis Colts receivers during the 2003 AFC championship game is considered one catalyst for the league’s crackdown on illegal contact by defensive backs in the 2004 season. The Patriots responded by turning the new rules in their favor. Their last two Super Bowl teams, the 2007 club and this one, have been high-powered offensive teams.
“I think what Tom has accomplished is comparable to what Joe Montana did,” Theismann said. “They’ve both won with different types of teams. The Patriots are winning now with a tight end-based offense. They’ve won with defense-oriented teams.”
The Patriots’ play has been accompanied by good fortune, from getting Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft to benefiting from the then-obscure “tuck rule” to beat the Oakland Raiders in the playoffs en route to their first Super Bowl title, to Ravens place kicker Billy Cundiff yanking his 32-yard field goal try wide left with 11 seconds remaining on Jan. 22.
But the Patriots have made good decisions to accompany their good luck. Brady ascended to the starting job when Drew Bledsoe was injured, but Belichick stuck with the young quarterback long before Brady assembled Hall of Fame credentials.
“I was in Boston when they made him the starter,” said Hasselbeck, who played at Boston College. “He was playing pretty well. But it would have been easy to go back to Drew Bledsoe when he got healthy. No one would have said anything. Everyone acts like that was an easy decision, and it wasn’t.”
It’s not only the coach who sets high expectations for the club. In the Pro Bowl locker room soon after the Patriots’ second straight Super Bowl triumph, Brady already was telling Patriots teammates that no team had won three straight championships, Bruschi said.
The Patriots have gone six seasons, an eternity by their standards, without a Super Bowl victory. Their Super Bowl loss to the Giants in 2008 began a three-game postseason skid that ended this year.
But now the Patriots have a chance to restore a more familiar NFL order after a season that began on the heels of a 41 / 2-month NFL lockout. Kraft has called this Patriots team his extended family, one that helped him cope with the sorrow of his wife’s death. It could end with him holding another Super Bowl trophy thanks largely to the efforts of his coach and quarterback.
If Belichick and Brady win their fourth Super Bowl together, Theismann said, they easily could be considered the best coach and quarterback combo the sport has ever seen.
“This,” he said, “would elevate them to another level.”