Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pre-Preseason Preview. Say It Fast Three Times

Rookies report to Patriots' training camp today, thus beginning the NFL season, more or less. The pro football season has more beginnings than most sports, what with the draft, mini-camps, etc. No wonder the league has never been able to market its actual Opening Day with its accustomed success.

Accordingly, pro football has many more season previews than most sports. ESPN has been running previews of the 2009 season on a near-hourly basis since the wrapup of its Super Bowl post-game wrapup. This despite the fact preseason previews are more worthless in football than in any other game, as what happened to Tom Brady last season ought to have proved once and for all.

(It didn't. Previewers in all media have merely taken their Pats' 2008 season preview, added the phrase "if Brady's knee is fully recovered" and reprinted them, saving time and originality.)

But what's a commentator to do? Let me take a bold stance and assess New England thusly: The Patriots Super Bowl chances are as good as anyone's and better than most. That ought to stir up some hate click-throughs, don't you think?

Actually, there IS something worth noting about the 2009 Pats before they formally come into existence down at Foxboro this week. What they are attempting to do is historically unique. Should New England win Super Bowl XLIV next February, they will set themselves apart from all of the previous dominant teams known slightly inaccurately as "dynasties." To a certain extent, they already have.

Dynasties (which we will define here as a multi-championship team with the same head coach and quarterback) have followed an invariable pattern. They are created, they dominate, they fall. Once a perennial champion becomes an ex-champ for more than a season or two, it stays an ex-champ for a very long time indeed. Dynasties don't reload, and most often don't rebuild, either. Consider the following list of conventional wisdom approved dynasties.

1940s Bears: Won 4 titles between 1940-1946. Didn't play in another title game until 1963.
1950s Browns: Won 3 titles between 1950-1955. Didn't win another until 1964, by which time Otto Graham and Paul Brown were long gone.
1960s Packers: Won 5 titles between 1961-1967. Vince Lombardi leaves. Wins next title in 1996.
1970s Steelers: Four Super Bowl wins from 1974-1979. Next win, 2006.

1980s-1990s 49ers: Here's the closest analogy to the Pats. The 49ers won 4 Super Bowls through the 1981-1989 season, then won again in 1994. But they changed quarterbacks from Joe Montana to Steve Young in that period, too. Was it the same dynasty? Would it have been the same Pats team if Matt Cassel had led them to the title last year? Beats me? For purposes of argument, I'll say no. The 1994 Niners were Young's team, with all the baggage of replacing an all-time great he carried. Of course, Young was an all-time great, too.

That, obviously is the crux of the dynastic pattern. Historic teams are composed of historic individuals, who, by definition, aren't easily replaced, especially coaches and quarterbacks. Football's violence insures entropy functions more ruthlessly than anywhere else in the known world of physics. To me, the strongest argument to be made that the 49ers were the greatest team in history (which otherwise is not wholly convincing) is the single sentence "We were smart enough to be able to replace Joe Montana."

Which brings us to the Patriots. They won three NFL titles in the four seasons between 2001-2004. There have been four seasons since, and the Pats still have the same coach and quarterback (2008 excepted). In all respects but one, they have fended off entropy more successfully than any previous dynasty. New England's record, playoffs included, in 2005-2008 is 54-16, which is almost the same as its 2001-2004 record of 57-16. Almost.

The difference, we need hardly point out, is in those three extra wins. They represent the Super Bowl victories of the true dynastic years in New England. Since then, the Patriots have been a dominant team That Can't Win the Big Ones. Don't laugh. The only teams I found that came close to winning as often without winning a title over multiple seasons as the Pats have since 2005 were the Raiders of the early 70s and the Colts of this decade before their Super Bowl win. And what did people say about them?

The Patriots from 2001-2004 resembled all past dynasties. Since then, they have stood alone. They have no parallel in NFL history (for reasons stated, I reject the 49ers comparison). Dominant teams do not slip to a sustained period of close but no cigar. They slip, and then they fall right down the basement stairs. In an odd but very real way, what the Pats have done while NOT winning titles that is the best evidence for their claim to stand first among the great teams of history.

It's not a claim they're likely to make. I can just picture Bill Belichick's face if I was to run this essay past him in person. But it would, or should, make a 2009 NFL championship the sweetest one of his career, and that of every other person associated with the franchise. It would, to quote Bum Phillips, "kick down the damn door" in Canton, Ohio. It'd kick down every damn door in pro football history.

Edit: What is history without footnotes? I should add the Steve Young 49ers to my list of dominat teams accused of Not Being Able to Win the Big Ones, since I am counting them as a different team that the Joe Montana 49ers, and since they sure as hell got that label from football pundits everywhere.


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