Monday, February 4, 2019

Patriots' Sustained Greatness Demands Respect

In a defensive struggle during which the teams set the record for the fewest points scored in a Super Bowl, the New England Patriots prevailed 13-3 over the Los Angeles Rams. The tandem of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady has advanced to nine Super Bowls and won six of them. Brady has won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback has played in and he has won more Super Bowls than any other player has won, breaking Charles Haley's more than two decades old record of five. Brady has won a record four Super Bowl MVPs (breaking Joe Montana's record of three) but this year Brady's trusted slot receiver Julian Edelman won the Super Bowl MVP after compiling 10 catches for 141 yards.

Brady is now the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and Belichick is now the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl. Belichick tied George Halas and Curly Lambeau for most NFL titles won by a coach. The unprecedented run for Belichick and Brady has lasted for nearly two decades, a dynasty of unparalleled length and success in NFL history; other NFL dynasties include the 1990s Dallas Cowboys (three Super Bowl wins), the 1980s San Francisco 49ers (four Super Bowl wins), the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers (four Super Bowl wins) and the 1960s Green Bay Packers (five NFL titles, plus two Super Bowl wins against the AFL champions). The only football dynasty that compares with New England's is the 1940s/1950s Cleveland Browns, who won four All-American Football Conference titles in four seasons and then captured three NFL titles in the first six seasons after that league merged with the NFL. The Browns are the only North American professional sports team that has appeared in the championship game or championship series in each of its first 10 seasons of existence.

The 2018 NFL regular season was marked by a record setting scoring explosion, and two of the highest scoring teams were the Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots not only defeated both teams but they shut out both teams in the first halves of their respective playoff encounters. Belichick has an uncanny ability to dissect game film and devise a strategy that enables his players to maximize their strengths, minimize their weaknesses and take away whatever the other team does best.

Casual fans may have found Super Bowl LIII to be boring but football purists understand that they witnessed a strategic masterpiece, a theme that ESPN's Steve Young expounded upon right after the game. Young called this game Bill Belichick's "Sistine Chapel," a masterpiece capping Belichick's tremendous career (or at least capping it thus far, as Belichick and his Patriots show no signs of slowing down and could very well win more championships). Young added that there are many "haters" in this era of social media and hot takes but that we "are fools" if we don't step back and appreciate the greatness being displayed by the Patriots in general and Belichick in particular. Belichick modestly insists that it is all about the players but Young said to Belichick that he is going to "push back" a bit against that notion because Belichick is doing things with his players that no other coach could do.

Think about it. While Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback ever, this Patriots team is not brimming with Pro Bowl or Hall of Fame level talent. The Rams almost certainly have a more talented roster from top to bottom--but Belichick has an unparalleled ability to put his players in position to succeed while also making the other team's best players look and feel confused. The Rams' young quarterback Jared Goff appears to have a bright future but against the Patriots he looked hesitant, uncertain and largely ineffective.

When Young and the NFL Primetime crew interviewed Patriots' owner Robert Kraft, Kraft noted that the league's structure is designed ensure parity: teams that don't do well get higher draft picks and an easier schedule than teams that do well, in order to maximize the chances that in a given season one of several teams could emerge as the champion. The Patriots have defied that structural obstacle to be perennial contenders and multiple-time champions.

You don't have to like the Patriots or root for them, but if you love football and/or if you love competitive greatness then you have to respect what they have accomplished and how they have accomplished it. Young said that the Patriots have perfected turning football into an "intellectual, academic" exercise.

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