Patriots are linked to NFL’s dynasty chain

January 25, 2015 Posted by admin

Dynasties in professional football may be measured by a different standard and a shorter span than were the Mings and Romanovs but the essential definition is the same — sustained primacy across generations. In the National Football League, where parity is the orchestrated objective, dynasties aren’t calculated so much by championships won as by appearances in the title game and in the playoffs.

By that standard five franchises have stood out during the past half-century — the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, and the Patriots. Since 1960 that quintet has won a combined 26 NFL crowns, played for the championship 39 times, and competed in the postseason 128 times.

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What sets the Patriots apart from the rest is that they’ve consistently made it to January in an age of free agency and a salary cap that make for annual roster churn. “They’ve clearly figured out how to deal with continuity in the discontinuity era,” observed Steve Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback who earned three Super Bowl rings with the 49ers.

Since 2001, New England — which will meet defending champion Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX next Sunday in Glendale, Ariz. — has reached the title game six times, has won it thrice, and qualified for postseason play 12 times. “The Patriots don’t win it every year,” said Young, “but they’re around it every year.”

It’s no coincidence that since the Patriots returned to the playoffs after a three-year absence they’ve had the same owner (Robert Kraft), same coach (Bill Belichick), and same quarterback (Tom Brady). All of the previous dynasties had that stability in common. Not only the stability of their key triumvirate but also stability of identity, of philosophy, and of expectation.

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“The Patriot Way, you know, it’s a hard way to live,” remarked former New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who won three rings, played in five Super Bowls, and participated in the playoffs nine times during his 13 seasons with the team. “There’s always pressure.”

The pressure comes from the daily demand for personal accountability, from the top down. “We had a sense, and it started with [coach] Bill Walsh, that when things go wrong, he’s accountable,” said Young, who’s now an ESPN analyst. “At the start of the season he’d say, ‘If we don’t win the Super Bowl it’s my fault, but some of you might not want to be around for the ride next year.’ That’s the way we all felt — if I don’t do my job really well, we’ll lose. I remember when our equipment man, Ted Walsh, couldn’t get the washing machine to work and he was freaking out. He was saying, ‘This isn’t right, we won’t be right.’ ”

Core belief

Each of the dynasties has been notable for its annual and absolute focus on winning the Super Bowl. For most all of the seasons when the Packers had their eight-year run under Vince Lombardi during the 1960s, only the conference winners played in the championship game. After the 1964 season, when Green Bay finished second to Chicago and lost to St. Louis in the consolation Playoff Bowl, Lombardi called it “a game for losers played by losers.”

“He said if you guys lose next year, I’m not going with you,” recalled Dave Robinson, the Hall of Fame linebacker who won three rings with the Packers. “You have to understand Vince’s definition of a loser. There’s one game at the end of the season and there’s one winner. Everyone else is a loser.”

Defeat was unthinkable to Lombardi, whose teams won all but the first of their six title matches. “There is no way — NO WAY — the Green Bay Packers are going to lose this football game,” he told his players before they dismantled the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, in the inaugural Super Bowl.

Belief in the man on the sideline and faith in his game plan have been common to the franchises that frequently play for table stakes. “The best team in the NFL is sitting right here in this room,” Chuck Noll, who’d built the Steelers out of scrap metal, told his players a few days before they upset the favored Raiders on the road for the 1974 conference championship and went on to beat Minnesota for the first of their four Super Bowl triumphs in six years.

Walsh, whose 49ers won four titles in nine years in the 1980s, later said that those Pittsburgh teams were the best ever. “We might have given you a run for your money,” Walsh told Steelers tackle Gordon Gravelle, as recounted by author Gary Pomerantz. “But you were the best team ever.”

Those Steeler teams also remained the most intact. Their core of Hall of Famers — quarterback Terry Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, center Mike Webster, defensive tackle Joe Greene, linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and defensive back Mel Blount — played for a combined 114 seasons in black and gold.

“We’re just like the Ringling Brothers circus,” cornerback J.T. Thomas told Pomerantz. “They lost four elephants, a giraffe, and a gorilla but the show went on. The same thing will happen here.”

Thirteen of the Green Bay starters from the 1961 champions still were starters for the 1966 squad, including nine Hall of Famers, most notably quarterback Bart Starr. “I can read the lineup to you right now,” said Robinson, who started alongside Ray Nitschke and Lee Roy Caffey for six years.

The Cowboys won three titles from 1992 through 1995 with
13 of the same starters, including Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin.

Lineup predictability leads to the continuity of the locker room culture that sustains success. “I think it was vital to have that stability,” said former 49ers guard Guy McIntyre, who won three rings. “It was carryover from one year to the next. You have guys who could carry the message of the organization, guys like Ronnie Lott and Keena Turner and Joe Montana and Roger Craig and Jerry Rice, and that message is consistent. It helps the other players to buy into what’s going on, that sense that it’s not something fabricated. It’s genuine.”

Drawing power

What makes the Patriots’ ongoing run impressive is that except for a handful of perennial pillars their lineup has been in steady flux during recent seasons with a carousel of running backs, receivers, and defensive backs. Brady and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork are the only holdover starters from the 2007 Super Bowl team and only seven starters remain from the 2011 Super Bowl team.

Unlike earlier dynasties, New England’s success in an era of discontinuity depends upon eternal mixing and morphing. “The game plans of the Patriots are constantly changing with the opponent,” said Bruschi, who’s now an ESPN analyst. “And so the player that they look for is one that can be a chameleon. The more you can do, the multiple positions you can play . . . ”

The near-guarantee of a playoff appearance and a chance at a ring has been a powerful magnet for free agents such as Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, who signed before the season and immediately bolstered the secondary.

“Guys know they have a better chance of getting to the postseason with New England,” said McIntyre. “So free agents, especially guys near the end of their career say, if I’m going to go anywhere that’s where I’m going to go.”

In the ’60s, when they had the option of signing with or jumping to an AFL club, the Packers stars stayed put. “One year I went in and asked for a $15,000 raise and Vince gave me $5,000,” recalled Robinson. “He said, you know every year you play for me you always make extra money at the end of the year. Every year I played for Vince I had another paycheck coming.”

Lombardi, who was both coach and general manager, decided who got the paychecks. “He was the general and we were the privates,” Hall of Fame defensive back Willie Wood once said. “You didn’t ever go over his head because you couldn’t. There was nobody to go to.”

For nearly three decades the Cowboys had the same owner (Clint Murchison Jr.), same general manager (Tex Schramm), and same coach (Tom Landry). Players came and went but The System endured as the club made the playoffs 18 times between 1966 and 1985, reached the Super Bowl five times, and won it twice. “The System worked on insecurity,” defensive back Cliff Harris, a six-time Pro Bowler, told Sports Illustrated. “I never knew whether I was going to be back, even in my All-Pro years.”

Dynasties are built both on predictability and uncertainty, with players frequently reminded of their disposability. “Vince said, we have planes and trains and boats that leave here every day and taxicabs, too,” said Robinson, who ended his career with the Redskins.

Logan Mankins, who’d been a Foxborough fixture for nearly a decade, jetted off one day to Tampa Bay after Revis had jetted in.

Next weekend Revis, whose fingers remained unadorned after seven years elsewhere, will be playing for a ring, which is why he opted for a tricornered franchise that has come to expect no less. “You’ve got to love the pressure and live for the pressure to play in New England,” said Bruschi. “That’s the way it is.”

John Powers can be reached at

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