What is a dynasty? Well, nobody can knock them off. That's the Patriots dynasty. The Patriots are indomitable, but they aren't dominant. They're a victorious team that doesn't vanquish its Super Bowl opponents.
If we're going to call the Patriots a dynasty -- and we sort of have to after their 24-21 win over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX -- they're a minimal dynasty, the first dynasty of the Super Bowl's post-blowout age.
Winning is winning and winning big is something more. It's dominating. The Patriots don't dominate. But they win. Maybe that's the best anyone can do anymore.
The Patriots are without peer in today's NFL, left to measure themselves against the top teams in history. But take away three field goals and they might be the Buffalo Bills. While the Patriots aim at the Green Bay, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Dallas dynasties, they haven't distinguished themselves from other back-to-back champs who won less often and more convincingly.
Four years ago, when they were only good enough to beat a St. Louis Rams team that beat itself, the Patriots were the fourth Super Bowl winner in four years. A generation of great quarterbacks -- Elway, Montana, Marino, Kelly, Moon, Simms -- had left the stage. Long-term salary cap implications began leveling top programs in Dallas and San Francisco. We wondered how the league would re-order itself, and if a dynasty any longer were possible.
We've answered both questions by calling the Patriots a dynasty. But saying the Patriots are a dynasty is saying the Patriots are comparable with other dynasties. Trouble is, we begin making the comparison and the Patriots, on the face of it, don't compare that well.
Take nothing away from the Patriots, but don't put them on the top shelf, either.
The Patriots are said to stand apart from the others because they're doing it under a salary cap structure that forces flexibility. It's harder today keeping a team together. But then it's also harder for other teams to build contenders. So it's not clear, on that basis, if repeating is tougher today.
So the Patriots aren't the greatest football team of all time. Others have been more feared or more dazzling. Yes, others have been better.
But has any football team been so respected? We like thinking of the Patriots as one of the greatest ever, because they're such a heartening football team. Whatever they lack in greatness, they get it back in gratitude. They're never painted as a force like a Steel Curtain. They're a team of ordinary men, truly a people's champion.
Their quarterback was a sixth round draft pick who won his first Super Bowl a year later. Their coach failed in Cleveland, after which his lifeline as a head coach was the apron strings of Bill Parcells. Now Bill Belichick has surpassed Bill Parcells, and he's done it without all the noise.
The Patriots way is so antithetical to individual stardom that it's widely recognized their individual stars owe it to the system. If anyone with a bit of pull in the NFL had thought Tom Brady would be a star, he wouldn't have lasted until the third round, let alone the sixth. It's got to be the environment. Corey Dillon rushed for 1,000 yards every year with the Bengals, but it took the Patriots to make him a champion.
We spend so much time in sports griping about people and their antics. Our complaints would be weightless without the Patriots to give them force. The way their players change platoons without complaint. The way they take one game at a time, keep their mouths shut and play football. It couldn't happen to a more deserving outfit. People who aren't wild about the Patriots are in love with this football team.
After we hear all year about this guy with his selfishness and that guy with his grandstanding, the right kind of team comes along at the end to win the championship. The two most visible and definitive Patriots, Belichick and Brady, are discards who've come back to quietly rule football with discipline and humility.
The Patriots don't talk unless someone else talks about them first, then they talk only to tell the other guys to shut up. Last week, Philadelphia wide receiver Freddie Mitchell dissed the New England secondary and talked a little trash about New England safety Rodney Harrison. In response, Harrison simply pointed out that Mitchell is what he is, a first round draft choice (from UCLA, 2001) who hasn't broken into the starting lineup. More fame than game.
Harrison went to the San Diego Chargers as a fifth round pick from Western Illinois in 1994 and played the Super Bowl his rookie year. Eight years of losing followed and the Chargers cut Harrison loose. After all, he was 30.
The Pats signed him as a free agent in 2003. Now, he's won two Super Bowls and made six career postseason interceptions.
Harrison played the game of his life Sunday. Mitchell caught only one pass from Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Harrison caught two of those, including the clincher at the end.
The Patriots are almost too levelheaded to belong in the NFL. They never insult their fans with show business antics. If a wide receiver on that team, like Troy Brown, wants to expand himself, he doesn't become a multi-media pop idol cheese puff. He becomes a cornerback in time of need and helps his team win the Super Bowl.
The athletic excellence shown by the Patriots isn't simply talent, though the Patriots have at least enough of that. The excellence is teamwork. No one on that team has ever been touted as a game breaker who can win by himself. Knowing this, the Patriots work together, always with a point to make, but never making a point of it.
Beneath his success and evident satisfaction, Brady remains a sixth round pick who talks about winning through hard work. Motivation comes in many forms for athletes. It could even be a 20-year-old slight from a know-nothing.
As he continues proving the scouts wrong, Brady's career grows into a belly laugh on the very idea of expertise in pro football. Football people know football better than you do, and they'll tell you so the second you throw them a challenging line of questions. But they won't call Tom Brady's name if you give them five chances to do it because they're brilliant and they'd rather have Giovanni Carmazzi or Spurgeon Wynn. Those fellows must have had some kind of tools.
But Brady has three Super Bowl rings, and that's the moral of this story.
If you must, call the Patriots a dynasty now that they've proven everyone wrong. At the very least, they're great champions. Nothing better can ever be said about a team.