After years of dominating professional football, the New England Patriots appear to have their best roster yet in the Bill Belichick era.
The New England Patriots are the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
There is no fact-based argument against that claim, although some will certainly try to make one. Many will point to the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s and Pittsburgh Steelers of the ’70s. Others will back the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys of the ’80s and ’90s, respectively.
But there are obvious flaws in the arguments for all those teams. Vince Lombardi coached in a league that boasted 12 teams at the start of his tenure in Green Bay, and 16 by the end of it. The Steelers and 49ers never dealt with the salary cap, protecting them from vultures picking away at their considerable talent. Dallas dealt with the cap for two of its three titles, and within two years of free agency, saw the team rapidly diminish. The Cowboys were great, but their greatness lasted four fleeting seasons.
New England has been the league’s gold standard since 2001. Since inserting Tom Brady into the starting lineup that year, the Patriots have a regular-season record of 196-58. New England owns 25 postseason wins during that span, while only three other AFC teams have more than 10 (Steelers, Colts, Ravens). The other 12 AFC teams have 27 postseason wins between them.
The Patriots have reached seven Super Bowls in the past 16 seasons. In the 51-year Super Bowl era, only the Denver Broncos, Cowboys and Steelers have been to that many.
All of this success begins with the power trio of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Robert Kraft. Kraft is ever-involved but never meddlesome, allowing Belichick to run his football operations. While there have been missteps — most notably SpyGate — the Patriots have been rulers in a league designed to squelch kingdoms.
After winning three championships in four years between 2001-04, New England went ringless for a decade, despite a 16-0 regular season in 2007. In 2015, New England reached the mountaintop again, the only constants being Kraft, Brady and Belichick. The same held true in 2017.
With a fifth title, the Patriots cemented themselves as the Team of Two Decades.
This offseason, the overriding consensus was that New England would be relatively quiet. Over Belichick’s reign, silence in March has been the norm while the rest of the NFL throws around fistfuls of wasted cash.
Instead, the Patriots flipped the script. On March 8, they acquired tight end Dwayne Allen and a sixth-round pick from the Indianapolis Colts for a fourth-round choice. A day later, New England signed corner Stephon Gilmore for five years and $60 million.
The following afternoon, Belichick sent his first-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for star receiver Brandin Cooks, giving Brady the most talented receiver he’s had since Randy Moss. On that same day, New England acquired pass-rusher Kony Ealy from the Carolina Panthers, swapping its second-round choice for Carolina’s third rounder. The result was moving down eight spots.
The Patriots weren’t done. Instead of allowing disgruntled star corner Malcolm Butler to leave as a restricted free agent, they retained him for another year to pair with Gilmore. Meanwhile, they stole running back Mike Gillislee from the Buffalo Bills with an offer sheet while signing fullback Rex Burkhead.
The dizzying number of transactions left the Patriots with an all-star cast on both sides of the ball, seemingly improved across the board.
Going into training camp, there seems no antidote to the Patriots. Barring injuries, it’s impossible to predict anything less than 14 wins. Even with injuries, Belichick has assembled a cast that has ample fail-safes in place.
New England played four games without Brady last year, including a Thursday night affair against the playoff-bound Houston Texans. That night, Belichick had four days to get rookie Jacoby Brissett ready for his first start following a shoulder injury to backup Jimmy Garoppolo. New England won 27-0.
Rob Gronkowski was inactive for eight regular-season games. With Gronkowski, New England averaged 26 points and 372 yards per game. Without him, it notched 29 points and 400 yards per game. In the playoffs, without the biggest mismatch in football, those numbers jumped to 35 points and 451 yards.
With the exception of Brady, the Patriots could withstand a long-term injury to anybody on their offense and continue to dominate. The same can be said of the defense, with Dont’a Hightower the linchpin in the middle.
There are challengers. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs have each been to the Divisional round each of the past two seasons, and both figure to be there again come January. The Oakland Raiders are assembling an offensive behemoth, although the defense remains a legitimate red flag. If Deshaun Watson stars as a rookie, perhaps the Texans can make noise.
Still, the Patriots are far and away the favorite to reach their eighth Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era. In a league built for parity, New England is more dominant than ever, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Top 10 fantasy RBs to own in 2017
1. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
2. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
4. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
5. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
6. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
7. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
8. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
9. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
10. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
“Every drill, every thought, everything that we’ll be working on will be directly coming from me and also Jake in correlation. “This will be the one-stop shop all over the country and all over the world for these kids to continue to learn more and continue to work on their games.”
– Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on his new academy
After an offseason filled with a bevy of personal news, Wilson is making some on-field headlines again. The 28-year-old is launching a quarterback academy along with backup and teammate Jake Heaps. The idea is global, as Wilson aims to help tens of thousands of kids from around the world to become quarterbacks.
In our latest episode, I spoke with NFL insider Benjamin Allbright about the Broncos’ offense, the Chiefs GM search and more. Also, I go in-depth on quarterback camp battles and why Sammy Watkins faces a pivotal year.
This week, Marcus Mosher of Bleacher Report stops by to break down the NFC East. Plus, I look at which teams could surprise, and why a great rivalry from yesteryear is back in vogue.
Ohio is the only state with multiple NFL teams and zero Super Bowl wins.
Info learned this week
1. Demaryius Thomas speaks on Denver QB battle
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010, the Broncos are hopeful a new coaching staff can lead the way back to January football. New head coach Vance Joseph will make his first major decision this summer, when he chooses either Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian as the starting quarterback. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has a strong opinion on the subject.
Thomas didn’t state which quarterback he wants to see under center come Week 1 but he did express a desire to know who the choice is by the second week of the preseason. It’s not an unreasonable request. Whoever wins the job will begin getting all of the first-team reps, allowing him to develop chemistry with Thomas and running mate Emmanuel Sanders.
Denver isn’t the only AFC team dealing with a quarterback controversy. The Houston Texans are also trying to figure out who their starter will be, with veteran Tom Savage and rookie Deshaun Watson battling it out. If Watson plays well in the exhibition slate, expect him to have the upper hand.
2. Sam Darnold considering extended USC stay
On Wednesday, news broke that USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold, potentially a top-overall pick in next year’s draft, is pondering two more seasons in college football, per NFL.com. Several teams are swooning over the possibility of nabbing a player many think could become a franchise quarterback.
Should Darnold stay in school for at least another year, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen will become the likely headliners in 2018. It could be a very quarterback-needy group at the top of the draft, with the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers likely to be at the top of the list. If Darnold stays put, one of those teams could be out of luck.
3. Zach Orr continues making trips
After visiting with the Detroit Lions in late June, free-agent inside linebacker Zach Orr took another pair of meetings last week. The 25-year-old met with the Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets, continuing to weigh all his options following an abrupt return to football.
Orr played his first three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before announcing his intent to retire in January due to a vertebrae that hadn’t fully formed. However, Orr never officially retired and the Ravens didn’t tender him as a restricted free agent. The unusual situation leaves Orr, a second-team All-Pro, free on the market.
4. Jay Cutler gets outrageous vote of confidence
Former Chicago Bears defensive lineman and Hall of Famer Dan Hampton apparently likes Jay Cutler more than most in the Windy City. On Saturday, Hampton stated that if Cutler was Chicago’s quarterback in the 1980s, the Bears would have won four Super Bowls instead of their lone 1985 triumph.
While it’s true Cutler is statistically better than Jim McMahon, Mike Tomczak and Jim Harbaugh, he wouldn’t have added many championships. The 49ers were the gold standard in the 80s, with a guy named Joe Montana running the show. Most would also take Phil Simms of the New York Giants over Cutler, with Simms winning two Super Bowls.
This is a case of wishful thinking.
5. Todd Marinovich starts a new chapter
Once a can’t-miss NFL prospect, Todd Marinovich finds himself picking up the pieces of his life. The former Los Angeles Raiders quarterback by way of USC is 48 years old and sober, hopefully the start of a new chapter in this twisted tale.
Marinovich is competing for a job as the quarterback of the SoCal Coyoes, a team in the World Developmental Football League, but that is besides the point. Hopefully his sobriety continues, and life continually gets better for a man with new vigor.
The four NFC South teams — Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina and New Orleans — have never played an inter-division postseason game. On the other end of the spectrum, the NFC East’s four franchises — New York, Washington, Dallas and Philadelphia — have all played each other at least once in the playoffs.
Home to a pair of 12-win teams last season, the AFC West stands to be the NFL’s toughest division once more in 2017. Both the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders return strong rosters while the Los Angeles Chargers hope for changed injury luck in a new city.
The Denver Broncos, meanwhile, are expected to be anywhere from middling to terrific. Denver has an unsettled quarterback situation with Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian, but the defense remains strong and the offensive line stands to be better with Garret Bolles and Ronald Leary in the fold. If the Broncos get good play from their quarterback, they should be a factor in the West.
The division crown may come down to Oakland and Kansas City’s Week 14 game at Arrowhead Stadium. Derek Carr is 1-5 in his career against the Chiefs, but breaking through that barrier might be the last obstacle to a sustained run of excellence for Oakland in the West. Of course, it won’t be easy taking down a team that is 41-23 since Andy Reid’s arrival in 2013.