We all — well, most of us — agree with you: The Patriots are an insufferable football machine that must be stopped. But here’s the thing: Can anyone stop them? Five weeks before the season kicks off, New England is favored to win every game it plays in 2017. Sixteen years since their first Super Bowl win and 10 since their 16–0 regular season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the class of the NFL. So, welcome to — ugh, yes — Patriots Week! Ahead of what could be the most dominant New England season yet, read along as we take a look at the good, the bad, and the Jets-y of modern football’s defining dynasty.
The New England Patriots are the unquestioned team of the century, the kings of the 2000s and, so far, most of the 2010s. Since 2001—the year Tom Brady took over at quarterback and led the franchise to its first Super Bowl championship—New England has amassed a league-best 196 regular-season wins, a league-best .766 regular-season win percentage, a league-best 14 division titles, a league-best 76 divisional wins, a league-best .776 divisional win percentage, a league-best 25 playoff wins, a league-best .735 playoff win percentage, a league-best seven Super Bowl appearances, and, of course, a league-best five Super Bowl wins—those championships coming in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, and 2016. In that 16-year stretch, they’ve finished with fewer than 10 wins just once. I said “league-best” so many times on purpose, by the way.
New England’s improbable run of sustained success can most strongly be attributed to the relationship between head coach and general manager Bill Belichick, maybe the best coach in league history, and Brady, probably the best quarterback to ever play the game. But while the Patriots dynasty wouldn’t have been possible without those two pillars, plenty of other factors have contributed to New England’s unmatched football prosperity this century.
In addition to that ever-important long-term coach-quarterback relationship, the Patriots have gotten total buy-in, monetary support, and minimal meddling from longtime owner Robert Kraft. Continuity at the top matters, and the power structure in New England, from ownership to the front office to the coaching staff, is well defined, allowing the team to operate with harmony from the top down—unlike, let’s say, the 49ers under Jed York in recent seasons. Because Kraft gradually gave Belichick autonomy on the football side, it’s allowed the coach to make the difficult, sometimes unpopular personnel decisions that have come to define his style—like sending Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch to the Seahawks, trading three-time All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour to the Raiders, or sending receiver Randy Moss to the Vikings during his contract year.
Of course, personnel management isn’t just trading players a year before they decline, and Belichick and Co. have done an amazing job in retaining key players, continually restocking the shelves with talented stars and important role players, and most important, developing these players within the Pats’ system. Look at this offseason for an example: New England re-signed middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower to a long-term deal while dealing for receiver Brandin Cooks and signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and signing or trading for a host of other key role players. That’s just par for the course; the Patriots have shown a keen eye for talent and fit, and that’s not just talking about lucking into Brady in the sixth round. They’ve deftly utilized all avenues to maintain a top-tier roster, including trades (running back Corey Dillon, Moss, Wes Welker) and free-agent deals (safety Rodney Harrison; linebackers Mike Vrabel, Rob Ninkovich, and Junior Seau; cornerback Darrelle Revis). Add in decisions to draft tight end Rob Gronkowski, receiver Julian Edelman, defensive back Devin McCourty, Hightower, and a gaggle of talented trench players over the past 16 years, and Belichick has shown the ability to surround his star quarterback with the playmakers he needs to contend each and every year.
The Patriots’ ability to turn so many so-called scrap-heap players and draft picks into core pieces of their winning nucleus starts with the culture that Belichick has developed in New England. There’s little ambiguity when it comes to expectations in the Patriots locker room, and from the team-first ethos and the “Do your job” axiom we get the Patriot Way. All players, from the highest-paid stars to the back-of-roster undrafted free agents, must do the little things that it takes to win—from perfect attendance in meetings to what’s asked of you on the field—or face Belichick’s wrath, whether that means a fine, a benching, or an outright release.
Then finally, the Patriots have been, more than any other franchise in the NFL over the past 16 years, adaptable. Belichick has evolved with the times—in fact, in many cases, he’s a year or two ahead of the curve—building schemes and game plans year-to-year and week-to-week around his players’ talents. New England has been on the cutting edge (or the forefront of the return) of so many of the league’s trends over the past two decades, including the proliferation of spread football, the evolution of the two-tight-end set, and the hybridization of defensive schemes and player positions. As Ringer colleague and former New England executive Michael Lombardi noted on Thursday, along with an always-strong focus on special teams, “Tom Brady, an adaptable offense, and a multidimensional defense define the [Patriots’] success.” It’s not just the duration of the Patriots’ unbelievable run the past 16 seasons that stands out, it’s that New England hasn’t just been truly elite at one or two things along the way—it has pretty much been great in every conceivable area.
The Patriots, though, aren’t just any regular dynasty; the team that won three Super Bowls in four years from 2001 to 2004—that was a dynasty. The Patriots’ current run, which has stretched from 2001 to the present and has featured the Belichick-Brady combo at the vanguard, is something else entirely—something the NFL has never really seen before and may never see again. With Brady’s career winding down (unless he actually is Benjamin Button), the question is: Which team could become the next Patriots?
Right now, there really is no clear successor, and there likely never will be one. But there are a handful of franchises that, with some luck and continued adherence to the best practices outlined above, possess some of the pieces necessary. Here they are, arranged into a few categories.
The Window Is Closing
The Steelers are the next-closest thing to the Patriots that the league has seen this century, and they still aren’t that close to New England’s year-in, year-out dominance. Since Ben Roethlisberger came into the league in 2004, Pittsburgh has won the AFC North six times (including twice in the past three years), has been to the playoffs 11 times, has played in three Super Bowls, and has won two (in 2005 and 2008). As a franchise, continuity is a huge strength: The team has been in the Rooney family forever; and it’s in the 18th season under general manager Kevin Colbert, the 11th under head coach Mike Tomlin, the sixth under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and the third with defensive coordinator Keith Butler. Roethlisberger remains a fixture at quarterback and looks like a future Hall of Famer. The team has balance in three phases through solid player acquisition and retention, and the offense features the two most talented and dangerous playmakers in the league in receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.
Pittsburgh has a very clear identity of toughness and physicality on both sides of the ball, but it has been able to adapt over the years; defensively, the Steelers have evolved with the times to a focus on speed and explosiveness over size, and offensively, they’ve shown the ability to change with the personnel available to them. The Steelers are at the forefront of the evolution toward using running backs as true receivers, with Bell frequently lining up and running routes on the wing.
But the clock is ticking. It’s rare for an NFL dynasty to span multiple quarterbacks, and with Roethlisberger already talking about retirement, the Steelers may have to win the next two Super Bowls to even chip away at the Patriots’ throne.
New York Giants
The Giants join the Patriots (five), Steelers (two), and Ravens (two) as the only other NFL franchises with more than one Super Bowl win this century. Since quarterback Eli Manning came into the league in 2004, New York has won the NFC East three times, made the playoffs six times, and won two Super Bowls (in 2007 and 2011), both over the Patriots.
Continuity for this organization is … so-so. The Mara family are the longtime owners, and Jerry Reese has been the GM for a decade. But the crucial quarterback–head coach relationship is relatively new. Ben McAdoo was hired from within after spending two years as the offensive coordinator, but starts just his second season at the helm in 2017. And even though he has those two rings, and even though he hasn’t missed a game since his first start in mid-2004, Manning is still a frustratingly average regular-season quarterback.
But this team can play defense (it ranked second last year in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA), and that gives them a chance to contend in the NFC and make some playoff noise, especially if the addition of receiver Brandon Marshall and tight end Evan Engram, the team’s first-round pick, can give the offense a boost. But like Pittsburgh, time is running out, as Manning is 36 and seemingly on the decline. Without Super Bowl wins in each of the next two or three seasons, New York will likely have to settle for being the Patriots’ foil, rather than their successor—but that’s not such a bad thing to be.
That brings us to the group of teams not so wholly dependent on the next handful of seasons for any talk of a dynasty to emerge.
Still Plenty of Time
The Seahawks have as close to a model front office as you can get, with a deep-pocketed and generous owner in Paul Allen, a well-respected personnel evaluator in GM John Schneider, and one of the best head coaches in the league in Pete Carroll—and by all accounts, that troika works together harmoniously. On top of that, Seattle has its franchise quarterback, Russell Wilson, who’s still just 28 years old and under contract long term, as is most of the rest of the team’s nucleus. Cornerback Richard Sherman, safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, pass rushers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, and receiver Doug Baldwin are all locked in through at least 2018.
The Seahawks have done a good job of retaining talented players, and they’re a consistently balanced team. Further, since Wilson came into the league five years ago they’ve won three NFC West titles, gone to the Super Bowl twice, and won it once. Assuming the perpetual drama that seems to surround the team—or their apparent lack of interest in building an offensive line—doesn’t derail what looks to be a good setup, Seattle looks capable of making a run at the Super Bowl this year, and perhaps in years beyond. To even get close to matching what the Patriots have done, though, Seattle will have to tack on another three or four Super Bowl wins before it’s all said and done.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers are a publicly traded team, so there are no direct problems with a meddlesome owner unless you count their board of directors. Ted Thompson has been Green Bay’s general manager since 2005 and has a highly respected eye for talent, but his philosophy of building strictly through the draft has reportedly created some tension between him and head coach Mike McCarthy, who’s been his head coach since 2006. That nagging concern notwithstanding, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers.
In the nine seasons since Rodgers took over at quarterback in 2008, Green Bay has gone to the playoffs eight times, won the NFC North five times (including five of the past six years), and won a Super Bowl (in 2010). The superstar passer is still just 33 years old and has recently said he wants to play until he’s at least 40. With an improved secondary going into 2017, the Packers look like one of the favorites in the NFC. If Green Bay can add one or two more Lombardi Trophies to its case before Rodgers’s arm abandons him, the legacy as another Packers dynasty is within reach. Add three or four? You can start talking about them in the same breath as this Patriots dynasty.
The Falcons would clearly be in better shape here if they hadn’t squandered their big lead in Super Bowl LI. But Atlanta’s still a very talented team with a top-flight quarterback in 32-year-old Matt Ryan, one of the best receivers in the game in Julio Jones, and an up-and-coming, explosive defense under head coach Dan Quinn. There appears to be a unified front office from the top down: Owner Arthur Blank gave GM Thomas Dimitroff a vote of confidence when he re-signed him before last season, and Quinn took his team from an 8-8 finish in Year 1 to the Super Bowl in Year 2. The Falcons have a long way to go, and must prove they can survive the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but the arrow is pointing up.
The Panthers check a lot of “potential future dynasty” boxes. They seem set at head coach with Ron Rivera. They have the franchise quarterback in 2015 MVP Cam Newton. They have their physical, intimidating defense. They have an identity. They’ve shown the ability to identify and keep key players, to adapt those players to their scheme, and to develop draft picks.
But what Carolina doesn’t have is any stability at the top, having just fired GM Dave Gettleman with a little over a month to go until the start of the season. The future at that spot is key, and what happens there could make or break things for the Panthers (Marty Hurney is the interim GM). But for now, Carolina still has enough pieces to the puzzle to be considered a contender in this category.
This next category of teams, is, well, a lot more speculative.
A Foundation Is Coming Together
Dallas has what looks like its next franchise quarterback in Dak Prescott and a big-time playmaking receiver in Dez Bryant for him to throw to. They have an excellent runner in Zeke Elliott, and a big, badass offensive line to lead block for him. Their identity as a rough-and-tumble run team with the ability to throw deep is clear. But there’s still a lot of turmoil on the defensive side of the ball, as the Cowboys must deal with free-agency departures and the ongoing litany of suspensions this year. Additionally, as always, even though Jerry Jones has given up much of the decision-making process to his son, Stephen Jones, who’s shown a very good eye for talent, the line between ownership and the front office remains blurred. Plus, no matter how many games they win, Jason Garrett’s job security is seemingly constantly in question.
The Titans’ front office has been anything but stable for the past five years, but they appear to have found the right man to put them on a steady course in general manager Jon Robinson. The respected personnel evaluator has shown plenty of promise so far in that role—his first pick as GM in last year’s draft, tackle Jack Conklin, was an All-Pro as a rookie, and his first marquee trade target, DeMarco Murray, led the AFC in rushing and earned a Pro Bowl berth in his first season with the team. The decision to stick with Mike Mularkey appears to have been the right one, too (at least for now): Mularkey has continued to develop the franchise’s up-and-coming star quarterback, Marcus Mariota, who threw for 26 touchdowns against just nine interceptions last year, finishing 13th in DYAR, 10th in DVOA, and 12th in QBR. That coach-quarterback duo led the Titans to a top-10 finish in offensive DVOA, cultivating an identity as an old-school, punch-you-in-the-mouth team. The Titans are in the infancy stage, but if the defense can make a big jump forward in 2017, watch out.
The Raiders just locked up franchise quarterback Derek Carr for the long term. They’ve built the best pass-blocking offensive line in football to protect him. They’ll lock up explosive pass rusher Khalil Mack soon enough. Receiver Amari Cooper is on the cusp of superstardom. Through the draft and free agency, Oakland has started to put together a talented and athletic defense. There’s plenty of synergy between general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio, and while Mark Davis remains a wild card as owner—he’s moving the team to Las Vegas in 2020, after all—Oakland is starting to put together the pieces to field a consistent winner.
Sure, Why Not?
The Browns have a new, forward-thinking, data-driven front office. They still have eleventy billion dollars in cap space, which they could use to continue to build out a nucleus of talent. They have a play-calling guru as a head coach in Hue Jackson. And they have what looks like one of the best offensive lines in the league. They still have to figure out that quarterback problem—basically the thing they’ve been trying to figure out since they were reconstituted in Cleveland—but who knows, maybe DeShone Kizer is that guy. Check back in a few years.