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 two names most responsible for bringing about this golden age of Patriots football are obvious. The period from New England’s first Super Bowl run in the 2001 season to now is known as the Belichick-Brady era, and it goes without saying that the pair has had more to do with the franchise’s sustained success than anyone.
Football is a team game, though, and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady didn’t win five Super Bowls by themselves. Beyond those future Hall of Famers, who deserves the most credit for the Patriots’ remarkable reign? To commemorate the start of the 16th season since New England lifted its first Lombardi Trophy, I took my best shot at ranking the 16 most important figures in its dynasty.
Before we begin a quick recognition of some honorable mentions. To pare this down to 16 names, Wes Welker, Romeo Crennel, and Vince Wilfork just missed the cut. It wasn’t easy, but something tells me Vince is enjoying retirement too much to notice.
16. Mo Lewis, LB, New York Jets
Lewis never played for the Pats, but it's impossible to leave him off this list: He delivered the hit that started it all. Barely six months before New England’s Week 2 clash with the Jets in 2001, the Patriots handed quarterback Drew Bledsoe a 10-year, $103 million contract extension that was then the richest deal in NFL history.
The guarantees in the extension financially tied Bledsoe to the Pats for at least the next four seasons. With that sort of commitment in place, the team had no intention of giving key reps to its sixth-round pick from the 2000 draft. With 5:03 remaining in the fourth quarter at Foxboro Stadium, Lewis changed all that. Bledsoe walked away from his thunderous collision with Lewis with a concussion and internal bleeding that sent the quarterback to the bench ahead of New England’s Week 3 clash with Peyton Manning’s Colts. The Patriots thrashed Indianapolis 44-13 and, well … we know the rest.
15. Randy Moss, WR, 2007-2010
It speaks to the 2007 Patriots’ dominance that they remain the most memorable group from this dynasty despite not winning the Super Bowl. And while Moss never won a championship in New England, he was the player who transformed the franchise from a contender defined by defense into an offensive juggernaut. “You start off Week 1 against the Jets, and what him and Tom did in Week 1 kind of let the league know, ‘Hey, y’all are in trouble,’” NFL Network analyst and former Patriots fullback Heath Evans tells The Ringer.
Moss caught all nine of Brady's passes to him in that game, finishing with 183 yards and scoring a 51-yard touchdown that looks like it was digitally enhanced by David Fincher. The Pats have fielded offenses since 2007 that can at least hold a candle to that unit in terms of efficiency, but none has ever matched the paralyzing fear that the Brady-Moss connection could instill in the soul of a defense.
14. Ty Law, CB, 1995-2004
One of the higher-profile holdovers from the Bill Parcells era in New England, Law was an established talent when Belichick was hired. But the former first-round pick quickly reached a new echelon under his new coach, earning Pro Bowl nods each year from 2001 to 2003. The ’01 Patriots defense relied heavily on turnovers, finishing with 22 interceptions, tied for sixth in the league. Three of those belonged to Law, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
The importance of those pales in comparison to the pick that Law brought back 47 yards to the end zone against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, though. The score put the Patriots up 7-3 and was one of just two touchdowns they scored in the 20-17 win. Belichick has long relied on a ballhawking corner (like Asante Samuel, Darrelle Revis, or Malcolm Butler) to give his defenses teeth, and Law was the first of his players in that mold.
13. Tedy Bruschi, LB, 1996-2008
It takes a lot for Belichick to relent from his trademark stone-faced expression and break into a smile, but Bruschi’s retirement provided such an occasion. The coach praised the longtime Pats linebacker as “the perfect player” the day Bruschi announced his career was over, and, in many ways, that’s what he was early in Belichick’s tenure. “When Tedy Bruschi spoke, people listened,” former Patriots center Damien Woody says.
Bruschi was literally at the center of New England’s defense during its first three championship runs, and his fourth-quarter interception against the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX helped keep Philly’s Donovan McNabb–led offense at bay and pave the way for a 24-21 victory. To players on those title-winning teams in the early 2000s, Bruschi was one of the defining figures of what would become the Patriot Way.
“[He was] one of the pillars to jump-starting the dynasty,” Woody says. “When new guys come in, it’s all about instilling that same mentality. It just keeps replicating itself. That’s all that’s been happening. You go from one generation of Patriots to the next.”
12. Devin McCourty, S/CB, 2010-Present
McCourty’s impact on New England’s defense often goes unnoticed, but it can’t be overstated. After being taken with the 27th overall pick in the 2010 draft, he spent the early years of his career as a cornerback before ultimately making the move to safety. The rare coverage skills that McCourty brings to the back end of the defense have come to define Belichick’s units on that side of the ball.
New England’s flexibility in the secondary largely drove their defensive success in 2016, and that began with McCourty. “A lot of guys in the league, fans might think they’re the leader, but really, they’re not the leader in the locker room,” says Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who played for the Pats last season. “Dev is a guy that walks the walk and talks the talk. He keeps things quietly moving in the right direction for that defense.”
11. Willie McGinest, OLB, 1994-2005
McGinest, a former top-five draft pick, was arguably the face of the franchise in the days before Brady. His presence loomed large in the Patriots’ locker room, and his willingness to immediately fall in line with Belichick’s methods had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the roster.
The linebacker’s on-field impact, particularly in the playoffs, was also undeniable. During the Patriots’ first two Super Bowl runs, McGinest collected at least one sack in all but one postseason game. At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, he was the prototype for his position in Belichick’s scheme, and he thrived when it mattered most.
10. Dont’a Hightower, LB, 2012-Present
The 27-year-old former first-round pick is one of the league’s better linebackers, but that’s not why he cracks the top 10 on this list. Hightower’s Patriots résumé includes two game-saving moments from New England Super Bowl wins this decade.
Malcolm Butler’s jaw-dropping interception was the defining moment of Super Bowl XLIX, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Hightower’s strong-willed effort on the previous play. The Seahawks faced a late first-and-goal from the Pats’ 5-yard line, and Marshawn Lynch appeared poised to waltz into the end zone after a huge crease opened directly after the snap. Instead, Hightower fought through Seattle left tackle Russell Okung, dragged Lynch down shy of the goal line, and kept the Patriots’ slim 28-24 lead intact.
Two years later, with the Pats trailing the Falcons by 16 points and 8:31 remaining in the fourth quarter, Hightower darted into the backfield and jarred the ball loose from Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. That led to a Danny Amendola touchdown and set the stage for a comeback that will haunt Falcons’ fans for the rest of their days.
After signing a four-year extension this offseason, Hightower will have plenty more opportunities to shine in Belichick’s defense. No matter what happens from here on out, though, his legacy in New England is already secure.
9. Julian Edelman, WR, 2009-Present
Welker established the prototype for the undersized receiver who racks up receptions playing with Brady, but Edelman deserves this spot for the timing — and variety — of his production. Special teams excellence has long been a staple of Belichick-coached teams, and since 2000 Edelman (11.67) trails only GOAT return man Devin Hester (11.73) in punt return average among players with at least 100 career returns.
Edelman has also dominated the postseason at every turn. Over the past four years, the wideout’s worst playoff performance was a 53-yard outing against the Broncos in the AFC championship game following the 2015 season. He’s topped 74 receiving yards in New England’s nine other playoff games, with four 100-yard outings. In Super Bowl XLIX, he made nine catches for 109 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown. And in this February’s Super Bowl win over Atlanta, Edelman’s hands and an inch of daylight may have been all that stood between the Falcons and a title.
Rob Gronkowski, Moss, and Troy Brown may be the first names mentioned when people talk about the most important receivers of the Belichick-Brady era, but Edelman is the greatest playoff receiver in Patriots history — and it isn’t close.
8. Rob Gronkowski, TE, 2010-Present
The centerpiece of New England’s post-Moss passing game, Gronk has emerged as one of the most useful weapons in NFL history. The Patriots’ offense is built on deception — attacking defenses out of formations that don’t appear suited to run certain plays — and as a devastating pass catcher who can also maul defensive ends in the run game, Gronkowski is vital to that approach.
“I think the biggest thing is that [Gronk is] a smart player,” says Packers tight end Martellus Bennett, who spent the 2016 season in New England. “Physicality only takes you so far. There are lot of other players who are just as physical and just as fast. You have to be able to outsmart those guys and know how to attack them.”
Gronk has completely recalibrated the way we understand tight end production. Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez are tied for the most career touchdown catches (111) at the position, but Gronk’s numbers on a per-game basis are unparalleled. Over his career, Gates has hauled in 0.54 touchdown catches per game. For Gronk, that figure is 0.77. No tight end matches his average of 69.3 receiving yards per game (a total that Gronk has to love), and his 9.88 yards-per-target clip is the best in history among tight ends with at least 50 targets since the stat started being tracked in 1992.
7. Robert Kraft, Owner
Without Kraft pulling the trigger in January 2000 and trading three draft picks — including a first-rounder — to the Jets for Belichick, who was still technically under contract with New York despite abruptly resigning just four days into the new year, none of the successes mentioned on this list would be possible. Kraft also proved to be the perfect owner for a Belichick-led operation: He left the football to Belichick and his staff, and that autonomy has brought New England’s franchise to where it is today.
“It was just the fact that Mr. Kraft saw that, ‘I’ve got this terrific football mind, and I don’t know football. I’m going to stay in my lane and let Bill take care of the football side of it,’” Woody says. “Bill has always said, ‘There’s going to be one voice in the building. And that was his.’”
6. Dante Scarnecchia, OL Coach, 2000-2013 and 2016-Present
In the spring of 1999, Woody was coming off a standout career at Boston College and preparing for the NFL draft. He was being projected as a first-round pick (ultimately becoming the first center selected in the first round in six years) and met with a number of teams in the lead-up to the big day. One of the teams he visited was the Patriots, a meeting that brought a sit-down with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
As Scarnecchia went to turn on film from Woody’s final college season, the young center figured he’d be asked to break down some highlights of his best work. Instead, Scarnecchia flipped on the worst game Woody had played — a 24-23 win at Syracuse in October 1999. “He put it on just to see what my reaction was going to be,” Woody says.
Position coaches and coordinators have come and gone during Belichick’s tenure in New England, but with the exception of a short-lived two-year retirement period, Scarnecchia has been the man responsible for overseeing the group that protects Brady. Beyond Belichick, no Patriots coach has shaped the careers of more players, from Scarnecchia helping turn Stephen Neal from a college wrestler into a seven-year starter to molding current starters Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon into two of the league’s best young lineman.
“His attention to detail, that’s what separates him from other coaches,” Woody says. “He doesn’t miss anything. Your hand placement, your feet, any little thing that’s not to where he wants it, it was just not acceptable.”
5. Troy Brown, WR, 1993-2007
Brown’s Patriots career is often remembered for his stint transitioning to nickel corner after injuries to Law and Tyrone Poole in 2004 forced Belichick to seek unconventional options at the position. Brown saw action in 12 games and intercepted three passes (the second-highest mark on the team) that season, marking one of the first examples of Belichick succeeding by thinking wholly outside of the box. Along with the coach’s decision to deploy Mike Vrabel as a red-zone tight end, this made clear that Belichick was willing to do anything necessary to milk all he could from his roster.
More instrumental than Brown’s time in the secondary, though, was the work he did as a wide receiver during New England’s first Super Bowl run. Brown finished the 2001 season with 1,199 receiving yards — 450 more than any other Pats player. His total may not seem gaudy by modern receiving standards, but it represented a ridiculous 36 percent of the team’s passing yardage that year. Oh yeah, and he also returned two punts for touchdowns.
In a 24-17 AFC championship game win over the Steelers, Brown scored another punt return touchdown — and racked up 121 receiving yards, more than half of New England’s total. In the Super Bowl, his share of the passing game output skyrocketed to 61.4 percent. Late-career defensive move aside, Brown’s significance to the Pats’ dynasty is simple: New England doesn’t even face the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, let alone beat them, without him.
4. Josh McDaniels, Various Roles, 2001-2008 and 2012-Present
The wunderkind coordinator oversaw the most devastating offense in NFL history when he was 31. By the time the 2007 Patriots came along, McDaniels had already been with the franchise for six years. Yet it was then that he showed what he was capable of as the architect and play-caller for New England’s most prolific attack. “He’s a gifted teacher, and he always had a unique knack to explain a role, which is very important insight for an offense,” Evans says.
Creative formational work and varied personnel packages have defined the Patriots’ approach in the days since Moss, but Evans says that more than ingenuity and design, McDaniels understands how to ignite an entire offense by pressing the right buttons. He’s spent almost his entire coaching life by Belichick’s side, and the impact of that is evident. “He always had a great feel for what the team needed,” Evans says. “So much of it is just breathing life into your team at the right time. Knowing [that], ‘If I can get Randy one ball, the team is going to get so fired up.’”
3. Adam Vinatieri, K, 1996-2005
There’s an argument to be made that if one desperation pass hadn’t miraculously stuck to a helmet, or if one play on a fourth-and-2 had gone differently, or if one Mario Manningham foot had stepped out of bounds, the Patriots could have seven or eight Super Bowl wins under Belichick. It’d be just as easy to say that if a few kicks had sailed a foot or two in either direction, they could have none.
The combined margin of victory in New England’s first three Super Bowl wins was nine points. Two of those triumphs came thanks to the last-second heroics of Vinatieri’s right foot. But his most important kick happened nearly a month before the Pats beat St. Louis in February 2002 to hoist their first Lombardi trophy. With 27 seconds remaining in New England’s divisional-round matchup against Oakland and snowflakes the size of quarters falling in Foxborough, Vinatieri sent a 45-yard field goal through the uprights to tie the score at 13 and send the game to overtime.
“[After that kick] the franchise took a turn ... from an ‘eh, whatever’ team to where they are now,” Vinatieri says. “There a lot of little moments in your life that can transform the rest of your life. I try not to think about what happens if I miss that thing.”
2. Tom Brady, QB, 2000-Present
The Patriots’ offense has continuously evolved over the past decade and a half. In its early iterations, the group was reliant on the ground game and running backs like Antowain Smith, Kevin Faulk, and Corey Dillon. With the arrival of Moss and Welker in 2007, the Pats spread opponents out, took to the air, and changed offensive philosophy forever. Next came the Gronkowski-and–Aaron Hernandez tight end pairing that turned the 2011 Pats into one of the most efficient offenses in NFL history. And recently, the team has used a deep, versatile, and interchangeable cache of weapons to become unpredictable. The lone constant, for 16 years, has been Brady.
Brady’s numbers in his age-39 season defied explanation. He threw 28 touchdowns compared to two interceptions while clocking the second-best completion percentage (67.4) of his career. As his offensive lines and receiving corps have turned over, Brady has marched on. The second-longest tenured member of the Patriots starting offense entering the 2017 campaign is Edelman, who arrived in New England nine years into Brady’s career.
The heights of the Brady-led Patriots have been spectacular, but it’s the nonexistent lows that truly speak to his greatness. With this version of Brady in place — or something close to it — the Pats will always be in the Super Bowl hunt.
1. Bill Belichick, Head Coach, 2000-Present
Poring over the Patriots’ year-by-year records is staggering, even for someone who already knows how they read. Since capturing its first Super Bowl following the 2001 season, New England has won single-digit games in just one season. The Pats have won the AFC East 14 times during that span, and are currently riding a streak of eight division titles in a row. In a league with as much parity as the NFL, the things that Belichick has accomplished shouldn’t be possible. He is peerless in NFL circles, and has a rightful claim as the best head coach in the history of American team sports.
The reason there are no personnel executives listed here is that most of those responsibilities in New England fall to Belichick. The same has long held true for defensive coordinator duties, and the role was left vacant for two years before Matt Patricia filled the job in 2012. Every level of New England’s organization, from roster construction to weekly game-planning, is the product of Belichickian thinking. For the better part of two decades, the Patriots have sought out methods of efficiency that no one else has considered, and it’s allowed them to stay two steps ahead of every other franchise in football.
While the Hooded One is often regarded as a rigid megalomaniac, his players tell a different story. Many believe that it’s his willingness to adapt and his approach the game with a receptive mind that’s turned him into the best who’s ever done it. “People consider the man arrogant,” Evans says. “He’s anything but. [He has] that ability to allow himself to fail, the trial-and-error process of, ‘Hey, listen, we think this will work.’ And if the players do X, Y, and Z, it probably will.”