Fifty years from now, the football world will look back on the Patriots, from 2001-2019, as perhaps the greatest franchise in the history of team sports due to their unprecedented and sustained success during the salary-cap era.
That's what separated them from everyone else. And probably will for eternity:
No losing seasons. Two playoffs missed and a few early playoff exits, but mostly deep runs to the AFC Championship and, often, a Super Bowl appearance, with six victories and three losses.
Really, it's unbelievable what they did for those 20 years. They were always relevant and in the mix. Anyone can sellout for a title or two, but nearly everyone has to pay the price and go back to irrelevancy for a time before contending again.
Just a couple of recent examples:
2017 Eagles (13-3): 9-7, 9-7, 3-4-1.
2015 Broncos (12-4): 9-7, 5-11, 6-10, 7-9, 3-4.
2012 Ravens (10-6): 8-8, 10-6, 5-11, 8-8, 9-7.
Champions, and then mediocrity.
But not the Patriots. Year in, and year out they were contenders.
The reason? The holy trinity of football greatness:
- An all-time quarterback able to cover any holes on the roster;
- Better coaching than anyone else to deal with the shortcomings;
- Personnel and salary cap management that, on a year-to-year basis, was better than any other team.
They were effective enough in the draft and augmented it with cost-effective free agency signings and trades with an eye on the cap every year, to never get too out of balance to leave themselves short as far as personnel.
Apparently, that era is now over.
Bill Belichick went on WEEI's Ordway, Merloni & Fauria on Monday and was asked pointedly by Christian Fauria about his comments to Charlie Weis on Sirius NFL Radio from last week.
Fauria: What it sounds like is a lot of excuses, like Covid excuses, things you've never said before ...
Belichick: I didn't say it was an excuse, I never said that.
Fauria: I didn't say you did...
Belichick: Well then don't ... right ... I mean, we paid Cam Newton a million dollars. I mean it’s obvious we didn’t have any money. It’s nobody’s fault. That’s what we did the last five years: we sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth and played in an AFC championship game. This year we had less to work with. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact.”
Fauria: Was this an inevitable situation you were just going to have to deal with?
Belichick: The structure of the league is the structure of the league. That isn’t going to change.
And that final part was the key answer. It revealed the truth about why this team is where it is: 2-5 and 3.5 games behind the Bills with half a starting lineup that is subpar, a defense that can't stop the run and an offense that has to be perfect to score touchdowns.
The NFL rules have always been the same. The ways teams acquire talent and manage their roster has been the same. Even free agency and the franchise tag are the same. And the cap has gone up every season about $10 million per year since 2014.
The circumstances that allowed the Patriots to flourish and be the envy of teams across professional sports had remained steady.
The Patriots changed.
They no longer drafted as well. They no longer made smarter roster moves than most. They let their cap get out of whack starting in 2018. And they are paying the price.
They are now just like every other team.
RIP, The New England Patriots, Greatest Franchise in The History of Team Sports, 2001-19.
Lou Merloni had the key follow-up to Belichick, and he had no answer.
Merloni: How much has the lack of success the last four years or so in the draft affected that depth?
Belichick: Yeah, I don't know.
Suddenly the man who was just giving honest answers to honest questions didn't have one.
It all goes back to the draft. It's the lifeblood of any team. If you fail to acquire players who are cost-controlled for four to five years, then you have to pay more for veterans to make up for the shortcoming. And you also have to make trades that normally would be deemed high-risk.
You have to rush to sign Antonio Brown for $10 million, give up a second-round pick for eight games of Mohamed Sanu, trade a fifth-round pick for Josh Gordon, and trade a possible starting QB (Jacoby Brissett) for Phillip Dorsett because you can't draft and develop any receivers.
You have to trade a third-round pick for Danny Shelton and sign Beau Allen (who will never play for the Patriots Belichick said today) because you haven't drafted and developed a defensive tackle (Lawrence Guy was another — but great — signing).
You have to waste a second-round pick on Kony Ealy and a fifth-round pick on Michael Bennett because you haven't drafted and developed an edge player.
You traded two fourth-round picks for Dwayne Allen and Martellus Bennett because you never bothered to draft and develop a tight end after Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder.
That's just some of the moves.
This isn't apples to apples, obviously, but just use this as a rough gauge about the drafts between the start of the dynasty and the end. Here are the players drafted, Pro Bowls, total seasons as primary starter, average of Career Approximate Value, and average games played.
Rob Gronkowski, the unicorn that he was in the second round, was responsible for four of the six Pro Bowls and five starter seasons in 2010 (and we were generous not including the terrible 2009 draft in the latter tabulation).
The Patriots haven't drafted a Pro Bowler since Jamie Collins in 2013.
The Patriots previously drafted Pro Bowlers in 2001 (2, Richard Seymour, Matt Light), 2003 (Asante Samuel), 2004 (Vince Wilfork), 2005 (Logan Mankins), 2006 (Stephen Gostkowski), 2008 (2, Jerod Mayo, Matthew Slater).
(Maybe we should use kicker as the grand example of the draft falloff: Gostkowski in '06 to Justin Rohrwasser in 2020.)
Did the Patriots sellout to keep the team near the top the past few seasons? Yes, Belichick is absolutely right.
What he left out was the reason he had to do that. It wasn't a choice. It wasn't circumstances. It was a necessity because of the growing failures in the draft and personnel. The constant stream of cheap talent dried up and forced the team to acquire talent in other (more expensive) ways than they had for 20 years. And the quarterback is no longer here.
That's what changed.