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.