Succeeding in the Most Challenging Era

By Stephen Juza

June 29th, 2020

In the early 1990s, the ability to shape and maintain dynasties in the NFL underwent a drastic change with the implementation of free agency. Prior to that, teams were able to hold on to their best players more easily. This allowed teams to dominate the league for long stretches of time. Free agency meant teams such as the Green Bay Packers would no longer be able to dominate the league and win five championships in a 10-year stretch of time. Teams would naturally be broken up long before that could happen. It had that effect for less than a decade.

From 2001 until 2019, the Patriots success is unrivaled in almost any sports league, regardless of era. Stringing together six championships and nine appearances in 18 years, the Patriots surpass most of the greatest dynasties throughout sports history.

Throughout NFL history, there have been twenty three coaches who have won multiple championships. Only three of these coaches have been able to win multiple Super Bowls in the time of free agency.

Coach Head Coaching Years League Championships Championship Years
Paul Brown 1946-1975 7 1946-1949 (AAFC), 1950, 1954, 1955 (NFL)
George Halas 1920-1967 6 1921, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1963
Curly Lambeau 1921-1953 6 1929-1931, 1936, 1939, 1944
Vince Lombardi 1959-1969 5 1961, 1962, 1965-1967
Chuck Noll 1969-1991 4 1974, 1975, 1978, 1979
Joe Gibbs 1981-2007 3 1982, 1987, 1991
Hank Stram 1960-1977 3 1962 (AFL), 1966 (AFL), 1969 (NFL)
Weeb Ewbank 1954-1973 3 1958, 1959, 1968
Bill Walsh 1979-1988 3 1981, 1984, 1988

A major reason for this is the increased difficulty in keeping core players together for more than a few seasons. Teams often shell out record breaking contracts to retain (or lure) players, tying up a large percentage of the salary cap to only a few players. In 2011, Tom Brady was the highest paid player in NFL history with a salary of 19 million dollars, taking up about 16% of the total salary cap for the team.

That record stood for two years, until Drew Brees signed a five year contract worth $100 million in 2012. Brees’ record stood less than a year, when Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco both signed larger contracts in 2013. By 2019, the highest paid player in the NFL is quarterback Russell Wilson, who will earn $35 million per season, and 18% of the total salary cap for his team.

However, free agency hasn’t been able to slow down the Patriots, who, Brady notwithstanding, have rarely signed large contracts, often letting players go via trade in the last year of their contract instead of negotiating expensive extensions. In 2006, the Patriots traded their top wide receiver, Deion Branch, in the last year of his contract. They made this trade despite the fact that they had lost their second-most prolific wide receiver, David Givens, to free agency a few months prior. Despite the offensive changes, the team still made the AFC Championship game.

Belichick’s insistence on only paying for future performance, not prior accomplishments, has prevented the team from carrying large contracts for underperforming players. Rather than sign a contract extension for Randy Moss in 2010 , the Patriots traded him in the middle of the season. The remainder of Moss' career consisted of ten more starts, five touchdowns, three teams, and two retirements.

Belichick has always kept an eye toward the future, never seemingly going “all in” on any particular season in a way that some teams have tried. This has allowed the team to maintain consistent success without working itself into a terrible salary cap situation, which can lead to a fire sale of talented players. By successfully navigating these financial challenges that were not present during the careers of other great coaches such as Don Shula or Vince Lombardi, Belcihick again separates himself from the other greats in NFL history.

Constantly Changing Tactics

The one constant besides Belichick throughout the Patriots’ dynasty was quarterback Tom Brady. Virtually from the moment he started, he was among the best in the league. However, the team’s first championships were built on the back of a stout defense--Belichick’s original coaching forte.

Belichick cut his teeth in the league as a standout defensive coach; one whose gameplans helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s. It was on this side of the ball that his name grew in prominence and garnered the attention of head coaching positions.

Through the first several seasons of Belichick coaching the Patriots, the defense out-performed the offense as the driving force behind the Super Bowl victories. However, the team structure changed in 2007, turning the Patriots from defense-focused into an offensive powerhouse.

Behind the acquisitions of wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, the Patriots put on record-breaking offensive performances. In a single offseason, Belichick had transformed the Patriots and given them a new team identity. The result was an undefeated regular season, falling short of perfection in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. However, that offensive identity would remain for several more seasons.

In 2010,the team shifted from a wide receiver-driven passing offense to one including two new rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Drafted together, both of them eventually would sign the two largest contract extensions by tight ends in NFL history in the same offseason.

In the 2019 season, however,the offense was ranked 15th in total yards, the lowest ranking since 2003 for the Patriots. The Patriots have shifted back to Belichick’s roots with the strength of the team held primarily by the defense, led by a stifling defensive backfield. In the same 2019 season, the Patriots’ defense led the league in yards allowed, points allowed, turnovers generated, and other many defensive metrics, all while winning the division for yet another season.

Through the many different iterations of the Patriots, the team’s success was a constant. Through the last 19 seasons, the Patriots have won the AFC East seventeen times; only five teams have more wins in their entire history.

By consistently changing strategies throughout the run of championships, Bill Belichick has been able to create a record that other NFL teams can only try to emulate. By showing a willingness to change strategies around the personnel at hand, Belichick has been able to keep the Patriots at the top of the league for longer than any other team in history.

Part 1: Bill Belichick: Greatest NFL Coach

Part 2: Regular season: Consistent Success for Two Decades

Part 3: Playoff Success, When the Competition is the Strongest

Part 4: Succeeding in the Most Challenging Era

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