The Patriots are in the Super Bowl ... again. It is their seventh (!) appearance in the last 16 years, a stunning feat made even more stunning by the fact that this run of dominance is happening in a league with a hard salary cap and a commitment to parity.
How is this possible? An amazing number of things had to come together for the Patriots to build this sustained run of excellence, beyond "got lucky drafting Tom Brady." (Though that was, admittedly, a huge part.) It was such an amazing number of things that had to come together that it's all but guaranteed we will never see a run of greatness like this in the NFL again, at least not the NFL as its currently constructred. Here's why the Patriots dynasty is one unlikely to ever be replicated:
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The NFL is built for parity
The NFL is organized and designed to prevent the very thing we are seeing right now. A hard cap and limited roster size make it extremely difficult to amass a ton of elite talent on one team. Good players play well, they earn a big payday, and they move on to a team that can afford them. You can't just stockpile talent like in other leagues.
So for a dynasty like this to exist, the team has to find a way around the fact that all NFL rosters are pretty close, in theory, talent-wise. Another way of putting this: The difference between the Patriots and the Browns rosters is not nearly as stark as the difference between the the rosters of the Nets and Warriors.
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They are ruthless
The way NFL teams can maximize talent on a roster is to not overpay players unless they are absolutely, unquestionably worth it. Bill Belichick is an incredible on-field coach, but his work off the field is arguably just as important. He identifies a player's value and will pay him up to that point. If he wants more, he's gone.
This calculus -- it's smarter to play a B+ player $700,000 a year than an A- player $3 million -- is one that every team in the NFL more or less understands and says it adheres to ... but it's another thing entirely to actually act upon it.
The Patriots have no problem in this regard. They are willing to make the hard decisions, decisions that would give nightmares to other coaches and GMs. When Darrelle Revis wanted more money, off he went. Belichick didn't care about the fan reaction or how much harder it would become. When the Patriots shipped off star linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns in the middle of the season, it was another clear message: No one is above the team, and we will do anything to win.
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They have job security
The reason they can do this is because the Patriots brass has job security that no other front office and coaching staff has. The Collins decision, for example, was one that would have -- had it backfired -- gotten a lot of GMs and coaches fired. Belichick didn't hesitate because he's earned trust and respect from his ownership and fanbase. He can go with his gut and make the hard decision, no matter how it looks, because he isn't fearful for his job.
Other GMs and coaches can't do that because they have to protect themselves. They can't be that bold, or they'll get fired. The Patriots' greatness has given them stability, which has built more greatness. It's just incredibly difficult to get to that place for other coaches and GMs, and that's why this is so hard to replicate.
They have built mystique
Another benefit of this sustained greatness is the mystique this franchise has built. Around the league, the Patriots are viewed a little like the boogeyman. They're smarter, more ruthless. They (possibly) cheat. They have every edge, both on and off the field.
It's hard to imagine another franchise getting in the heads of every other player, coach, and owner (even Commissioner!) in this way. Again, the Patriots had to have everything come together correctly for this sustained run of success, but now that everything has come together, it's all also worked out to feed that success and grow it. Many teams suffer from the disease of more (success gets to people's heads, they want more money, more credit, more passes thrown their way, whatever). The Patriots have managed to take that success and channel it ruthlessly into more success.
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Coaches want to come there
Part of this mystique and greatness means it's easy for the Patriots to recruit top talent and have their pick of guys who can fit their system. Coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia both have been and will continue to be candidates for head coaching jobs, both are (for now) content to stay in New England and continue dominating the NFL under Belichick.
While other teams cycle through re-treads of coaches or try to get guys to make the leap from the college game, the Patriots have their pick of coaches they believe in, coaches who have bought in totally to Belichick's philosophy.
Players want to come there
They also get their pick of free agents who want to win Super Bowls. When 31-year-old defensive end Chris Long was evaluating teams last offseason, he decided that the most important thing for him at this stage in his career was winning a Super Bowl. Money? He'd made plenty of it. So he evaluated the league and made the surest bet -- the Patriots. No other team has that advantage.
Players want to stay ... even though they know the stakes
Likewise, players are willing to give up more money to stay with New England. Julian Edelman signed at a discount because he loved winning, loved Brady and Belichick, and was willing to give up money to stay.
This highwire act that Belichick is walking -- being ruthless with the roster but at the same time building loyalty within the team -- is an almost impossible one. But he's doing it. He's getting players to take discounts to play for him, while at the same time being completely upfront that he'd cut them at a moment's notice if he felt it would make the team better. That's impossible.
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They have the ultimate bargaining chip
In a revealing SI piece, NFL player agents talked about how the Patriots were an absolute nightmare to negotiate with because they know they have the ultimate bargaining chip -- a chance to win a Super Bowl with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
If players want to get paid, they can go somewhere else. If they want to win a Super Bowl, they come to the Patriots. This is hard for an agent trying to squeeze the most out of a deal for his client -- it's very good for the Patriots.
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They have built the smartest, most versatile NFL team in the league
The Patriots have built an advantage with their roster, with continuity, with coaching, with players ... but they also have built the most versatile team in the game today. While other teams identify a "system" and work hard to learn it, the Patriots have moved beyond, changing their system weekly (sometimes within games) to best beat their opponent.
They can play zone or man on defense, be aggressive or cautious. They can be a power run team or a West Coast offense or a wide open spread. It doesn't matter. Whatever the opponents present them, they will take advantage of it. They could only do this because of the greatness of that coaching and because of the continuity they've built.
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The owner doesn't get in the way
If you're wealthy enough to own an NFL team, odds are you're the type of powerful person who is used to getting his/her way. You like to run things. For the amount of money you are investing in a franchise, you'd like to have a say in how things are done. It's your money, it's your team, and you have earned that right.
Robert Kraft has, in a lot of ways, given up that right. He pays Belichick to make the hard decisions and is content to make sure the business side is run well, the team is represented well to the rest of the league and he gets a great seat to watch the games. As we've seen in other organizations (ahem, 49ers) sometimes even success isn't enough for an owner to get out of the way. Kraft had to have the confidence to allow Belichick to do his thing, and to this day, it's hard to believe it's still happening.
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They drafted the greatest QB ever in the sixth round
You knew this was coming. How could it not? For all the things listed above, the Patriots also had to be lucky. Incredibly lucky. And the number one lucky thing that happened to them was that they drafted the greatest QB of all time with the 199th pick back in 2000. Yes, they've managed to turn that luck into an irreplicable dynasty the likes of which we most likely will never see again. But they did get that luck. That can't be discounted.
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They have the greatest coach ever
This is the big one, however. The Patriots managed to take the luck of drafting the greatest QB ever in the sixth round and pair it with Belichick, a ruthless genius who not only understood the game better than anyone but also understood the business of building an NFL roster better than anyone.
No coach has been more forward-thinking, no coach has been more adaptable, no coach has been more vicious, no coach has been more brilliant. He's a once-in-a-lifetime coach/GM who got his stroke of luck with Brady, and he never looked back. This is why we will never see anything like this again.