I have been planning this column since last February when the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl and placed themselves in position to win three championships in a row.
As most Packer fans know, that feat has been accomplished only once since the playoff system was instituted.(For the sake of consistency, all dates are when the championship games were played.) That of course was the Packers in 1966, 1967 and 1968. This feat has been attempted numerous times since the Super Bowl was established 40 years ago, but no one has been able to accomplish it. Miami in 1973-74, Pittsburgh in 1975-76 and 1979-80, San Fran in 1989-90, the Cowboys in 1993-1994 and the Broncos in 1998-1999 have all had a chance. None of them did it. In fact, none of them even made it back to the Super Bowl the third year to challenge for the crown. Even the 1961-1962 Packers failed to three-peat, but more on that later.
Will the Patriots be the first in four decades to three-peat? If they do, will it be a greater accomplishment than the Packers trifecta as some pundits have suggested? If the Patriots do win three in a row, will their four championships in five years be a greater accomplishment than the Packers five in seven years? All these questions to be answered below.
I find it hard to believe that the Patriots will win. It is so hard to stay focused and avoid injuries. It is hard to keep players motivated for this long. Jealousies pop up and players do not give the same effort after they have achieved so much. Coaches move on and teams age. That is why the Packers' accomplishment was so spectacular.
I have also heard the experts say that winning three Super Bowls in a row is a harder accomplishment that winning three in a row back before the Super Bowl. (I have never understood why placing the Super Bowl tag on the Championship Game makes it more important. – but for some reason it seems that that is the case in the sports world.) They also say that in today's NFL it is harder to stay on top with free agency and all. I see the argument in favor of it being harder to win consistently in today's NFL, but I do not ultimately buy it. Sure you lose players under today's rules with the salary cap and opportunities for role players to sign somewhere else for more money and more playing time.
But it cuts both ways. The 1960's Packers had very few opportunities to fill holes except through the draft and by trades. They could not go out and sign a big name free agent to fill a hole like teams can do today. They did get free agents - Doug Hart and Check Mercein are two big examples.
Also, there were fewer teams and consequently, the talent level was less diluted and teams had better players at each position and in most cases they had depth. Injuries did not hurt as much, which was a benefit if your guy got hurt, but a disadvantage if someone on the opponent's roster went down. Also, the rosters were smaller and consequently, there was less specialization. Starters had to play on special teams and were not as fresh throughout the game. Today's 53-man roster helps in practice and the game day active roster of 45 helps during a game. Back then they had like 30 guys on the team. More bodies means fresh legs.
The NFL was also locked in a fierce battle for players with the AFL and that affected each team's ability to field a quality product. Imagine if the Patriots drafted some guys and they could not guarantee they would sign and be on the field for the start of the season.
One other thing not mentioned in all of this is that in 1963 and 1964, the years the Packer did not win the championship; they did not even make the playoffs. In 1963 and 1964, only the Conference Champions made it to the playoffs. In 1964, they went 8-5-1. They finished fourth in league standings in 1964 behind the Browns at 10-3-1, the Rams at 9-3-2 in the East and the Colts at 12-2 in the West. The Browns killed the Colts 27-0 in the title game.
In 1963, they went 11-2-1, but lost out on the conference title to the Bears, who finished 11-1-2. The Bears beat the Giants, who finished 11-3 that year.
The Patriots did not make the playoffs in 2002 in defense of their first Super Bowl title. They went 9-7 and were not one of the 12 teams that made the playoffs. 37.5% of the teams made the playoffs in 2002. In 1963 and 1964, only 14.3% of the teams made the playoffs. By the 2002 standard, the Packers make the playoffs in 1963 and 1964 and have a chance to compete for the title. Who knows what may have happened in a scenario like that? Six titles, maybe seven titles in seven years?
The Patriots have had to win more games to get to the big game, but they have had more of a chance under the expanded division setup and are in a more lenient playoff system. Assuming they win their division, they would have to win 12 games to win their four titles. The Packers only needed to win nine games to win their five titles. In 2004, the Steelers would have represented the AFC at 15-1. In 2003, The Patriots would have been the AFC team. In 2001, Pittsburgh would again have played in the title game with a record of 13-3. So, under the system in place in the 60's, the Patriots only get a chance to play for the title once.
Both teams had different systems to operate under and they did it better then any other competitor. Given the advantages and limitations of their eras, each team achieved great things. If the Patriots win it all this year, they will be poised to four-peat next year. If they do that, they deserve to be thought of as the best team in league history. Until then, my money is still on the Packers who achieved a run unlike anyone else. They did it better and longer than any other team in history.
Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. John resides with his family in Green Bay . His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. He will be contributing columns for PackerReport.com.