PHOTO: New England Patriots' Tedy Bruschi celebrates after intercepting a pass from Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb intended for Eagles' L.J. Smith in the fourth quarter during Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 6, 2005. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Can the Patriots 3-Peat?
By Darren Kelly, Site Contributor
Defeat Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII: Check.
Defeat Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX: Check.
Next on the to-do list: win Super Bowl XL.
The New England Patriots, after defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21 are the 8th team in NFL history to win back-to-back Super Bowls. None of the previous 7 teams won 3 straight.
Can the modern-day Vince Lombardi, Bill Belichick, do what no coach and team before him could? History is not on the Patriots' side. But in the last 4 years they've accomplished far more than anyone ever expected, so why can't that trend continue?
Coaching changes have had an impact on two-time champions, literally from day one of the Super Bowl era. After winning the first two Super Bowls ever played (and 5 NFL Championships in 7 years), Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi retired following Super Bowl II. The Packers fell to 6-7-1 and missed the playoffs the following season. Thus began a trend of teams falling short of winning 3 straight.
After the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII, head coach Jimmy Johnson stepped down. Although new head coach Barry Switzer would guide Dallas to a Super Bowl win two years later, in his first season the Cowboys fell to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. A near-miss for a two-time Super Bowl champion.
It isn't just retiring coaches that can doom a two-time champion. Sometimes it's retiring players. After the Denver Broncos won Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII, quarterback John Elway retired. The Broncos fell to 6-10, the worst performance by a defending two-time champion. In addition to Elway's retirement, the Broncos also lost running back Terrell Davis to injury early in the season.
Sometimes teams just run into an opponent that has peaked at the right time to derail history. That can be said of the San Francisco 49ers. After winning Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV, the 49ers stormed through the 1990 season with a 14-2 record. But the New York Giants came into Candlestick Park for the NFC Championship Game and defeated San Francisco 15-13 on a last second field goal. Head coach Bill Parcells and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick had put together a team and a game plan that was able to dethrone the two-time champions.
For the '74 Miami Dolphins, just 2 years removed from their perfect season and the AFC entrant in 3 straight Super Bowls (winning Super Bowls VII and VIII), it was the 12-2 Oakland Raiders that halted their run at history. After losing to the Raiders, they also lost three of their top players (Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield) to the upstart World Football League, ending the Dolphins' AFC dominance.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had two shots at pulling off the 3-Peat. After winning Super Bowls IX and X, the Steelers finished 1976 with a 10-4 record and once again played in the AFC Championship Game. But injuries to running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, along with the dominance of the Oakland Raiders (who went 13-1 that year and won Super Bowl XI) prevented the Steelers' first attempt at the 3-Peat.
After winning back-to-back for a second time, the Steelers' "Steel Curtain" defense, which had been a major part of Pittsburgh's titles, simply got old. "Mean" Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood had their last Pro Bowl seasons the year before, and both would retire after the 1981 season. The downturn was inevitable after a decade of dominance, and the 3-Peat would remain an unfulfilled quest.
What's In Store for Next Season?
The Patriots could return next season with virtually the same team intact. Of the Patriots' key players, only kicker Adam Vinatieri's contract is up after this season. Cornerback Ty Law, injured for most of this season, may end up being a salary cap casualty (Law is due $9.75 million next season, including a $1 million reporting bonus). Whether or not to bring back some of the older veterans (such as Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson, and Roman Phifer) will be off-season decisions for the Patriots' brass as well.
In the past two years the Patriots have brought in veteran players in search of the promised land of championships. In 2003 it was Rodney Harrison; this year Corey Dillon. Both became part of the focal point of the Patriots' attack. It will be interesting to see if the Patriots can lure another veteran performer to the fold, either through a trade or free agency. One thing is certain: the Patriots will not blink at the bargaining table. As Lawyer Milloy can attest, they've already proven to be wise negotiators. And considering the team's track record of finding suitable replacements for the injured and departed, future personnel decisions may follow a similar course.
Schedule-wise, New England appears to be in good shape for the 2005 season. It's always tough to tell how teams will fare from one season to the next, but the early look at the Patriots' opponents should make most fans optimistic. Of course there will be the home-and-home series with Buffalo, the Jets, and Miami. The rest of their home games are against Indianapolis (in Foxboro where Peyton Manning has never beaten them), Oakland (5-11 this year), San Diego (11-5), New Orleans (8-8), and Tampa Bay (5-11). Road games include trips to Pittsburgh (15-1), Denver (10-6), Kansas City (7-9), Atlanta (11-5), and Carolina (7-9).
The biggest roadblock (aside form the great unknown: injuries) for New England may be the loss of both top coordinators. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss' last game was Super Bowl XXXIX, as he leaves to take over as head coach at Notre Dame. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is expected to take the Cleveland Browns head coaching job. That announcement could come as early as today. According to early reports Crennel is on his way to Cleveland from Jacksonville to work out the details of his contract.
Though Belichick has been mum on the topic, many believe that he will promote from within to replace the two departing coordinators. This should prevent the players from having to learn entirely new systems. And after winning 3 Super Bowls in 4 years, new coordinators would be hard pressed to make sweeping changes.
One thing on the Patriots' side is recent history. While "parity" is the buzzword most associated with the NFL, the Patriots have been one of the few teams that has had continued success year after year. Since the 2001 season (including playoffs), New England is 57-16 (.781 winning percentage). The second-best team in that time has been the Philadelphia Eagles (54-20, for a .730 winning percentage). No other team in the league has a winning percentage above .680 (Pittsburgh, Green Bay, St. Louis, and Indianapolis round out the top 6 in the category).
With Tom Brady as quarterback, the Patriots are 18-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. With so many NFL games decided on one play, the fact that the Patriots are able to win close games time and again is a product of good coaching and smart players.
Through excellent coaching, drafting, and management, the Patriots have evolved into the premier franchise in the NFL. Barring injuries, there's no reason to think that the Patriots can't make history again. They've already won 3 Super Bowls in 4 years, own the NFL record with 21 straight wins, have won 20 straight at home, and are 24-3 at Gillette Stadium. Next stop: Super Bowl XL?
Darren is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"
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