HOUSTON – (special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – Football is often called “ultimate team game.” But exactly what does that mean?
It may not be necessarily what you think of, 11 guys playing together. Because NFL teams are so closely balanced, the difference often lies in the small team of people at the top, and the triumvirate in New England arguably is the strongest of the Super Bowl era.
We’re talking Robert Kraft, the owner, Bill Belichick, the coach, and, of course, a quarterback named Tom Brady.
It is hardly going out on a limb to predict that all three eventually will wind up in the Hall of Fame, which would make the Patriots the fourth Super Bowl-era dynasty to be so honored.
New England’s closest competitor in the race for strongest dynastic trio is the San Francisco 49ers, with Eddie DeBartolo, Bill Walsh and Joe Montana/Steve Young, which put together a string of 16 consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories while winning five Super Bowls.
Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick
The Patriots have had 14 consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories, and if they beat the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, they will have won five Super Bowls during that stretch.
More than just the numbers, however, tie the Patriots and the 49ers together. Both of them created dynasties with a coach and a quarterback who were, for lack of a better word, shunned — or at least underrated — by the rest of the NFL.
Before Kraft hired Belichick, he was warned by others with more experience in the NFL, including some people in the league office, that he was making a mistake, that Belichick’s record in his first head coaching job, with the Cleveland Browns, where he had four losing seasons in five years, was a true reflection of his ability.
Kraft thought differently. He got to know Belichick when Belichick was a Patriots assistant coach, and Kraft, through his extensive business background, believed himself, a good judge of ability. Kraft once told me, “The best deal I ever made was getting this guy.”
Brady, meanwhile, as is well known by everybody who follows football. He was an overlooked, sixth-round draft choice by the Patriots who famously told Kraft that he would be the best choice the team ever made. It’s hard to dispute that brash prediction.
In a similar vein, San Francisco created its dynasty in the 1980s and ’90s with leadership that was not highly regarded around the league.
DeBartolo, the owner, came into the league as an outsider businessman. Perhaps the biggest difference between him and Kraft is that the former 49ers owner was a volatile individual with little interest in league affairs and Kraft is a lower-wattage fellow who has been a big player in league business.
The 49ers also succeeded with a coach who was not well thought of by many around the NFL. Walsh was believed to be too cerebral, too much out of the football mainstream and, laughably as it turned out, not tough enough for the man-eat-man world of professional football.
Walsh had expected to succeed Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals, but Brown passed him over and supposedly put the word out around the league that Walsh was not head-coaching material.
But DeBartolo, after failing with his first three coaching hires in two years, turned to Walsh in large measure because Walsh was a popular choice after a successful run at nearby Stanford University. And then Walsh found and developed Montana, who lasted until near the end of the third round of the draft because scouts didn’t believe him big enough or strong enough and thought his arm too weak.
Likewise, Young, who came to the 49ers after stints with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was widely considered not NFL material because he was too skittish and too unpolished. All Walsh did was turn him into a Hall of Famer who led the league in passing six years in a row.
Three other Super Bowl era owner-coach-quarterback trios are in the Hall of Fame:
—The Pittsburgh Steelers, with Art Rooney and Dan Rooney, the owners, plus Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw. The Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years but even in that pre-salary-cap, pre-free-agency era, could not sustain greatness as long as the Patriots and 49ers did. At their peak, the Steelers had just nine consecutive winning seasons.
—The Oakland Raiders, with Hall of Famers Al Davis, John Madden and Ken Stabler, managed only one Super Bowl championship in the ’70s. The Raiders won two more in the early ’80s with Tom Flores coaching and Jim Plunkett at quarterback, although neither of them are in the Hall of Fame. The Raiders had 16 consecutive winning seasons.
—The Dallas Cowboys had two distinct period of greatness, the ’70s with Tex Schramm, Tom Landry and Roger Staubach, and the ’90s with Jerry Jones, Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman. Schramm, Landry, Staubach and Aikman are in the Hall of Fame, and Jones is likely to get voted in on Saturday. The Cowboys did manage a record 20 consecutive winning seasons, and each of the threesomes won two Super Bowls (another came after Barry Switzer replaced Johnson as coach).
There have been other dynasties in the Super Bowl era — Green Bay in the ’60s and Miami in the early ’70s come quickly to mind, but there have been no others with three leaders so decorated.
<Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.>