New England Patriots gambled with danger of hanging on too long

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange  |  Jan. 11, 2018 at 4:18 PM
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Reports of the New England Patriots' palace intrigue have faded into the background since everyone involved was so quick to deny them, but the Patriots will be front and center again in the playoffs this weekend, and all those denials notwithstanding, it doesn't take the Hubble Telescope to see that the NFL's first 21st-century dynasty is nearing its end.

Nothing is forever, and it's instrumental to compare what has happened/is happening with the Patriots with what happened to the league's other two most significant dynasties of the last half-century.

The first was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls in six years in the 1970s with a team loaded with Hall of Famers - four chosen in a single draft, 1974 - but fizzled out in the early 1980s because Chuck Noll, the head coach, became too loyal to his aging stars.

The second was the San Francisco 49ers, who won five Super Bowls in 14 years from 1981 to 1994 and actually enjoyed an 18-season run near the top of the league. They were able to sustain greatness for so long because they refused to let sentiment or friendship get in the way of pushing out Joe Montana and replacing him at quarterback with Steve Young.

George Seifert, who replaced Hall-of-Fame head coach Bill Walsh, made the move even though Montana and Eddie DeBartolo, the team's owner, were pals. DeBartolo opposed letting Montana go, but he also did not want to interfere with what his football people thought was best long-term for the organization.

Substitute Tom Brady's name for Montana, Bill Belichick for Walsh/Seifert and Robert Kraft for DeBartolo, and you have the outline of today's biggest NFL drama. It would have been incredibly popular in San Francisco for the 49ers to stick with Montana and dump Young, just as the Patriots are sticking with Brady after dumping Jimmy Garoppolo, but that did not drive the San Francisco decision.

It is, of course, never easy to get rid of an old star who has done and meant so much to a franchise. In fact, Walsh, as great a coach as he was, could not bring himself to do it even after shopping Montana around the league. At one point, he tried to trade Montana to San Diego for linebacker Billy Ray Smith, but when every assistant on the San Francisco staff told Walsh, in a staff meeting, it was a dumb move, Walsh stormed out of the room and canceled his plan.

Walsh wanted to get Young onto the field because he was younger, stronger and faster than Montana, with, almost unbelievably, in Walsh's view, a better arm. Walsh, who was left-handed, also was intrigued by the thought of a left-handed quarterback like Young in his precision passing system.

It almost became academic because of a severe elbow injury that kept Montana out of action most of two years, but after he came back ready to play, the 49ers traded him to Kansas City. Walsh could not pull the trigger on a deal like that, but Seifert and DeBartolo could. DeBartolo had the fortitude to do what was best for the franchise, despite his love for Montana. But Kraft, the reports go, could not do that with Brady.

Just as, most likely, Belichick would be willing to move on from Brady to Garoppolo because Belichick is wise enough to realize the end is in sight even if it's not imminent. What has made Belichick perhaps the greatest head coach in NFL history is his ability to see beyond today and tomorrow, and an insurance policy like Garoppolo more or less guaranteed him a good day after tomorrow.

No more.

Now, it must be conceded, the Patriots want us to believe there was never any internal conflict over the deal to send Garoppolo to San Francisco, but stories like this one do not just materialize from thin air, so even if some of the details might be a little sketchy, there can be little question that the general outline is correct.

Now, whether that means the Patriots' amazing streak of success has run its course still is to be determined. Maybe Brady really can play until he's 45 or maybe Belichick will find another Brady in the draft this year and all the other parts will come together, and everybody will kiss and make up.

But history tells us that doesn't happen, that it is nearly impossible to recreate a dynasty, and that's where the Pittsburgh experience comes into play.

The Steelers won their four Super Bowls between the 1974 and 1979 seasons. After 1979, they did not win another playoff game until 1984. Noll stuck with his aging stars too long, but in at least one case, the problem was that he did not realize one significant aging star was at the end.

That was Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback. He sustained an elbow injury in preseason in 1982, but played through the entire season and told the Steelers he would be fine in 1983, when he would still be just 35-years-old.

As a result, the Steelers decided against selecting a hometown star in the draft, a quarterback named Dan Marino who played at the University of Pittsburgh. Bradshaw, it would turn out, played in just one more game and threw only eight more passes, and his career was done. For years afterward, Noll regretted not drafting Marino; Noll's teams reached the playoffs just three times in his remaining nine seasons as head coach and, overall, were four games under .500 for that time.

Just as we are left to wonder whether Belichick will soon bemoan giving up the quarterback who may have sustained New England's dominance --Garoppolo -- to keep the team owner and a 40-year-old Brady happy.

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.

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