Note: For the weekly LIFE Magazine,
R.B. Scott covered the Miami Dolphins during its perfect 1972 season. He started following the Patriots way back in 1965 when they were The Boston Patriots of American Football League.
By R.B. Scott
After its dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Falcons in last Sunday’s (2/5/17) Super Bowl in Houston, The New England Patriots, Coach Bill Belichick and Quarterback Tom Brady finally own it all.
Hands down, the team, coach and quarterback are the best ever!
Until Sunday’s victory in Super Bowl LI, those distinctions had eluded them for more than a decade, despite some rather impressive statistics. Here's the update: In its 16 years with Belichick and Brady playing lead roles, the Patriots finished first in the American Football Conference/East 14 times and second twice. The team went to the Super Bowl seven times and emerged as champions five times.
Beginning in 2004 there always a but. And, more than a few fierce “wait-until-next-year” pledges along the way. Still, it was clear long ago to most sensible people that it was more a question of when than if the Patriots would be unquestionably considered the best football unit ever -- team, coach, quarterback, defense, offense, you name it.
The celebration that shifted from Houston snow-choked Boston was exuberant. They exulted in the dramatic come-from-behind victory and historic "best ever" designations that followed: team, coach (Belichick) and quarterback (Brady). At times there were also snarky in-your-face repudiations of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2016 season.
The Patriots won three of the first four games anyway, and the first three after Brady's return. And, now another Super Bowl title was theirs too ("take that Goodell"). Love or despise Bill Belichick (many entrenched loyalists do both), he always manages to build a winning team with the players he's dealt. He's been doing it quite well since the turn of the century.
By the start of the 2007 season, the Pats under Belichick and with Brady in command on the field had already won the AFC/East five times and Super Bowl three. At the close of the regular season and the playoffs, they were undefeated (18-0) heading into the Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants in Arizona. It was a game that many presumed would be an easy final stepping stone to being dubbed "the best ever" in nearly all categories.
Until then the only “perfect season” distinction belonged to Coach Don Shula and the 1972 Miami Dolphins: 14-0 for the regular season and 17-0 including the playoffs and Super Bowl. But, were they best ever? Followers of of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and, of course, the Patriots would object.
The expected Patriots win in SuperBowl XLII would settle all those heated barroom debates once and for all. Native New Englander Steve Young, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, owner of three Super Bowl rings and 1995 MVP title himself, confidently predicted that the only way the Patriots would lose to the New York Giants is “if they do what they haven’t done all season – play flat." I predicted Brady and the offense would "do just enough -- surprise opportunistically -- to win, say by a touchdown, field goal or safety. Whatever it takes to get it done."
Pundits around the world had already ranked the Patriots above the shuffling Chicago Bears of the 80s –quarterback Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, and their favorite kitchen appliance, William “Refrigerator” Perry; and, the Dallas Cowboys of Tom Landry, Roger Staubach and Danny White. They were rated more resilient than Tom Brady's favorite team as a young man, the San Francisco 49ers of the 80s and 90s, and his schoolboy idols Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Of considerable concern were Pittsburgh’s five Super Bowl trophies, its vaunted “Steel Curtain” defense of “Mean” Joe Green and Jack Hamm and its high-powered offense led by Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleir (Together they made the title of the Roy Blount’s delightful and insightful chronicle 1973 championship season – About Three Bricks Shy of a Load—the understatement it was intended to be.).
Above them all, Shula, the Dolphins and their perfect season and dominance of the league reigned supreme. Three decades earlier in a locker room buried in the bowels of the Los Angeles Coliseum, Shula had counseled his “perfect” Dolphins before Super Bowl VII. “We have done very well…but it will mean absolutely nothing unless we win it today.”
The Patriots from Foxboro or Foxborough (take your pick) didn't play flat that Super Bowl Sunday. Nor did Giants from Meadowlands of suburban New Jersey. But they lost it that Sunday. The New York Times report began this way:
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Giants were not even supposed to be here, taking an unlikely playoff path through the behemoths of their conference and regarded, once they alighted on Super Bowl XLII, as little more than charming foils for the New England Patriots’ assault on immortality.
But with their defense battering this season’s National Football League’s most valuable player, Tom Brady, and Giants quarterback Eli Manning playing more like Brady than Brady himself, the Giants produced one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history Sunday night, beating the previously undefeated Patriots, 17-14.
Last Sunday, what had eluded Belichick, Brady and the Patriots finally was theirs. In came their way in dramatic fashion, the greatest comeback to date in Super Bowl history.
No doubt the keepers of The Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio have already begun making room for Belichick’s portrait alongside Don Shula's, Pittsburgh's Chuck Noll. And, from a very different era, Green Bay’s legendary Vince Lombardi, who never coached a losing team, and over his nine years with Packers, amassed an 89-24-4 record, plus five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowl crowns.
Like Belichick, Shula, Lombardi and Noll were all great teachers, demanding leaders, stern if even-handed disciplinarians who got the most out of their charges. All leaned heavily on seemingly impenetrable defensive units. Miami's "No Name Defense" was so dominant that Don Shula’s late wife Dorothy admitted she frequently rooted against it "out of pity."
To this day, Tom Brady admits he is awed whenever he is in the presence the boyhood football idols -- Joe Montana (Mr. Clutch) and Steve Young . He measures himself against them. And, now eventually he will join them join in the Hall of Fame.
Way back in 2004 Young observed presciently : “What makes Brady all the more impressive is that he’s just 26-years-old with two Super Bowl titles under his belt. It could turn out that people like Joe and me will be measured against Brady."
Like his ancestor Brigham, Sunday's victory proved the younger Young a prophet too.