How Tom Brady and Bill Belichick Made the New England Patriots a Dynasty

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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick hugs quarterback Tom Brady after defeating the San Diego Chargers in their AFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in San Diego, January 14, 2007. Mike Blake/Reuters

For his 48th birthday, New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was gifted Tom Brady. Never has a late-round NFL draft pick been so pivotal—six quarterbacks had been taken on April 16, 2000, before the Pats selected Brady, No. 199 overall in that year’s draft. Two years later the Pats won their first Super Bowl championship in New Orleans against the St. Louis Rams, and laid the foundation for a football dynasty 16 years in the making. 

The team won its second Super Bowl championship game a mere two years later against the North Carolina Panthers, and go for their fifth title of the Belichick-Brady era this Sunday.

A Newsweek article published on January 28, 2004, recalled the Patriots’ Cinderella story just before its second Super Bowl win, when the Pats had become the favorites and Panthers starting quarterback Jake Delhomme was hoping to prove that he was the next Tom Brady. Read the full article below.

Early in the 2001 season, when the notion of the New England Patriots as a contender let alone as Super Bowl champions was "Saturday Night Live" material, the Pats quietly did away with one of the NFL's time-honored pregame rituals.

Instead of running out onto the field one by one, as the starting offensive or defensive lineup was announced over the P.A. system, the Patriots chose instead to emerge in one giant clump, so tightly wound it seemed as if they were trying to answer that eternal question: how many football players can dance on the head of a pin?

In the "me-me-me" era of Sharpie and cell-phone celebrations, this novel approach seemed a modest, symbolic gesture that suggested--rather appealingly--that the Patriots hoped to inject a little "we" back into the game. But by the time those very same Patriots headed off for the Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans, that rather quaint notion had become an absolute faith for both the players and their fans.

As a result, the team was the most charming--and charmed--Cinderella since Broadway Joe Namath was guaranteeing victory a quarter century ago. The fairy-tale ending almost seemed pre-ordained, as the Pats claimed the glass slipper, the prince's heart and, of course, the promise of living happily ever after, at least until next season.

With that memory still reasonably fresh, it is almost as hard to fathom how, two years later, New England is returning to the Super Bowl, no longer cast as Cinderella, but as ... Well what exactly is the metaphorical equivalent for the overdog? The evil stepmother? The Wicked Witch of the West? The Big Bad Wolf? The giant? Rumplestiltskin?

Whichever it is, Boston Herald columnist Michael Gee wrote that witnessing this transformation of the Patriots into the league's juggernaut was every bit as startling as, say, watching a friend get a makeover on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Meanwhile, there's a new Cinderella in town, one that bears a striking resemblance to the Patriots of Super Bowl XXXVI. This time Cinderella will be played by the Carolina Panthers, a young and, for its short life, largely futile franchise that is just two years away from a brush with the NFL record books--and not a joyous one. The very same season the Patriots won that first Super Bowl, Carolina won its opener and then proceeded to lose 15 games in a row. The sorry season ended with a 38-6 thumping by the very same Pats, a resounding defeat that sounded the death knell for the coaching career of former 49ers coach George Seifert.

The resemblance between these two teams goes far beyond hapless histories. The Panthers are built in that now familiar Patriot championship mold: a no-big-name lineup (though that should soon be remedied); a team built around an aggressive defense that gets after the quarterback; a few-frills, ball-control offense (with a traditional running game rather than the Pats' short-passing game) and a very inexperienced quarterback whose coach seldom puts him in high-risk situations.

Jake Delhomme is hoping to prove that he is the next Tom Brady. (Right now he is the lesser half of one of the great NFL trivia questions. Who were the quarterbacks on the NFL Europe's 1998 Amsterdam Admirals? Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner.) Going into the big game Sunday, Delhomme, like the Pats' Brady two years back, still has plenty of skeptics. He has managed to win three playoff contests, one of which extended into double overtime, while throwing the ball just 69 times. In the NFC championship victory over the Eagles, he threw only 14 passes, which is a throwback, if you will forgive the pun, to the days of the Canton Bulldogs. By contrast, Brady, with one fewer playoff game, has thrown 78 passes.

The Panthers' no-pass offense could conceivably work in the Super Bowl, particularly if the Carolina defense can force a few turnovers. It could work, but it isn't likely to. The Patriots aren't the high-flying St. Louis Rams of two years past, overconfident and ripe to be knocked off their pedestal. And regardless of which team can now claim to be Cinderella, Patriots coach Bill Belichick still has his team thinking like it's the poor char girl slaving away in the dank NFL basement. The Patriots may boast a little more name recognition than the Panthers, but hardly all the acclaim their record suggests they deserve; the Pats had only two players voted into the Pro Bowl lineup while the long-gone Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens had eight apiece.

The Patriots beat St. Louis back in 2002 in what, in boxing parlance, was a classic contrast of styles, one that played into New England's hands. But there is little contrast this time around and that, too, favors the Patriots. The Patriots are simply a better, more accomplished, more seasoned version of the Panthers. What is remarkable about this New England team is not just their 14-game winning streak, the second longest in NFL history, but the teams they have beaten along the way. The Pats are 9-0 against winning teams. They beat the Colts and Titans--both would have been Super Bowl favorites over Carolina--twice apiece. They beat Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Miami and Denver, all on the road. And they shut out Dallas, Miami and Buffalo.

02_03_brady_belichick_02 Belichick talks with Brady, running back Kevin Faulk and Kevin Kasper during their practice in Jacksonville, Florida February 3, 2005. The Patriots played the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX on February 6, 2005, winning 24-21. Mike Blake/Reuters

Belichick has earned that "genius" label (the one we toss around a bit too readily) with his unpredictable defensive schemes. Still, I'd predict that the Patriots defense will be primed to stop the run, a Pats strength anyway, in order to force the ball into Delhomme's hands. While Delhomme has passed every test to date, a Belichick defense is the NFL quarterback's dreaded final exam, one that both the NFL's co-MVPs, Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, have already flunked. Delhomme figures to be overmatched. Even in this stellar season, he threw almost as many interceptions as he did touchdowns--16 to 19--and now faces a defense that led the league in interceptions.

Belichick is also masterful at keeping his players from looking too far ahead. Right now they may think the next big challenge is deciding whether to order the brisket or the ribs at the Friday-night barbecue dinner. So it is a certainty that he and the players aren't thinking about next season yet. The Patriots have already learned how treacherous those postchampionship seasons can be, as have the Ravens and the Bucs. Just as 14-game winning streaks are supposed to be impossible in the NFL's parity era, so too are dynasties.

Yet the Patriots may be poised to defy another piece of conventional wisdom. The franchise that once was a league laughingstock is now the NFL gold standard. The Pats had an extraordinary draft in 2003 with four rookies emerging as impact players (and three others also playing roles). And they will enter this spring's fountain-of-youth grab with more draft choices--including two first-rounders and two second-rounders--than any other NFL team. New England can also look forward to the return of linebacker Roosevelt Colvin, regarded as the premier defensive free-agent signing last year, before a hip injury cost him the season. At least on paper, that is a recipe for a repeat.

Of course, before anyone can think about a repeat let alone a dynasty, the Patriots must win that Super Bowl. The team's most conspicuous flaw all season has been its inability to put away opponents. New England totally dominated Indy, yet the Colts had the ball trailing by only a touchdown late in the game. The Panthers are solid enough to stay in contention, poised to capitalize on a critical error. If I were a gambling tout, I would at least hesitate before taking New England and giving a touchdown. But I only have to worry about the bottom line. And unless New England uncharacteristically turns the ball over several times, Super Bowl XXXVIII should prove to be a Patriot act all football fans can admire. Patriots 23, Panthers 10.