MINNEAPOLIS – So, are the New England Patriots the greatest dynasty in NFL history? That depends on your perspective, and what constitutes a dynasty.
"It is hard to define," said Carmen Policy, a top executive for the 49ers during their glory years in the Eighties and Nineties.
"The Packers were great, the gold standard of their era. The Steelers were great, the Cowboys. I'd like to think we were great. Each of them reflect a different style, a different way of going about it."
Yeah, but who is the best, and how do your measure it? The standard definitions for sports dynasty are "a team or individual that dominates a sport or league for an extended length of time (Wikipedia)," or a "franchise which has a prolonged run of successful seasons (Merriam-Webster)."
What qualifies a team's run of excellence as "extended" or "prolonged"? Are we talking four years? Half a dozen? A stretch of more than 10 years?
The Steelers are the only team to win four Super Bowls in six years. The Dolphins won 83 percent of their games over four seasons, which includes two Super Bowl championships and the league's only unbeaten season in 1973.
The 49ers won five Super Bowls and won at least 10 games a record 16 straight times from 1981-98. The Packers won five titles in eight years under Vince Lombardi in the 1960s, including three NFL titles before they won the first two Super Bowls. If the Bowl had been around earlier, they might have won five.
The Pats (2001-04) and Cowboys (1992-95) are the only teams to win three Super Bowls in four years. Sunday against the Eagles, New England looks to become the only team to win three in four years twice, and to match Pittsburgh's overall record of six Super Bowl wins in a record 10th appearance in the big game.
Given that staggering record, there's a rising consensus that the Patriots 17-year run under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, in which they won 15 AFC East titles, reached 12 AFC championship games and now eight Super Bowls, is the top dynasty in the sport's history.
"I'd be compelled to say, probably at the top of the list," Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy said from his home in California.
"Oh, I think the Patriots have surpassed every other franchise," said Steve Tasker, the former Bills special teams great and veteran TV color man. "No question. It's a phenomenal run, the best in NFL history. There have been other ones, no question. But the Patriots are at the top of the pile."
John Clayton has been covering the NFL for more than 40 years as a writer, TV analyst and radio host. He was a young reporter in Pittsburgh during their run in the '70s. But like many in the media, he thinks the Pats have surpassed the Steelers and the other dynasties of earlier times.
"Right now, they're No. 1," Clayton said from Radio Row on Friday. "You're looking at the same length of time as the 49ers and the great success they had with Joe Montana and Steve Young. The difference is, it's the same coach and the same quarterback.
"Twelve conference championship games, eight trips to the Super Bowl, you throw all that together, in my opinion I give it to them. But to some people, it would weaken their case if they got that third Super Bowl loss."
Imagine that, the Pats actually hurting their case by getting back to another Super Bowl and losing it. But that's what makes this such an endlessly fascinating discussion. It's a subjective debate, and there are reasonable arguments both for and against the Patriots.
Bill Polian: Against.
"Oh, no," said Polian, the Hall of Fame general manager who built mini-dynasties with the Bills and Colts. "First of all, I think you can't compare eras. I recognize that people are just going to do it by Super Bowl wins or Super Bowl appearances, and I guess that's OK.
"I don't see it that way," he said. "The game is different today in many ways, principally the salary cap, which has leveled the competition in many ways, and in some ways made the game less competitive. It'll come across as a knock, but they've had a cakewalk in their division the last 10 years."
"It's a fact that the division has been weak for a long, long, long time," Polian said. "Are they the greatest dynasty of the salary cap era? Without question. No sense even discussing it."
That's one of the main knocks on the Patriots, that the weak AFC East has given them an annual boost toward the conference's best overall record and a first-round bye. As for the salary cap era, the argument cuts both ways.
Some consider the Patriots' run even more remarkable because they've accomplished it in the era of free agency and the cap, when it's difficult to keep your best players and the roster turns over on a regular basis.
"I give it to the Pats," Clayton said. "In a salary cap era, they're able to adjust their team. They traded their two best defensive players, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, understanding they're going to give up a few more yards and a maybe few more points, but still make it work. And they make it work."
On the other hand, you might argue that the Pats have benefited from the fact that the cap and free agency compromises all teams, making it easier for a great organization with a top coach and quarterback to dominate the league.
"Keep in mind, other teams have the same problem," Policy said from the Bay Area. "So they were playing on an equal basis, with parity the hallmark of the league. When everybody's facing a tougher environment calling for competitive balance, the organization that works the best and has the best coaching, and finds that key player or two or three, will excel and continually prevail."
There were more great teams before the advent of the cap. Policy's Niners and Polian's Bills had to deal with the rise of the Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson, the Giants of Bill Parcells, the Washington teams of Joe Gibbs. It would be impossible to put together those dynamic rosters under a salary cap system.
It's astonishing that the Patriots have been this good for this long with the same head coach (Belichick) and quarterback (Brady). Clayton said he elevated Brady to the status of best ever after the Seattle Super Bowl three years ago and Belichick to best coach over Vince Lombardi after last year's title
"If you start to rank dynasties," Levy said, "I can certainly understand if anyone says they're No. 1."
But should it matter if a dynasty endures with different men in the two most vital positions? The Niners won three Super Bowls with Bill Walsh as head coach and two with George Seifert. Joe Montana was quarterback for four Super Bowl titles. Steve Young came along and led them to five division titles, four conference championship games and a Super Bowl title in eight years.
"Doing it with a different cast, to me, is as great an accomplishment as having things in place with a future Hall of Fame coach and quarterback operating in the framework of a great organization," Policy said. "And I truly believe the Patriots under Robert Kraft are a great organization.
"But people just don't recognize what the Niner organization accomplished during that 18-year run. Our run was very unique. It covered a period of time when there was turmoil in the league and transition. We went from one way of doing business with one set of rules with a lack of movement of players, to a slightly more relaxed set, to free agency and the salary cap."
The Pats' detractors also point to the fact that the NFL twice caught them cheating, though Brady's performance since DeflateGate has diminished the notion that he got an edge by deflating footballs. Some feel their dynasty suffers because of a relative lack of Hall of Fame players during the run.
"I don't know that there's going to be many Hall of Famers on these Patriots teams," Polian said. "Certainly (Ty) Law and (Richard) Seymour, in my opinion. Then it's Randy Moss, though he wasn't there long, Brady and Gronk." He didn't mention kicker Adam Vinatieri, who should make it.
There are nine Steelers in the Hall of Fame who played during that run of four Super Bowl titles in six years: Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and Mike Webster.
But should it matter how many players you put in the Hall of Fame? Some feel the Steelers are overrepresented in the Hall. Were Swann and Stallworth really both worthy, or did they get swept along on a wave of respect for the team? Or were they really the greatest dynasty?
After the Pats won the Super Bowl last year, more and more observers called them the greatest dynasty. Peter King gave them the nod. The statistical site 538 made a strong case. But in May, Polian said the Patriots were great, but not as great as people think.
"The eras are different," Polian said. "In the non salary-cap era, it's the Niners and Steelers. If you asked me who's better, I'd say Steelers, but it's like vanilla and strawberry ice cream. I couldn't tell the difference."
Maybe it's a generational thing. Policy and Polian are both 75. It's human nature to believe things were better in your day. To younger folks, what's new is the greatest. There was a leap to declare the Warriors the best NBA team ever last season. Which hockey dynasty was better, Canadiens or Oilers? In hoops, the Celtics, Lakers or the Jordan Bulls? Tiger or Jack in golf?
Still, it's hard to argue against what the Patriots have done. Over the last 17 years, they're 236-72, counting playoffs. That's an average of 13.8 wins a year, which is stunning. Fans met the Bills at the airport for winning nine.
New England's winning percentage over that time is .766, better than the Niners in a similar run and slightly better than the Steelers in an eight-year run. Brady has a chance to win Super Bowls 16 years apart. No other quarterback has won them 10 years apart.
On Sunday, Brady and Belichick compete in their eighth Super Bowl. They stand alone in that regard, and rise above the notion of organizational achievement. In a way, we're talking about the Brady-Belichick dynasty. Whatever your take on its place in history, there's never been anything like it.
"You must respect what the Patriots have done," Policy said. "It's quite amazing, if you're a fan of the game, rather than a particular team, or someone who just appreciates greatness and accomplishment. It's quite beautiful to behold."