Brad Gagnon at The Score put out an interesting challenge on his blog last week, calling on sports fans to answer, Who's the team of the decade?
My answer is obvious, but not just for the reasons you might think.
Brad makes a great statistical case for the Patriots over at his place: they have won the most Super Bowls (3), are tied for the most conference titles (2), tied for the most division titles (6), have the best regular season record (102-42), and the best playoff record (14-3). They also own the first perfect regular season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and before that, a streak of 21 consecutive regular-season wins, more than that if you count the playoff games in between.
Then Brad has to go and sully my glowing feelings of pride by noting, correctly, "It's safe to say that the Pats would've had this thing locked up had they beaten the Giants in Super Bowl XLII."
Furthermore, he points out, on a purely statistical basis, the Pittsburgh Steelers could rival the Patriots' record in the postseason if they win the Super Bowl this year. "Consider New England to be the team of the first half of the 2000s, while Pittsburgh's the team of the second half," he concludes.
But I disagree with that. Even if the Steelers were to win this year's Super Bowl and dominate the second half of the decade on paper, there's simply no way for them to dominate the zeitgeist of the decade the way the Patriots have.
That's what we're really talking about when we're talking about the team of the decade - like Time Magazine's Person of the Year, it's not who's been the most successful or the most liked, but the most influential and / or emblematic. We're talking about the first team that will spring to mind when you think of the decade, for better or for worse, and there's a lot more to that than wins, losses and rings.
Even if the Pittsburgh Steelers establish another dynasty in the salary-cap era, it'll still be just that: another one. The Patriots were the first to do it, when it was thought to be impossible.
They began the decade in the spotlight with the controversial defection of Bill Belichick to New England from the New York Jets. Before he'd ever set foot on the field in Foxboro, Bill Belichick was at the center of attention in the league, and he's hardly left it since.
The next year, the Patriots ended a 42-year-long championship drought (read: the entire history of the franchise) in an improbable run featuring the rags-to-riches story of Tom Brady, and the parallel drama of Drew Bledsoe as he recovered from devastating injury. Once again, they were the source of controversy after the Tuck Rule game. They went on to become the underdog of Super Bowl XXXVI.
It went beyond the stories on the field, though. Playing in the first Super Bowl to be held since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, as the league's Super Bowl DVD from that year puts it, "the team flying highest was wearing red, white and blue." Bob Kraft also captured the sense of identification between team and country with his line after the upset victory: "Today, we are all Patriots."
And so on, through the dynasty years. It wasn't just that they won - it's that they won with a new style, a new scheme, and incredibly shrewd player development. They were called a "model franchise". Other teams openly aspired to mimic their success.
As if all the wins and the cultural resonance weren't enough, the Patriots were also at the center of the NFL's greatest rivalry of the last decade. It was a trifold rivalry - between two teams, the Indianapolis Colts and the Patriots; between two head coaches in Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick; and between the two premier quarterbacks of the decade, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. These two teams have played the most contentious, fraught series of playoff contests in the AFC over the last 9 years, and when Peyton Manning finally got his day in the sun, he had to go through the Patriots in the AFC Championship first.
Of course, I'm biased. I know there are people out there who would despise the idea of another superlative attached to the Patriots. People who absolutely can't stand the entire franchise, and all it stands for.
But in the end, that's what really seals this for me.
The Patriots are the touchstone team of this decade, not just because they have been successful or loved, but also because they have also been hated and failed. Throughout the perfect regular season, when the records they were breaking weren't making headlines, SpyGate was. I heard that season, on this blog, from fans I never normally hear from, like Baltimore Ravens fans. Suddenly it was important to everyone in the league whether Bill Belichick was a cheater.
The controversy spread to envelop the St. Louis Rams, an otherwise obscure former Patriots video assistant named Matt Walsh, a Boston beat reporter named John Thomase, and his newspaper, the Boston Herald, after Thomase broke news on the eve of the Super Bowl against the Giants alleging the Patriots had videotaped a Rams walk-through prior to Super Bowl XXXVI. While Walsh eventually failed to supply any evidence, the repercussions of this bombshell lasted well into Spring Training the next year. A $100 million lawsuit was filed in New Orleans over the alleged cheating in the championship game. Senators in Washington got involved. Eventually, the Herald was forced to print an embarrassing public retraction and apology for fanning the SpyGate flames.
The Patriots media juggernaut has another dimension, too, and another face: Tom Brady. Open this week's Sports Illustrated and you'll find him inside the cover in a two-page ad for bottled water. Open one from a few weeks ago and you might spy him in a Stetson ad. Pass by People, Us Weekly and the like on the newsstand, and there's Brady, his wife, his ex-girlfriend, and his baby, being gabbed about and debated over to rival the SpyGate controversies. People who don't watch football have an opinion on him and his family. He is a crossover star, instantly recognizable, on a par with the likes of Derek Jeter and Brett Favre. I can't think of anyone from this decade's Steelers who's earned that description.
Love them or hate them, if you're a football fan, you've spent a lot of time this decade thinking about and arguing about the Patriots, no matter what team you root for. They've been the underdog, the model franchise, the dynasty, the fallen heroes and the villains, all in a few short years. When we look back on this decade with all its turmoil, only the Patriots will embody it all.