The term “dynasty” is thrown around so cavalierly and as a prediction rather than retrospection that it has lost much of its impact. That has also served to tarnish the New England Patriots from 2001 to 2019 and what they accomplished compared to other would-be dynasties that never met those lofty and often preposterous expectations. This is the span covered in Jeff Benedict’s The Dynasty.
In the past, the word was used to refer to teams that won consecutive championships and had a string of titles over a decade. The last dynasty in the sense as it was truly intended was the New York Yankees from 1996 to 2000. That Derek Jeter-led team won four World Series in five years. In the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls in four seasons from 1992 to 1995. The Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants all have a reasonable claim to call themselves varying forms of dynasties in the current environment.
Yet standing above all as the paragon others strive to be is the Patriots. With a mind-boggling eight Super Bowl appearances and six championships in those twenty years, the Patriots were known for their machine-like efficiency and utter ruthlessness in formulating a plan to achieve that one goal at the start of every season: winning the Super Bowl. The book centers on the triumvirate of owner Robert Kraft, head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady.
That desperation to win extended to allegations of rampant cheating and borderline cruelty in how Belichick callously discarded players who were no longer of use to him in that stated goal. What sets the Patriots apart from their counterparts in football and other sports is how they have maintained their level of excellence. Even in years when they didn’t win the championship, they were on the cusp of doing so. There was no bottoming out; no valleys; no tear down and rebuild. Year in, year out, they were there. Benedict explores how this sets them apart. That they achieved it in the world of free agency, salary caps, multi-tiered playoffs and a system that is intricately designed to prevent one team from doing precisely what the Patriots have done is why the story is so compelling.
How did they do it?
While the easy story to tell is Brady’s and the most polarizing one is Belichick’s, the book dedicates the bulk of its narrative on Kraft. He is the sun around which Belichick and Brady revolve. Part soothing presence; part tiebreaker; part defender; part parent; part friend; and part overseer, he was the indispensable cog in keeping the egos of his coach and quarterback from forcing a breakup long before one was necessary, though it came close several times, all of which are described in detail with the most notable being due to Belichick’s belief that Brady’s age would eventually derail his productivity and Brady being tired of the lack of appreciation and warmth expressed by his coach.
Kraft is a businessman whose hard-charging style mirrors that of captains of industry who made it to the top of their respective professions and did not care who they stomped on to facilitate their rise, Kraft is different in that he did care who he stomped on and made certain not to do it. Piety to his Jewish faith with a gentle demeanor and socially conscious with charity work, Kraft’s rise from rabid Patriots fan who had season tickets almost from the team’s inception to when he bought the team and saved it from being moved to St. Louis showed him to be a community-minded man who grew up in the area and understood the financial and sentimental value the team held while ensuring that it was a profitable business. The best way to do that was to win. And win he did. The keys to that were his business acumen and willingness to trust people like Belichick, whose history and personality were considered ill-suited to running an organization; and Brady, whose pedigree was not such that he should have been expected to be anything more than an extra guy on a roster who would bounce from team to team as a journeyman body.
Still, it was not an easy path. Inheriting head coach Bill Parcells and his entire package of arrogance, condescension, bullying and greed that comes along with it, Parcells epitomizes what Belichick was supposed to be based on his reputation as a miserable human, but really wasn’t.
Nailing down the X factor to their sustained run is a near-impossibility. Without Kraft, there is no Belichick; without Brady, there is no elevation of Belichick from failed head coach who Kraft was told by multiple people including Belichick’s former boss, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, not to hire. Even Parcells, who had a long and fruitful working relationship with Belichick, was lukewarm on the idea as evidenced by his dual-sided question to Kraft as they negotiated compensation for Parcells allowing Belichick to leave his New York Jets contract: “Bob, do you want this guy to be your head coach?”
Yet Kraft trusted his instincts and that he could better analyze the understated strengths of Belichick and not just hire him, but give him total control of football operations.
For those who suggest that Brady is a “systems” quarterback who was in an advantageous situation after he and the team were “lucky” that they got him in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft and he went on a hot streak after replacing the severely injured Drew Bledsoe in the second game of the 2001 season, their misinformed analysis is blown to smithereens. His determination and work ethic are described in detail. The hard work is one thing, but that laser focus and putting every ounce of attention into his objective is what sets him apart. Many put forth the pretense of being all-in for their goals, but Brady put it into practice.
This is not to imply there was no tension between the parties. Kraft was notably displeased with Belichick’s penchant for pushing the envelope of propriety, notably telling his coach that he was a “schmuck” for videotaping the opposing defensive coaches’ signals (Spygate) when Belichick himself said that it did not help at all. However, many of the harshest criticisms of Belichick clearly lack credibility or are based on personal animus. The allegations of the Patriots’ cheating were explained in detail and Benedict makes a convincing case that apart from Spygate, they were innocent. The report that the Patriots had videotaped the St. Louis Rams’ practices prior to their first Super Bowl win was found to be untrue and was retracted; Deflategate in which Patriots’ equipment staff were accused of removing air from footballs at Brady’s direction in the 2014 AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts becomes difficult to believe based on the available evidence.
As astute as Belichick was in his implementation of a system that would continually replenish while dealing with free agency and a salary cap, none of it would have succeeded had he not been blessed with an owner who gave him nearly free rein and a megastar quarterback who did not ask for nor did he receive preferential treatment. Repeatedly, Benedict retreats to the reaction of newcomers to the Patriots – notably Randy Moss, a placated star if there ever was one – who were stunned that Belichick tore into Brady during team meetings like he was the last guy on the roster and was in danger not just of losing his starting spot if he kept screwing up, but might lose his job entirely. The star player hierarchy that was and is present in other organizations is simply not there in New England. And Brady silently took it. In part, that may have been due to Brady’s desire to improve; in part, it might have been his family-centric upbringing and that he wanted nothing more than to please and receive approval from his football father figure in Belichick – something he never received to a sufficient degree.
The fundamental question that goes without an answer is who of the three was the critical and indispensable component of the Patriots dynasty.
Was it the owner who leveraged himself to the nth degree and navigated the complex terrain of running the organization as both an on-field sports franchise and a business?
Was it the coach whose reputation as a malcontent with the personality of a corpse’s toupee whose first foray as a head coach ended in a disaster with the Browns and resigned the day he was given his second opportunity with the Jets so he could go to New England?
Or was it the afterthought quarterback who was only given the opportunity to play due to the starter’s injury?
The answer is that they’re inextricably linked. Without Kraft, there’s no Belichick; without Belichick, there’s no Brady; without Brady, there’s no Kraft and Belichick. The Dynasty is the Patriots as an organization with background characters Julian Edelman, Tedy Bruschi, Moss, Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski and myriad others integral to the story, but it’s foundation is the three men whose methods were different, but who mapped out a strategy to reach the pinnacle of their profession together with one unable to do it without the other two. That these three markedly different personalities could mesh so effectively and coexist for two decades with unparalleled success supersedes any individual. That Benedict does not give an answer may be the answer as to how their legendary twenty-year run came to be.