Is the New England dynasty over? It's one of the burning issues in pro football as Tom Brady, Bill Belichick & Co. prepare to enter training camp and prepare to reset the clock after a disastrous 2008 calendar year.
We don't know the answer, really. But we do know that nothing lasts forever -- not even seemingly indestructible pro football dynasties.
Some dynasties, like Al Davis' great Raiders teams, die in fiery Hindenburg-like disasters, with the whole world witnessing the ugly destruction. Other dynasties, like the 1970s Steelers, simply slip silently under the sea like the Titanic, with outside observers oblivious to the disaster that befell the once mighty vessel until the bodies begin washing up on shore.
The Patriots, if it is over, would certainly fill the former category: the 16-0 Patriots of 2007 -- the single most dominant NFL team since the wartime 1942 Bears -- suffered a humiliating loss to the 10-6 Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Just minutes into their very next game, the 2008 season opener, future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady was lying on the ground, his season ended by a devastating knee injury. The Brady-less Patriots failed to make the playoffs. In fact, in the everything-changes-in-an-instant NFL, the Patriots, who were 16-0 in 2007, lost the 2008 division title to a Miami team that was 1-15 in 2007.
That's a tough nine months for a team that looked literally unbeatable in January 2008.
Yet the Patriots are considered favorites by just about every oddsmaker to return to Super Bowl form in 2009. But if they don't return this year -- if they never return to form -- Super Bowl XLII will always be remembered as the game in which the Patriots dynasty died.
It wouldn't be the first dynasty-ending defeat, of course, and it won't be the last. In fact, thinking about that game this week and the potential of the season ahead, we started to consider all the games that marked the death of all the dynasties and the budding dynasties of pro football past.
Here they are:
The great Paul Brown was unceremoniously dismissed from Cleveland by owner Art Modell at the end of the 1962 season, after forging the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
The Browns, in their first six years in the NFL (1950-55) appeared in six straight championship games, winning three of them. This NFL performance came on the heels of four straight years of dominance of the old AAFC (1946-49). The Browns won all four league titles.
Yet the system Brown built kept chugging along under the leadership of head coach Blanton Collier and the performances of superhuman running back Jim Brown.
Cleveland destroyed Johnny Unitas and the Colts, 27-0, in the 1964 NFL championship game. They returned to the title tilt against the Packers in 1965 -- the last league championship before the dawn of the Super Bowl Era the following season. It was a pivotal year in NFL history ... and a pivotal year in Browns history.
Cleveland appeared poised to steal "team of the decade" status away from the Packers, who had won championships in 1961 and 1962. The Browns boasted an 11-3 mark in 1965 -- the best record in the league and a hair better than the 10-3-1 Packers -- and they were led by the unanimous league MVP Jim Brown, at the very height of his powers. Brown topped the league in almost every offensive category, including rushing yards (1,544) and rushing TDs (17).
The Packers would go on to win two more NFL championship games after beating the Browns, not to mention the first two Super Bowls. Cleveland, meanwhile, has never recovered from the dispiriting offensive performance.
Vince Lombardi retired from pro football (for a year, anyway) after the 1967 season and after leading the Packers to three straight NFL championships and to victory in the first two Super Bowls.
The dynasty wasted no time drowning in his wake.
The Vikings, for example, had struggled since joining the league in 1961 and were a dismal 3-8-3 in 1967.
But by the end of this game at Lambeau Field, we had discovered that Bud Grant's Vikings were an emerging force. We also learned that Phil Bengston's Packers had rolled over and died. The Vikings raced out to a 16-0 lead -- a Jim Marshall sack of the great Bart Starr for a safety adding insult to injury -- and easily outmuscled the Packers. In fact, Minnesota sported a nifty 26-6 lead before Starr connected with Carroll Dale for a late TD.
The result reverberated across the upper Midwest and across the young Black & Blue Division. The Vikings beat the Packers again in November and cruised to an 8-6 record, their first division crown and their first postseason appearance. The Packers finished 6-7-1, their first losing season of the decade. Nothing was ever the same for the organization:
Better known as the "Sea of Hands" game, this is one of the great epic defeats in pro football history.
Miami was a seemingly indestructible force entering the 1974 playoffs and well on its way to achieving "dynasty" status (the general consensus seems to be that it takes three titles to tango on the dynasty dance floor).
The 1972 Dolphins had gone undefeated and won Super Bowl VII. Some observers, including several Dolphins themselves, claim that the 1973 squad that went 12-2 and won Super Bowl VIII was even better. The 1974 Dolphins were not quite as dominant, but at 11-3 they had the second-best record in football. The 12-2 Raiders were one game better.
The Raiders were also one play better on this particular day.
In the waning seconds of the game, quarterback Ken Stabler was chased from the pocket. He awkwardly shot-putted the ball while off balance into the end zone and into a hornet's nest of defenders surrounding the lonely black jersey of running back Clarence Davis.
Davis somehow came up with the ball amid the "Sea of Hands" for the game-winning touchdown. The Miami dynasty was over.
• The Dolphins appeared in three straight Super Bowls, winning the last two, before the Sea of Hands game.
• The Dolphins have appeared in two Super Bowls, winning none, in the 34 seasons since the Sea of Hands game.
(Here's a look at the Sea of Hands play.)
The game that ended it all: Oilers 6, Steelers 0 (Week 14, 1980)
It was Pittsburgh who wrested the dynasty crown from the hands of those very same Dolphins and Raiders the week after the Sea of Hands game, besting Oakland in the 1974 AFC championship game and going on to win four of the next six Super Bowls.
They were two-time defending champs entering the 1980 season. It looked like the 8-5 Steelers had a shot at a third straight Super Bowl when they hit the road to face 8-5 Houston in a pivotal AFC Central battle.
But the Steelers failed to show up for the showdown.
Terry Bradshaw, so brilliant in Super Bowls XIII and XIV, was so ordinary in the years that followed. He had one of his worst games in years on this day, completing 10 of 26 passes for 138 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT and a woeful 16.7 passer rating.
The Steelers also lost two fumbles, allowing the Oilers to eke out a pair of field goals and the victory. Pittsburgh stumbled to a 9-7 season and finished in third place in the division. It was a classic example of a dynasty quietly slipping into the abyss.
• The Steelers enjoyed eight division titles and four Super Bowl championships in the decade before the loss to Houston.
• The Steelers enjoyed two division titles and zero Super Bowl appearances in the decade after the loss to Houston.
Most people point to San Francisco's victory over Dallas in the 1981 NFC title game -- the game that featured "The Catch" by Dwight Clark from Joe Montana -- as the end of nearly two decades of conference dominance for Landry's Cowboys.
But it wasn't. The Cowboys got right back on the horse -- as Cowboys tend to do -- with a 6-3 record in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and a visit to Washington to battle once again for the NFC title.
It was one of the rockingest games in NFL history, with the stands at the old RFK quite literally shaking under the weight of the bouncing D.C. faithful, stomping and praying for victory over the hated Cowboys who had tormented the Redskins for much of the past 20 years. (Check out some of the video of the pregame here.)
They got what they wanted: the Last Old School Team put away America's Team thanks to a pair of John Riggins touchdown runs and a late INT return for a touchdown by defensive tackle Darryl Grant that iced the game and provided Sports Illustrated its next cover.
It was the competitive end of the Tom Landry Era.
The game that ended it all: Atlanta 20, San Francisco 18 (1998 divisional playoffs)
The 49ers">49ers boast one of the truly remarkable records of success in all of sports history, winning 10 or more games in 16 straight seasons, starting in 1983.
It's a mark that's almost impossible to fathom in a sport where fortunes so often change so quickly from year to year.
The 1998 49ers were the last of those 16 teams to win 10 or more games. And, at 12-4, they were a team that appeared quite capable of winning it all. They averaged nearly 30 PPG (29.9 for those of you keeping score at home), while Steve Young was still at the top of his game. He led the league with 36 TD tosses (against just 12 INTs), threw for 4,170 yards and posted a stellar 101.1 passer rating.
The NFC West rival Falcons, meanwhile, were a shocking 14-2 upstart and beat out San Francisco for the division title. The teams had split their two regular season meetings.
The rubber match would decide who would hit the road to take on the seemingly invincible 15-1 Vikings in the NFC title game. Well, the Falcons wasted no time putting their stamp on the contest, racing out to a 14-0 lead thanks to a pair of Jamal Anderson touchdown runs. A week later, the Falcons proved that Vikings were, in fact, very beatable.
San Francisco, meanwhile, had not only lost the game -- they had lost their last best chance to return to dynastic glory.
• The 49ers appeared in 10 conference title games and five Super Bowls -- winning all five of them -- in the 18 seasons before the loss to Atlanta.
• The 49ers have appeared in zero conference title games and zero Super Bowls in the 10 years since the loss to Atlanta.
• In fact, the wheels have fallen off the dynastic wagon: San Francisco has enjoyed just two winning seasons since losing to Atlanta.
But in 1996, the Carolina franchise's second year in the league, it pushed aside not one but two great dynasties of the era. The surprising 12-4 Panthers edged out the 12-4 49ers for the NFC West title -- no small feat, as the 49ers had just won their fifth Super Bowl in 1994.
It was an inglorious end to the Triplet's Era. Emmitt Smith lugged the ball 22 times for 80 yards and failed to find the end zone. Troy Aikman was a shadow of his former Super Bowl MVP self, completing 18 of 36 passes for 165 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT and a 37.4 passer rating. "Playmaker" Michael Irvin caught 1 pass for 22 yards before getting sent off the field with a shoulder injury.
The trio hung around together for a few more years, but never again threatened to become champions.
• The Cowboys appeared in four straight conference title games and won three Super Bowls in the four years before the loss to Carolina.
• They Cowboys have appeared in zero conference title games and zero Super Bowls in the 12 years since the loss to Carolina.
• In fact, the loss to the Panthers was the start of a very bad trend for America's Team: the Cowboys have yet to win another playoff game, the start of a 12-year postseason drought that's easily the longest in franchise history.
From the mid-1960s through the start of the 21st century, the Raiders were the single most consistent winner in all of North American sports.
They were a dominant force in the AFL in the 1960s, which continued in the NFL in the 1970s, they won a pair of Super Bowls in the 1980s, they suffered a few lean years by their standards in the 1990s, but appeared to be back in form in the 2000s.
The Raiders entered Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of the 2002 season with three straight great seasons under their belt and a chance to return the organization to its glory days.
But as luck would have it, former Oakland coach Jon Gruden defected at the end of the 2001 season for Tampa. And -- as even more luck would have it -- the Raiders faced Gruden and Tampa in the Super Bowl the following season.
Instead of returning to glory, the Raiders were smoked like a carton of Camels at an AA meeting. The league MVP in 2002, Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, had one of his worst games, tossing a Super Bowl record five picks and watching helplessly as three were returned for touchdowns. It was an ugly defeat.
• The Raiders suffered just seven losing records in the 40 seasons before Super Bowl XXXVII.
• The Raiders have suffered six straight losing records in the six seasons since Super Bowl XXXVII.
Almost every contemporary football fan knows the story.
The 2001 Rams were the "Greatest Show on Turf." They had scored 500 points or more for a record three straight seasons, they had already won Super Bowl XXXIV two years earlier, and they fielded three straight NFL MVPs (Kurt Warner, 1999 and 2001; Marshall Faulk, 2000). And at 14-2, the 2001 Rams boasted the best record in the NFL.
Then Ricky Proehl jumped the gun and pissed off the Gridiron Gods. NFL Films captured the St. Louis receiver on the sidelines before kickoff of Super Bowl XXXVI against the lowly, lucky, 11-5 Patriots, declaring that "tonight the dynasty is born!"
Right statement. Wrong dynasty.
A new dynasty was born that night, while the fetal St. Louis dynasty died a whimpering, punchless, pathetic death. Warner threw a critical interception that was returned for a touchdown by Ty Law and then America watched as the QB was knocked around by Patriots defenders.
The death-and-life cycle concluded when New England quarterback Tom Brady, in just his 17th NFL start, marched his club from its own 17 yard line with 81 seconds to play and no timeouts, setting up Adam Vinatieri's iconic 48-yard field goal.
It's perhaps the only play in history that marked the singular death of one potential dynasty and the birth of another.
• The Rams enjoyed three playoff appearances, two conference titles and a Super Bowl victory in the three years before the loss to New England.
• The Rams have enjoyed just one winning season and one playoff appearance in the seven seasons since the loss to New England.
It looks like there's little hope of fortunes changing in St. Louis anytime soon. The 2008 Rams went 2-14 and scored a paltry 232 points -- not even half the output of their glory days just a decade ago.
The Patriots have not fallen off the face of the earth since their crushing, potential dynasty-ending defeat. But the example of the Rams -- and the example of the many great dynasties that came before them -- proves how quickly it can all fall apart.
But check back in December. We'll be able to measure the dynasty's vital signs quite a bit better by then.