Bill Belichick will be fighting NFL history in his search for the next Tom Brady
Although the New England Patriots have made a lot of history the past two decades, history is no longer on their side.
As Bill Belichick goes about dismantling the remnants of his aging dynasty his biggest problem, the departure of that dynasty’s chief architect, is one that has proven to be implacable and nearly unsolvable.
Tom Brady led his team to 17 divisional titles, nine conference championships and six Super Bowl victories in 20 years as the triggerman of the Patriots’ dynasty. He was like a parish priest. He absolved the sins of many others. Now he’s gone, and who will replace him?
Brady fled to Tampa Bay to try and resurrect a Buccaneers’ franchise that has the worst franchise winning percentage in NFL history, a problem that may prove to be beyond his capabilities. But the concern in New England is: Will replacing him be beyond the capability of the game’s greatest coach? Bill Belichick, himself a student of history, surely knows history does not bode well for him or the post-Brady Patriots.
If one looks back at football’s post-World War II dynasties the pattern is nearly universal. Each was led by a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. Only one followed with a second and even he was less successful than his predecessor. When the second left, the whole franchise collapsed for two decades.
But let’s start at the start.
Between 1946 and 1955 the Cleveland Browns ruled pro football. They went to 10 straight championship games and won seven, four in the All-America Conference and three in the expanded NFL. All 10 years Otto Graham was Cleveland’s quarterback. Who followed Otto Graham?
The poor man’s name was Tommy O’Connell. He went 5-7 in 1956 as one of three starters, led Cleveland to the championship in 1957 but got pummeled 59-14 by the Detroit Lions and disappeared. So did the Browns.
Milt Plum replaced O’Connell, which was better than trying to replace Graham but still not very pleasant. Plum was 33-16-2 as a starter over five seasons, but the Browns reached the playoffs only once. They lost. He was traded.
Cleveland missed the playoffs six of the first eight seasons after Graham retired before winning the title in 1964 and losing to the Packers in the 1965 title game. After winning seven championships in 10 years with Graham, the Browns have won only once since and have never reached the Super Bowl.
So who replaced Otto Graham? No one.
The 1960s were owned by the Green Bay Packers, who won five championships, including the first two Super Bowls, in eight years between 1960 and 1967. Bart Starr led each of those teams on his way to Canton. Like Brady, Starr was seen as an on-field extension of his coach, Vince Lombardi.
Who replaced Bart Starr?
Do Scott Hunter, Jerry Tagge, John Hadl, Lynn Dickey and Randy Wright ring a bell? Only if you’re a “Cheesehead.’’
They went a combined 75-97 between 1971 and 1985, and didn’t win another Super Bowl until 1995, a drought of 24 years. In the 20 years between Starr’s retirement and Brett Favre’s emergence in 1992, Green Bay only made the playoffs twice.
Who replaced Bart Starr? Nobody.
Another near-dynasty existed alongside Starr’s Packers in the presence of the Baltimore Colts. From the late 1950s to the end of the 1960s, Johnny Unitas’ Colts rivaled and often bested the Packers, winning three NFL titles and going 1-1 in two Super Bowl appearances. Unitas was shipped out to San Diego in 1973. Who replaced Johnny Unitas?
Marty Domres was the poor unfortunate. He went 12-20 as a starter between 1971 and 1974 before Bert Jones took over. Injuries crushed Jones’ potential after a few fleeting moments of glory, but in the end his record was 46-46 and the Colts won nothing until they returned to the AFC championship game in 1995, 22 years after Unitas last took a snap. The Colts lost.
Who replaced Johnny Unitas?
The ‘70s belonged to the Pittsburgh Steelers and big-armed quarterback Terry Bradshaw. They won four Super Bowls in six years. When he departed unhappily in 1983 who followed?
Remember Cliff Stout? I didn’t think so. Stout went 9-6 the next year but lost the job to Mark Malone the following season. Malone went 21-24 as a starter between 1984 and 1987. It was 12 years after Bradshaw’s retirement before the Steelers returned to the Super Bowl. They lost.
It was 22 years before they finally lifted the Lombardi Trophy again, winning it in 2005.
So who replaced Terry Bradshaw?
The 1980s belonged to no ordinary Joe. Joe Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories between 1981 and 1989 and went 16-7 in the post-season. His is the only dynasty to survive his departure in large part because another Hall of Famer, Steve Young, was his backup.
Young was nowhere near as successful as Montana, winning only one Super Bowl and going 8-6 in the postseason, but he is the outlier. He is the one replacement who kept his team’s dynasty alive. But who replaced Steve Young?
Actually, his name was Jeff Garcia, but he became more famous for marrying the 2004 Playboy Playmate of the Year than winning Super Bowls, which he did not do. Garcia finished 35-36 in five years as a starter. The Niners reached the playoffs only twice in the next 11 years and didn’t win another Super Bowl for 30 years.
So who replaced Joe Montana? Steve Young, sort of.
But who replaced Young?
This brings us to the Patriots' immediate dynastic predecessors, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s.Troy Aikman led Dallas to three Super Bowl victories and eight playoff appearances before retiring in 2000 to await enshrinement five years later into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Who replaced him?
Remember Quincy Carter? Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t. Bill Parcells is still trying to forget him, though.
Carter went 16-15 in three years as a starter before Chad Hutchinson, Vinny Testeverde, Drew Henson, Drew Bledsoe and Tony Romo all came along. Dak Prescott is the latest to try and replace Aikman, but in the 19 years since Aikman’s retirement the Cowboys have never returned to the Super Bowl and missed the playoffs 12 of those 19 years.
So, who replaced Troy Aikman?
Which brings us back to the biggest question Bill Belichick has ever been forced to answer. Who replaces Tom Brady?
Don’t bet on it. Or him.