- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

HOUSTON. — What with free agency and the salary cap and watered-down rosters and all the rest, you don’t think of this as being a Golden Age for the NFL. But in some ways, it is. Never has the playing field been more level. A team can go from 1-15 to the Super Bowl in two years — as the Carolina Panthers proved. And the Super Bowl itself is finally living up to its name after decades of blowouts and yawners.

Paul Tagliabue has to be one of the luckiest commissioners in sports history. He took over for Pete Rozelle in 1990 — just in time for the Giants-Bills classic, the first great Super Bowl — and there have been only a few duds since then. The Patriots-Panthers thrillfest Sunday was the fourth first-rate Super Bowl in the last seven years, ranking right up there with Pats-Rams, Rams-Titans and Broncos-Packers. The games are so good now, the NFL doesn’t even need famous singers flashing their breast at halftime.

Who knows why Super Bowls have suddenly become so scintillating. Maybe the teams are just flawed enough now, because of the spreading out of talent, to raise the unpredictability level. The score in the fourth quarter Sunday was 19-18. Most of us would have figured that would be the final score.

Here’s hoping people will take the Patriots a little more seriously now. It’s clear their victory over the Rams two years ago, as 14-point underdogs, was not the monumental upset it was made out to be. This is one of the best teams in recent years, and its future may be even brighter than its present. Tom Brady is only 26, and the club has stockpiled a bunch of high draft picks that should only help it get better.

The Patriots are showing that, even in this day and age, it’s possible to sustain excellence. The Free Agent Era tends to be viewed as the epoch of the one-year wonder, but the Pats are positioned to make a fairly lengthy run if they can avoid misfortune — injuries and the like. And it’s important to the NFL in these times that fans feel like there’s still some quality out there, that teams can measure up to the dynasties of the past.

That a club could have the success the Patriots are having — despite all the forces aligned against them — shouldn’t really surprise anyone. All dynasties are aberrations, no matter what the decade. The ‘50s Browns went to six championship games in a row and won three of them. You don’t think that was a freak of nature? The Lombardi Packers, the ‘70s Steelers, the ‘80s 49ers, the ‘90s Cowboys — all of them defied the odds.

It’s just a fact of football life. Every so often, no matter what the circumstances, enough genius, talent and good fortune are going to gather in one place to produce a team for the ages. And the Patriots, it seems, are the latest to hit the lottery.

Their most impressive quality, perhaps, is that they’re able to be whatever they need to be. As Bill Belichick said yesterday, “We’ve won 32-29 this year, we’ve won 38-34, we’ve won 12-0. You never know what the winning formula is going to be.” The Patriots always come up with some concoction, though. Against the Panthers, it was 27 minutes of stifling defense followed by offensive fireworks reminiscent of Air Coryell. New England is a total team, right down to nerveless kicker Adam Vinatieri. If the Pats can’t beat you one way, they’ll beat you another.

The quarterback Brady is constantly being compared to is Joe Montana, and there are certainly similarities between the two. But quarterback Tom might have the most in common with Bart Starr. All the other QBs who have won multiple Super Bowls entered the NFL amid much fanfare. Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett, John Elway and Troy Aikman were the first pick in the draft. Roger Staubach (along with Plunkett) had won the Heisman Trophy. Montana had led Notre Dame to a national championship, and Bob Griese was a high draft choice (fourth overall) and nationally known.

Starr and Brady, on the other hand, came in through the service entrance. Starr was the 200th selection in the ‘56 draft, and Brady was — are you ready for this? — the 199th in 2000. Bart didn’t knock you over with his physical ability, but he was smart, tough, a very accurate thrower and had a remarkable ability to lead — attributes that are also possessed by the Patriots’ young QB.

Starr took the Packers down the field in the closing minutes to win the Ice Bowl, and Brady took the Patriots down the field to win the Snow Bowl over the Raiders in ‘01. And Brady did it again against the Rams in the Super Bowl — and against the Panthers once more on Sunday. If he keeps doing it — and it looks like he will — there’ll be no discounting his and the Pats’ accomplishments.

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