- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

Jack Ham has first-hand experience with NFL dynasties.

In the 1970s, the Hall of Famer played linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers teams that won four Super Bowls in six years. So his response when asked to rate the New England Patriots’ achievement, should they beat the Philadelphia Eagles a week from Sunday for their third Super Bowl title in four years, was quite a mouthful.

“Three out of four in this era is better than what our football team did,” he said.

Of all the NFL’s “dynasties” — probably an overused term but the best there is for teams that win multiple championships over a relatively short period of time — the Pittsburgh teams of the Steel Curtain era (1974 to 1979) might have been the most imposing. They were led by a future Hall of Fame coach, Chuck Noll, and nine future Hall of Fame players, including Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and “Mean” Joe Greene.

And Jack Ham.

It would be easy for anyone who was part of it to cling to and defend such an auspicious run. Some members of the Miami Dolphins’ undefeated 1972 team, for example, actively root for their record to stand forever. There might be a few old Steelers who resent any comparisons with the Patriots.

Not Ham. He still lives in the Pittsburgh area, but if he hasn’t entirely let go of the glorious past, his grip has loosened. Today is what matters — today being the era of free agency and salary cap restrictions, a time when conventional wisdom makes the idea of a dynasty seem as quaint and outmoded as the straight-on kicker and afternoon Super Bowls.

The Patriots, however, are on the brink of shattering such a concept.

“We had teams that pretty much did it with the same players,” Ham said. “[Patriots coach Bill Belichick] is doing it with different players. The turnover of his football team was a lot higher than the turnover of our team. … I think winning three out of four Super Bowls puts them in rarified air.”

When a player leaves the Patriots, it is usually the organization’s decision. Turnover has fostered improvement. Of the 22 starters in New England’s win last weekend over the Steelers in the AFC Championship, only five started three years ago when the Patriots beat St. Louis to win their first Super Bowl. That does not include two of their best players, defensive end Richard Seymour and cornerback Ty Law, who missed the Pittsburgh game because of injuries. But the Patriots arguably are better now than they were heading into Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002.

Meanwhile, the dynastic Steelers had 12 players who started in both their first and last Super Bowl wins, which occurred five years apart. It would have been 13 players, but Ham was hurt and missed the last one.

“I see all the player movement. I see what the salary cap can do to you,” said Ham, who broadcasts NFL games for CBS Radio. “That’s why it’s so phenomenal if [New England] can pull it off.”

Continuity, a key component of most dynasties, has been increasingly rare since the NFL instituted unrestricted free agency and the salary cap in 1993 and player movement began in earnest. All the dynasties, from the Chicago Bears of the 1940s and the Cleveland Browns of the 1950s to the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, remained relatively intact compared with today’s teams.

The San Francisco 49ers were a somewhat different dynasty. It took just about all of the 1980s and almost two different versions of the team to win four Super Bowls. The first titles came after the 1981 and 1984 seasons. After retooling (which included drafting Jerry Rice, among others), a new incarnation of the 49ers won championships in 1988 and 1989. But two of the constants were hugely significant — coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana. And yet another version of the team, with coach George Seifert and quarterback Steve Young, won a record fifth Super Bowl 10 years ago.

And the Redskins? Their three Super Bowl victories also were spread out, from the 1982 to 1991 seasons. And by losing to the Los Angeles Raiders after the 1983 season, the Redskins probably ceded the “Team of the ‘80s” label to the 49ers.

“When you didn’t have this player movement, rookies sat on the bench for a year or two,” said Fox Sports analyst Jimmy Johnson, who coached and help build the Dallas dynasty. “You had teams that stayed together three or four or six or seven years. New England’s accomplishment really amazes me because they have had great teams. They make few mistakes, yet they are playing rookies, they are playing free agents, they are playing a lot of new players. The job [Belichick] has done might be one of the finest coaching jobs of anybody in history.”

Because of the altered landscape, “I don’t think the top teams today are as dominant as the Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys,” Johnson said.

But, he added, “I also think that coaching today is much more difficult than before all this player movement. Coaches, to be successful, have to be outstanding teachers. And they have to coach them in a hurry.”

NFL Films president and league historian Steve Sabol said if the Patriots win three Super Bowls in four years, “it would be even more remarkable because of the environment in which they’re doing it.” According to Sabol, Noll once told him that coaching an NFL team today is like coaching a college team — you have a graduating class every year.

“It’s probably three times as difficult to keep a team together now than it was in the glory days of the Cowboys and the Steelers and Packers before that,” Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said. “It’s so difficult to win multiple times in this era.”

The Patriots were not supposed to be in this position. No one was. The Cowboys, who won their three Super Bowls from 1992 to 1995, should have been the last dynasty constructed and kept intact even while free agency and the salary cap were starting to alter rosters as never before.

After the Cowboys completed their trifecta, five different teams won the next six Super Bowls. Denver won back-to-back in 1998 and 1999, but quarterback John Elway retired, and that ended the Broncos’ run. Not only did the Patriots fail to repeat after winning their first Super Bowl, they missed the playoffs after the 2002 season. Parity had prevailed; dynasties were dead. Or so it seemed. The Patriots bounced back in 2003, and here they are again, favored to win Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla.

“I thought it would be very difficult for them to repeat only because the salary cap makes it hard for you to be good on both sides of the ball,” Polian said.

Said Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese: “People have no idea how hard it is. Especially now with things so very, very close with so many teams. The latter part of the year, there might be three or four upper-echelon teams, three or four bad teams and the rest of the teams are in the running. One injury, one interception, one fumble might cost a game.

Said Polian: “The salary cap and the system penalize success. In the old days, it was just the draft that penalized success, but now it’s the salary cap. When you’re a good team, free agents always command more dollars than poorer teams. If you’re faced to pay people top dollar, you can’t have money to pay the other supporting players.”

Polian knows this all too well, having tried mightily to keep together an offense that features Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison while also attempting to finance a competitive defense. Polian’s Colts have lost to the Patriots in the playoffs the last two years.

Under the leadership of owner Bob Kraft, Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, the Patriots have thrived where other teams have struggled. Take, for instance, linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who signed a contract extension instead of testing free agency after the season.

“To their credit, they’ve done a terrific job of drafting and a terrific job of keeping people there,” Polian said.

Not only have the Patriots suffered few defections, they have spent wisely on their additions. The most noteworthy example was when New England released Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy just before the start of the 2003 season for salary cap purposes, which upset some players. But the organization (while incurring a modest cap hit) already had drafted Eugene Wilson and signed free agent safety Rodney Harrison, who turned out to be better than Milloy.

This year the Patriots traded for running back Corey Dillon, filling their one notable void. Dillon wasn’t a free agent, but he might have been released, given how badly he wanted out of Cincinnati. New England did not have to overspend because Dillon accepted a pay cut.

Other than quarterback Tom Brady, whose stature grows with every playoff victory, the Patriots lack a lot of so-called big-name players. Look no further than Bruschi and Harrison, who seem to be involved in every important defensive stand or turnover yet somehow failed to make the Pro Bowl.

“The key for them is great coaching and great personnel selection,” Polian said. “They have a lot of relatively low-priced players who make big plays.”

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