Dynasty Debate: Making the final call on the 1980s/1990s 49ers or the modern-day Patriots
Only one of these dynasties can be No. 1, but both Patriots and 49ers fans have a lot to be thankful for
Nearly thirty-eight years after San Francisco's dramatic win over the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, Brady's childhood team and his current team are the NFL's only undefeated teams five weeks into the 2019 regular season. While the 49ers made history by winning five Super Bowls in a 14-year span, Brady has helped bring six Vince Lombardi Trophies to New England during his remarkable run in Foxboro.
The early success of both teams motivated this writer to compare the two dynasties while determining which dynasty reigns supreme. Players, competition, dominance compared to the rest of the field, impact on the game, and enduring legacy were the five main factors in determining the winner.
Quarterbacks Joe Montana, Steve Young, wide receiver Jerry Rice, defensive end Fred Dean, outside linebacker Charles Haley, cornerback Deion Sanders and safety Ronnie Lott are each members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Montana went 4-0 in Super Bowls while becoming the first player to win three Super Bowl MVPs. Rice, widely regarded as the greatest receiver in NFL history, won three Super Bowls with the 49ers, catching 28 passes for 512 yards and seven touchdowns in those games. His 215 receiving yards in Super Bowl XXIII remains a Super Bowl record.
Lott, who cut off part of a finger to avoid missing a game, is regarded as arguably the greatest safety in NFL history. And while he spent just one season in San Francisco, Sanders, arguably the greatest cover man in league history, made that season count, winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1994 while helping the Niners win their fifth title.
While he is not in the Hall of Fame, running back Roger Craig was a key member of San Fran's dynasty run. Craig, the first player in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season, won three Super Bowls with the Niners. He was the first player to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl during the 49ers' blowout win over Dan Marino's Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.
Brady, arguably the greatest player in NFL history, is unquestionably the most accomplished quarterback in league history. He is the only player in NFL history with six Super Bowl rings. His four Super Bowl MVP awards is also an NFL record. Brady, who is showing no signs of slowing down at age 42, may eventually retire with just about every significant career passing record.
Cornerback Ty Law, whose pick-six in New England's upset win over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI helped jumpstart the Patriots' dynasty, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019. Super Bowl winning teammates Tedy Bruschi and Richard Seymour may join him in Canton sometime in the near future. While he didn't win a Super Bowl during his time in New England, Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss' NFL record 23 touchdown receptions in 2007 helped the Pats capture a perfect regular season en route to an appearance in Super Bowl XLII.
Linebacker Willie McGinest was a key member of the Patriots' first three Super Bowl-winning teams. Another key player during New England's success in the early 2000s was kicker Adam Vinatieri, who booted game-winning kicks in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVII.
Rob Gronkowski, who helped the Patriots win their three most recent Vince Lombardi Trophies, is a lock to see his career immortalized in Canton as soon as he is eligible. While his regular season numbers aren't great, receiver Julian Edelman's postseason success may earn him future consideration for Canton.
The pick: 49ers -- While the Patriots have had a slew of great players over the years, the 49ers' collection of talent, along with the fact that they had three players (Montana, Rice and Lott) that were -- at the time -- widely considered the greatest of all-time at their respective positions, gives them the edge in this category.
San Francisco won four of their Super Bowls during the 1980s, a decade that also featured several other NFC powerhouses in Washington, Chicago, and New York. In the 1990s, the 49ers had to contend with the Dallas Cowboys, who twice defeated San Fran on their way to Super Bowl victories over the Buffalo Bills. The 49ers eventually toppled the Cowboys in the '94 NFC title game before dispatching the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.
While the 49ers had to go through a stacked NFC to win their rings, the Patriots played in a weak AFC East Division that greatly contributed to their ability to earn a playoff bye each year since 2010. That said, New England did defeat the heavily favored Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI as well as the Andy Reid's talented Philadelphia Eagles' squad in Super Bowl XXIX. New England also had to go through the Steelers and Payton Manning's Colts a combined six times to get to the Super Bowl. The Patriots also dethroned the defending champion Seattle Seahawks in one of the greatest Super Bowls of all-time.
The pick: 49ers -- Yes, the Patriots have faced some stiff competition during their recent run. And they also beat better teams in the Super Bowl compared to the teams the 49ers faced in their Super Bowls (with the exception being Dan Marino's 1984 Dolphins). But the Pats' consistent level of competition doesn't compare to the teams the 49ers had to get through to win their rings -- specifically during the regular season.
The 49ers were also able to keep their run going despite changing coaches (going from Bill Walsh to George Seifert in 1989) and quarterbacks (Montana to Young in 1991) during their championship run.
Dominance against the field
While the 49ers led the way with five Super Bowl wins from 1981-94, the Redskins, Giants, and Cowboys won a combined six Super Bowls during that span, with Dallas winning another Super Bowl at the end of the 1995 season. San Francisco was the NFL's gold standard, especially during the '80s, but they weren't as separated from the rest of the field as the Patriots have been during their remarkable run.
Since New England's first Super Bowl win in February of 2002, the Steelers and Giants are the only two teams to win multiple titles. Only four other teams have appeared in multiple Super Bowls, while the Patriots' nine Super Bowl appearances since 2001 is a Super Bowl record. Simply put, no NFL team has been this much better than the rest of the field for so long than the modern-day Patriots.
New England has also had to compete with free agency, something San Francisco didn't have to deal with for the majority of their run. While the lack of competition within their division is a strike against them, the way the Patriots have been able to dominate the era of free agency is something that should be celebrated.
The pick: Patriots -- Along with mastering free agency, New England has a 3-0 postseason record against a Pittsburgh franchise that has won two Super Bowls and three AFC titles since 2005. New England also enjoyed a 2-1 edge over Payton Manning's Colts team that ultimately broke through against the Pats in 2006 en route to a win in Super Bowl XLI. The 49ers, conversely, went 1-2 against the Cowboys and 1-3 against Bill Parcells' Giants in postseason play.
Impact on the game
Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense was decades ahead of its time. While he initially installed the West Coast as Cincinnati's offensive coordinator during the '70s, Walsh took the West Coast to a whole new level shortly after becoming the 49ers' head coach in 1979. Walsh's West Coast Offense -- the art of controlling the tempo of the game with short, high percentage passes while introducing new routes, formations and personnel packages -- has changed the way football is played. Equally impressive is Walsh's unmatched coaching tree that includes several Super Bowl-winning coaches.
The Patriots' longterm impact on the game will ultimately be determined years after their run is over. That being said, it appears that the Patriots' impact on the game is more about what they've done off the field as opposed to what they've done on the field to win their championships. How the Patriots have consistently constructed championship-caliber rosters during the free agency era is something that every NFL team will surely try to emulate in the years to come. The issue is that the "Patriot Way" is pretty much Patriots head coach/GM Bill Belichick, whose eye for talent and putting that talent in the best position to succeed is a talent that may not ever be duplicated.
When it comes to their on-field impact, this era of Patriots football will mostly be remembered for their ability to consistently create successful game plans that are designed to take away their opponents' biggest strength, via their superior technique and discipline. While their peerless fundamentals have played a large role in their success, it probably won't have the same long-term impact that Walsh's West Coast has had on the NFL.
The pick: 49ers -- Along with the West Coast Offense, the 49ers set the standard of running an organization during their reign that was described by every player from that era dubbed as "first class". With Hall of Fame owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. sparing no expense, San Francisco's focus on improving team travel, nutrition, and lodging set the standard while influencing how the NFL's best teams operate today. The best example of this is Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has incorporated many of DeBartolo's methods while building a first-class operation in New England.
The 49ers' record of 16 straight seasons of winning at least 10 games stood as the NFL's record until New England tied it in 2018. San Francisco also appeared in 10 NFL title games from 1981-97. The 49ers also boasted a perfect 5-0 record in Super Bowl play. Their 1984 team was first team in NFL history to win 15 regular-season games, while their 1989 team recorded the biggest margin of victory in Super Bowl history. San Francisco's 18-game road winning streak, which they set while winning two of their five Super Bowls from 1988-90, may never be topped. And while the majority of their Super Bowl wins were blowouts, Montana's expertly orchestrated, 92-yard, game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII is the stuff of legends.
The 49ers, the undisputed Team of the '80s, will continue to be remembered as one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.
New England's 16 division titles in an 18-year span is an NFL record that may never be topped. Along with tying the Steelers with six Vince Lombardi Trophies, the Patriots also joined the '90s Cowboys as the only franchises to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span. In February of 2019, New England joined the '70s Miami Dolphins and '90s Buffalo Bills to appear in three straight Super Bowls. The Patriots have also appeared in 13 AFC title games that includes a record eight straight title game appearances from 2011-18. New England's 21-game winning streak, which took place during the 2003 and '04 seasons, may never be topped. The Patriots also own the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, coming from 25 points down to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. They also tied a Super Bowl record by holding the Rams to just three points in Super Bowl LIII.
While they may go down as the most reviled dynasty of all-time, there's little doubt that the Belichick/Brady Patriots have had the greatest run of success in NFL history.
The pick: Patriots -- Simply put, the Patriots essentially mirrored what the 49ers did before extending it several more years with no clear end in sight. The 1980s/'90s 49ers were the first team to carry their excellence into a second decade, while the Patriots seem destined to stretch their run into the 2020s.
The overall winner: 49ers
Yes, the Patriots' current reign is the more successful run as far as Super Bowls and longevity are concerned. But when factoring in the great players they had, the competition they overcame and the ways they changed the game, the 49ers' dynasty comes out on top ... for now. Just like their Super Bowl wins, another Patriots Super Bowl victory during this run would give them a narrow victory in this dynasty debate.
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