The Patriots earned their sixth Super Bowl ring in 18 seasons on Sunday, extending a brilliant run that started in 2001 with head coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the team’s starting quarterback.
To be this good for this long in a league with a salary cap is a remarkable accomplishment, one that certainly warrants the use of the word “dynasty.” It’s also appropriate to call the Belichick/Brady era one of the best sports dynasties of all time, regardless of league. Perhaps even the best once you account for league size and parity, though there is some very stiff competition for that spot from the likes of the New York Yankees, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, as well as a few candidates from the NHL, including Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers.
But once you account for how difficult it is to win multiple Super Bowls over almost two decades, and how integral Belichick and Brady were to the entire run, the parity of the NFL, its 53-man rosters and salary cap limiting the amount of talent any one team can keep from year to year, it’s clear the hyperbole surrounding the Patriots dynasty is warranted.
The easiest, and fairest, way to compare the title chances of teams in each of the four major pro sports – NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB – is to see how likely a random team in that league is to win a championship. Such a comparison accounts for the number of teams in that league at a given time, as well as the league’s playoff format. For example, in 1953, an NHL team had a 67 percent baseline chance at making the playoffs and from there a 25 percent chance of hoisting the Stanley Cup, equating to odds of 5 to 1. In 2001, the NFL, by comparison, saw 12 of their 31 teams (39 percent) qualify for the playoffs, with one of those 12 winning it all (31 to 1). We can then use that to estimate the odds of winning a certain number of titles over a span of years. Obviously there are times when some squads are more dominant than others (such as the Golden State Warriors), which would skew those odds, but overall we can get a good sense of how difficult it is to be the last team standing time after time after time.
From this analysis, the odds of the Patriots carving out this dynasty, with six Super Bowl rings since 2001, are 71,000-to-1. That is staggeringly high. Heck, your odds of being injured by a toilet are approximately 10,000-to-1. A 71,000-to-1 unlikelihood makes the Patriots’ dynasty easily the most impressive achievement in NFL history. It is not, however, the least likely performance across the pro sports world … until you add some context.
1991-97: Dallas Cowboys: three titles in seven seasons, 700-to-1
1981-89: San Francisco 49ers: four titles in nine seasons, 5,000-to-1
1974-79: Pittsburgh Steelers: four titles in six seasons, 38,000-to-1
Let’s start in the NFL: There are a few dynasties worth exploring as challengers to the crown but the two to focus on are the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1979 and the San Francisco 49ers from 1981 to 1989. The Steelers hoisted four Lombardi Trophies in a six-year span, the only NFL team in history to win four Super Bowl titles in six years.
The 49ers won four Super Bowl championships in the 1980s (1981, 1984, 1988 and 1989) and had the most wins of any NFL team in that decade with 104. But the Belichick/Brady Patriots won three titles in four years from 2001 to 2004 and won three rings in five years from 2014 to 2018, making their sustained success longer and more impressive, especially in light of the presence of a salary cap, which wasn’t introduced to the NFL until 1994.
To put it in numerical terms, we’d estimate a team playing in the 1970s to have odds of 38,000-to-1 against having a six-year run like Pittsburgh did and 5,000-to-1 odds to go on a decade-long spree like San Francisco. Remember, New England’s two streaks under Belichick and Brady carry odds of 71,000-to-1.
No one in NFL history compares to the Patriots.
1965-71: Montreal Canadiens: five titles in seven seasons, 200-to-1
1953-60: Montreal Canadiens: six titles in eight seasons, 900-to-1
1976-79: Montreal Canadiens: four titles in four seasons, 21,000-to-1
1980-83: New York Islanders: four titles in four seasons, 160,000-to-1
1984-90: Edmonton Oilers: five titles in seven seasons, 170,000-to-1
In addition to the Canadiens’ run from 1953 to 1960, they also torched the league from 1965 to 1971 (five Cups in seven years, 200-to-1 odds) and again from 1976 to 1979 (four straight championships, 21,000-to-1 odds) yet all three of those, while long shots, were easier to conceive than the Patriots’ string of Super Bowl wins given the surrounding conditions.
The Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers (1984 to 1990), winners of five Cups in seven years (170,000-to-1), do look better in comparison to the Belichick/Brady era, as does the Mike Bossy-led Islanders dynasty from 1980 to 1983 (four straight, 160,000-to-1). However, remember those are just the objective odds of any NHL team achieving what the Oilers or Islanders did during those runs. There is one bit of surrounding context that minimizes those achievements (relative to the most elite sports teams ever) compared to the Patriots, though we start to get a bit subjective.
Gretzky was by far the best player in the world during that span, scoring 1,065 points with the next best scorer, Mario Lemieux, more than 200 points behind him (838). And he was joined by Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr. That team could be assembled in part because there was no salary cap in the NHL until 2005. Bossy’s Islanders also included four other Hall of Famers: Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies and Billy Smith.
By comparison, Brady hasn’t really benefited from that kind of company. Fun exercise: Can you name any surefire Hall of Famers on the Patriots’ title-winning teams (so, no Randy Moss) beyond Adam Vinatieri and one year of Darrelle Revis? Junior Seau, who did his best work long before he reached New England, and Ty Law. Maybe Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork have a shot, but Rob Gronkowski may be the only other Patriots star who comes close to playing at a Hall of Fame level, but could be kept out of Canton due to what might be a brief career.
Again, that’s a subjective caveat, but probably a valid one when measuring the totality of these impressive dynasties against each other. Belichick and Brady have rotated a cast of solid contributors around them, with only the occasional Hall of Famer. These NHL dynasties were drowning in top talent.
1936-39: New York Yankees: four titles in four seasons, 50,000-to-1
1996-2000: New York Yankees: four titles in five seasons, 145,000-to-1
1949-53: New York Yankees: five titles in five seasons, 800,000-to-1
The New York Yankees, as a franchise, might have no peer. Over the course of 116 seasons, the Yankees have won 27 World Series titles, 40 pennants and produced 54 playoff appearances. Along the way, they’ve enjoyed several different dynastic periods (and benefited from the lack of a salary cap).
The size of the competitive field improved the odds of the older Yankee dynasties. New York’s four-year run from 1936 to 1939 and five-year run from 1949 to 1953 were certainly prolific, resulting in nine championships combined. And despite the fact there were only 16 teams in the majors back then and the only postseason opportunity a best-of-seven series in the World Series, it is still very difficult to win five titles in five years.
The teams led by shortstop Derek Jeter and unanimous Hall of Fame inductee Mariano Rivera, however, are worthy of inclusion at the top of any sports dynasty list: Four titles in five years from 1996-2000 is almost twice as unlikely to what we’ve seen from the Patriots, and the Bronx Bombers did it in a time when there were 28 or 30 teams in the league. Impressive. If you’re arguing in favor of the Patriots, though, you’re pointing to the Yankees’ payroll and the lack of a salary cap.
1999-08: San Antonio Spurs: four titles in 10 seasons, 4,000-to-1
1980-88: Los Angeles Lakers: five titles in nine seasons, 40,000-to-1
2000-10: Los Angeles Lakers: five titles in 11 seasons, 55,000-to-1
1956-69: Boston Celtics: 11 titles (!) in 13 seasons, 8.8 million-to-1
And one more …
Like any NBA dynasty, the number of players on the court, compared to players on a football field, makes the odds a little more favorable than the baseline odds we’ve listed above. And having one of the best players on your team tilts the odds even more in your favor.
Look no further than LeBron James, whose teams have appeared in the NBA Finals every year from 2011 to 2018. James led the league in total wins above replacement in that span during the regular season (171) and took things to a new level during the playoffs (62); Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors rank second and third with 26 and 22 postseason wins above replacement, respectively, during that run.
Couple a dominant player with fewer teams to contend with and it’s a bit easier to establish a dynasty, such as the 14-year stretch from 1956 to 1969 when Russell’s Celtics reigned supreme. At the beginning of Russell’s run the NBA was comprised of eight teams, with six qualifying for the playoffs. By the end it was a 12-team league with eight playoff contenders. The NBA now sees 16 out of 30 teams qualify for the postseason. But 11 titles in 14 years is impressive no matter what the circumstances, and when viewed through our pan-sports, title-odds prism, the accomplishment would happen just once in every 8.8 million chances.
That said, Russell and the Celtics aren’t even the most impressive NBA dynasty we’ve ever seen.
1991-98: Chicago Bulls: six titles in eight seasons, including two three-peats, 18.5 million-to-1
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are the sports dynasty gold standard. The Bulls won six NBA championships in eight seasons with two three-peats (1991 to 1993 and 1996 to 1998), including a then-best 72-10 record during the 1995-96 season; the Warriors won 73 games in 2015-16. Jordan would also be named league MVP four times and Finals MVP all six times – and that doesn’t include six all-NBA and all-defensive first team honors. That entire eight-year run by Chicago would carry odds of almost 18.5 million-to-1 for an average NBA team.
As with Russell, having the best player of the era (or ever) in a lineup of just five players skews the odds. But 18.5 million is still insane.
So, do the Patriots stack up to those teams with worse odds of accomplishing their dynastic achievements? Here’s the twist that makes the Patriots the top sports dynasty, in my eyes.
Belichick and Brady could argue that repeating as NFL champions is much harder than it is in the NBA, especially for a dominant team like the Bulls. After the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2001, they were given 20-to-1 odds to win in 2002 at the start of the preseason. Their preseason odds from the back-to-back Super Bowl years (2003 and 2004) implied, in hindsight, 100-to-1 odds of winning back-to-back titles.
Archived betting information doesn’t go back far enough for us to get a sense of how well-thought of the Bulls were in the 1990s, but the modern Golden State Warriors, by comparison, were overwhelming favorites to win it in 2017 (slightly better than 8-to-5 odds) and 2018 (9-to-5) giving them odds of 3-to-1 to win back-to-back championships. The Boston Red Sox were given 6-to-1 odds to repeat as MLB champions in 2018, and the Washington Capitals are considered long shots, at 12 to 1, to win the franchise’s second Stanley Cup in as many years.
In other words, based on the average preseason odds for a championship team, we would expect an NFL champion from any year to offer 18-to-1 odds for its first title and 350-to-1 odds to win two in a row. If you were being offered odds of a Patriots-style dynasty, six titles in 18 years, you’d need to get at least 4,300-to-1 to make it worth your time. That’s higher than the odds you should demand for an MLB team to have a similar run (3,300-to-1) and much higher than we should hold out for if there is a desire to wager on an NHL (1,800-to-1) or NBA team (26-to-1) to do the same.
That reduces the luster of the Bulls’ and Celtics’ dynastic runs while making the Belichick/Brady era look much better by comparison. How much more? After adjusting for preseason expectations and average win rates by champions, the Bulls’ run from 1991 to 1998 was 160 times more likely to occur than the Patriots’ run from 2001 to 2018. It’s also more likely to be found in MLB or the NHL, too.
Given that frame of reference, the Patriots’ total dynasty from 2001 though the present could certainly be argued as the best we’ve ever seen among the four top North American sports leagues. And if you want throw in a kicker, consider you are more likely to be struck dead by a meteorite, asteroid, or comet while reading this post than you are seeing another run like the one being produced by Belichick, Brady and the Patriots in your lifetime.
If that isn’t enough to be labeled as the best dynasty in sports, I don’t know what is.
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