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PFW: Three-peat After Me

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]()Three in a row. The concept seems simple enough. In the recent past, the New York Yankees have won three straight World Series. The Los Angeles Lakers have won the NBA title three years in a row. The New York Islanders were even good enough to capture the Stanley Cup four consecutive times.

But no football team has ever been able to win the Super Bowl more than twice in a row. In fact, no one has really even come close. Seven teams have been able to repeat as champions, but none has made it back to the big game for a second straight title defense. And just three of the seven managed to advance as far as the conference title game.

Even looking at the pre-Super Bowl era of professional football, three-peats took place about as often as Tom Cruise makes sense. Only the Green Bay Packers, who won the 1965 NFL title the year before taking the first two Super Bowls, have ever managed to win three championships in a row since the league began holding title games in 1933.

So while each of the other three major sports leagues have had their share of dynasties, the NFL stands alone.

The question is why is football different?

Most sports fans would agree that repeating just once is a highly difficult task. After achieving success, players can grow complacent and unwilling to do the little things it took to succeed while at the same time their opponents give that little extra when going against the defending champs. Plus, any successful team likely benefits from its share of good fortune — the kinds of breaks the good teams always seem to get — and the law of averages can simply swing the other way and prevent an eminently capable club from winning again.

These factors have no doubt made it difficult for teams in every sport to sustain success. But while the other three sports have had three-time defending champs — even in the recent past (Yankees, 1998-2000; Lakers, 2000-02; Islanders, 1980-83) — football can't seem to find a three-peater.

A dynasty is born

Until now.

The Rams Ricky Proehl uttered the now famous phrase — at least in New England — just before the Patriots shocked St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI. "Tonight, a dynasty is born." It hasn't been quite what Proehl had in mind, but the veteran wideout was quite prophetic that night in the Superdome. The Patriots dynasty is in full flight, and given their sound decision-making on and off the field, coupled with their meticulous preparation and drive, there's no reason to believe it won't continue with the first-ever three-peat in Super Bowl history.

There would seem to be some fairly obvious reasons why football is tougher to dominate than the others. The financial structure of the league with revenue sharing, which has been in place since former commissioner Pete Rozelle implemented it back in the '60s, is perhaps the most surefire method to ensure parity. The salary cap that has been in place for just over a decade has taken that philosophy even further.

And unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, football requires a short season where schedules are not all created equal. Competitors in the other three leagues all play against the same opponents while an NFL team could have a drastically different slate from a potential conference rival.

The Red Sox and Yankees, for example, face virtually the same 162 opponents during the course of the summer. The Steelers played against six teams in 2004 that the Patriots didn't see. Depending on how a particular season plays out, that could mean a more or less difficult road for one or the other.

But the biggest reason it's more difficult to sustain dominance has to be the single-game elimination factor. In a seven-game series, which each of the other three majors features in its championship round, the better team wins more often than not. Upsets are much more prevalent in a one-game knockout scenario.

Bill Belichick's Patriots seem to be thriving on the very tenets the league has set up to keep the playing field level. The front office has recognized the importance of a balanced salary structure and has used the free agency system largely to its advantage, refusing to overpay for the stars while focusing instead on key role players who fit their system.

While there's certainly no accounting for an ill-timed upset that could prevent history, the Patriots don't figure to be stopped by the league's quest for parity.

Potential three-peat disruption: none.

History in the making

The inherent obstacles NFL teams are forced to overcome still don't fully explain why a three-peat has never occurred. All of the above make it tougher to string titles together in the NFL, but what is more difficult to explain is the frequency of repeats that have taken place.

In 38 chances for a repeat winner, the Super Bowl has seen eight teams (including the Patriots) successfully take another Lombardi Trophy back to their home offices. Only the 1994 Cowboys, the 1990 49ers and the 1976 Steelers made it to the conference championship.

Last year, the Patriots joined the 1992-95 Dallas Cowboys as the only teams to win three Super Bowls over a four-year span. In 2005, they will attempt to move into uncharted territory on two fronts: winning three straight Lombardis and four in five years.

So what makes the Patriots any different from their seven predecessors who tried but failed to make history? For starters, New England won't be facing many of the obstacles that helped bring down the previous repeaters. In no particular order, the main factors that contributed to the previous downfalls were coaching changes, injuries, key personnel losses and just plain bad luck.

Time will tell, but it seems that New England is better positioned to deal with any of the above (save unpredictably bad fortune) than the others.

Starts at the top

Taking a closer look at the past repeaters, fluctuation at the head coach position was a key problem. Green Bay's run ended in 1968 when Vince Lombardi decided to step down as the Packers coach to focus solely on GM duties. The overmatched Phil Bengston took his place and compiled an uninspiring 20-21-1 mark from 1968-70 before resigning.

You think the loss of Belichick might have an impact on the Patriots future success? Well just imagine how Packers fans felt when Lombardi left. After all, those shiny trophies residing in the Gillette Stadium display case don't bear his name because he couldn't figure out how to formulate a game plan.

Coaching change also played a huge role in Dallas' demise. Jimmy Johnson built the Cowboys dynasty in the early '90s with brilliant drafting following the legendary trade of Herschel Walker to Minnesota. The resulting picks were the backbone of a team that won Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993.

But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wasn't content to let Johnson take all the credit and soon the coach resigned. Dallas failed to make it three straight when they lost at San Francisco in the 1994 NFC title game, and the fact that Barry Switzer managed to win another Super Bowl in 1995 was more a result of the Cowboys overwhelming talent than anything else.

Although Belichick isn't going anywhere, the Patriots do face some concerns regarding coaching. After losing both coordinators, the Patriots will deal with changes, particularly on offense where Belichick appears poised to handle the play-calling duties himself. But as long as he remains at the helm, the Patriots coaching situation has to be considered a strength. And the fact that the system — on either side of the ball — won't change ensures that the continuity also remains in tact.

Potential three-peat disruption: minimal.

Staying healthy

Heading into the 1976 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were as dominant as any team in history. With several future Hall of Famers in their primes, the Steelers appeared set to win a third straight title. But nothing can derail a championship run like a boatload of injuries, and Pittsburgh's came early and often in 1976.

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw went down early and the Steelers stumbled to a 1-4 start with rookie Mike Kruczek at the helm. Then after the defense posted five shutouts in the next nine games — all Steelers wins — Chuck Noll's club lost its starting backfield of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier for the AFC title game in Oakland and lost, 24-7.

By 1980 the Steelers had regrouped and won back-to-back Super Bowls once again. But this time age caught up to Noll's club and the glory days were quickly over. Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann plus Bleier and Harris were nearing the end of the line. Pittsburgh dropped to 9-7 and failed to make the playoffs as the glorious run of four titles in six seasons came to an end.

The Patriots won't face a similar predicament in 2005. Injuries hit them hard in 2003 and 2004. The Patriots showed they could win without pretty much anyone. Tom Brady would likely be the lone exception in this scenario, but the victories have continued to mount the last two years despite the losses of several key starters.

In terms of age, the nucleus of the club, while featuring a few guys in their 30s, is either in its prime or approaching it. Brady, Richard Seymour, Dan Koppen, Eugene Wilson, Mike Vrabel, Deion Branch, David Givens, Ty Warren, Matt Light, Rosevelt Colvin, Asante Samuel and Randall Gay are all in their 20s. Among the key starters, only Corey Dillon, Rodney Harrison, Ted Johnson and Willie McGinest are over 30. Age won't be a factor in the Patriots 2005 success.

Potential three-peat disruption: none.

Personnel dept.

In the age of the salary cap, free agency can affect a team greatly from year to year. Even though the 1974 Miami Dolphins weren't operating in today's NFL climate, they were decimated by unexpected departures of key personnel.

Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick all bolted Miami for big-money deals in the now-defunct World Football League. Even with the tremendous loss of talent, Miami still managed to be in position to advance in the divisional playoffs.

Don Shula's club held a 26-21 lead late in the fourth quarter on the road in Oakland when the Dolphins were hit with a simple dose of bad luck. Ken Stabler was corralled around the ankles and was just about to hit the ground for a game-ending sack when he lofted a desperation toss into the end zone amidst a group of players. Running back Clarence Davis, who was never known for his hands, somehow outdueled a host of Dolphins defenders to post the winning touchdown, thus ending Miami's hopes for a three-peat.

The other two three-peat wannabes — the 1990 San Francisco 49ers and the 1999 Denver Broncos — also fell into the personnel/bad luck categories.

Denver's Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway decided to ride off into the sunset and call it a career after his 1998 Super Bowl MVP performance, thus leaving the Broncos in the inexperienced hands of Brian Griese. The result was a 6-10 non-playoff season for Mike Shanahan's club. (Incidentally, Shanahan has yet to win a playoff game without Elway).

In terms of personnel, the 2005 Patriots lost very little from last year's title team. Ty Law was released in February, but his foot injury limited him to six-plus games in 2004. Joe Andruzzi and David Patten left via free agency, but overall the Patriots return 18 of 22 starters (Keith Traylor being the other loss).

With youngsters like Vince Wilfork, Benjamin Watson, Guss Scott and Rodney Bailey expected to contribute, none of the losses appears to be significant.

Potential three-peat disruption: minimal.

Lady Luck

San Francisco overcame a coaching change — Bill Walsh won it all in 1988 and stepped down to watch George Seifert match him in 1989 — and had the best chance to accomplish the three-peat. After going 14-2 in the regular season, the Niners hosted the Giants in the NFC title game. Clinging to a 13-12 lead in the final three minutes, San Francisco simply needed a first down (or even a successful punt) to run out the clock.

But the normally sure-handed Roger Craig fumbled near midfield to give the Giants the ball, and moments later Matt Bahr beat the final gun with a 42-yard field goal to end the Niners bid. If Craig didn't fumble, San Francisco would have at least been the only team to make the Super Bowl in their bid for three straight.

There's no question the Patriots have benefited from their share of good fortune throughout their run. Obscure rulings (tuck rule), missed opponents' field goals (Mike Vanderjagt) and other bouts of good karma have contributed to New England's success.

Obviously there's no telling how Lady Luck will factor into a team's season. Tedy Bruschi's situation could be an early indication of some bad breaks headed New England's way. They've overcome plenty in the past: Remember the controversial coin toss before overtime in Miami in 2003? Or Ken Walter's terrible punting that same year? Even the cutting of captain Lawyer Milloy did little to slow them.

But even if Bruschi is unable to play, it's clear that Belichick's Patriots have consistently displayed the fortitude to overcome such misfortune — although this would be the most serious.

After going 34-4 over the past two seasons, the Patriots could almost expect the evil football gods to focus their attention on Foxborough in 2005. Of course, Belichick probably already has a game plan devised to shut them down.

Potential three-peat disruption: Who knows?

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