Joe Namath at least waited until Super Bowl week before guaranteeing victory for his New York Jets 48 years ago.
Rodney Harrison is too impatient for that. Like most residents of Patriots Nation, he’s certain he already knows how the NFL’s 98th season will unfold from Thursday night’s opener in Foxborough, Mass., to the grand finale in Minneapolis a mere 150 days and 266 games from now.
“Right here, right now, I will say the Patriots will repeat as Super Bowl champions this year,” said the former Patriots safety and current studio analyst for NBC’s “Football Night in America.”
Tony Dungy, Harrison’s fellow NBC analyst, laughed as he listened during a recent conference call. The soft-spoken Hall of Fame coach and former Patriots rival jokingly thanked Harrison for whittling the season’s suspense down to which NFC team will fork over a sixth Lombardi Trophy to the bottomless appetites of 65-year-old coach Bill Belichick and 40-year-old quarterback Tom Brady.
Then he counterpunched.
“I always bet against the defending champs,” Dungy said. “If you give me the Patriots or the field, I am going to take the field because it is difficult to repeat. You’re the circled game on everybody’s schedule.”
The NFL has had eight repeat champions in the Super Bowl era. The last to repeat was Belichick, Brady & Co. 12 years ago. If they win Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4, they’ll match Pittsburgh’s league-high six Super Bowl wins and join the Steelers as the only franchise to repeat twice.
Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw won four titles in six years with the same core of stars. Belichick and Brady’s title run stretches 17 years — so far — and includes multiple supporting casts.
Exciting, right? Historic, right? Please discuss, Bill. Bill?
“I’m just worrying about Thursday night,” Belichick said this week when asked to look anywhere but at the Kansas City Chiefs.
Speaking of Thursday night, the last time the Patriots played the Chiefs in prime time was Sept. 29, 2014, in Kansas City. They lost 41-14 and Belichick was grilled afterward by reporters wanting answers for the team’s 2-2 start and Brady’s nationally televised stinker.
Belichick shrugged. In what would become a new NFL cliché, he responded repeatedly to questions by saying, “We’re on to Cincinnati,” which was New England’s next opponent six days later.
Well, since that night in Kansas City, the Patriots are 43-9 with two Super Bowl titles. And a chunk of it came while weathering the infamous “Deflategate” scandal that led to Brady being suspended for the first four games last season.
Future is now
Belichick is in his 23rd season as a head coach. He ranks fourth in career regular-season victories (237-115) and has a record five Super Bowl titles. He needs one more ring to match the record for NFL championships set by Green Bay’s Curly Lambeau and Chicago’s George Halas before the Super Bowl era.
Including playoff wins, Brady (208-61) ranks No. 1 ahead of Peyton Manning (200-92). Brady also has a record five Super Bowl titles, but needs one more championship to move past Green Bay’s Bart Starr as the only quarterback to win six NFL titles.
Brady is doing everything in his power physiologically to prepare his mind and body to play at least another five years. Belichick, meanwhile, shows no signs of slowing down and never has spoken publicly about retiring.
However, every move the Patriots made this offseason was done with one obvious goal in mind: Win that sixth Super Bowl in Minneapolis because this just might be Brady’s last stand.
Yes, Brady just won his fourth Super Bowl MVP with the greatest comeback in the history of the game. Yes, he went 21 of 27 for 246 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter and overtime, turning a 25-point deficit into a 34-28 victory over the Falcons.
But the man is 40.
So Belichick traded his first-round draft pick to New Orleans for receiver Brandin Cooks. He sent his second-rounder to Carolina for defensive end Kony Ealy, who has since been released. He surrendered a fifth-rounder to Buffalo for restricted free-agent running back Mike Gillislee.
In free agency, Belichick gave Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore the richest contract in franchise history — $65 million over five years. Gilmore joins a defense that led the league in fewest points allowed (15.6) last year.
Not content to have just a healthy Rob Gronkowski back this year, Belichick traded for another veteran tight end in Dwayne Allen. He also added Cincinnati running back Rex Burkhead to a backfield that also includes Gillislee, Dion Lewis and Super Bowl standout James White.
When top receiver Julian Edelman went down because of a season-ending torn ACL in the third preseason game, Belichick stayed proactive. He shipped No. 3 quarterback Jacoby Brissett to Indianapolis for receiver Phillip Dorsett, a 2015 first-round draft pick who underachieved in Indy but suddenly looks promising alongside Brady. Dorsett and Cooks give Brady two of the fastest receivers not named Moss that he’s ever had.
After the trade, Belichick was asked what the loss of Brissett will do to the team’s depth chart at quarterback come March, when Brady will be nearing 41 and Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract is up.
“With all due respect, I don’t think there are any games scheduled in March,” he said. “We never try to build a team for March. We try to build a team for September and then most importantly November, December, January.”
Better than last year?
Harrison was on the Patriots team that repeated as champions during the 2004 season. He doesn’t share Dungy’s concerns about the pressure of repeating.
Part of that has to do with Belichick’s coaching acumen, which sounds almost like hypnosis to hear Harrison describe it.
“I was with him for 30, 45 minutes right after Edelman got hurt,” Harrison said. “Bill was so relaxed, so confident. He continues to push the button for these guys.”
The other part — the most important part — is well, “this is a team that’s gotten better,” according to Harrison.
“You got a healthy Rob Gronkowski,” Harrison said. “You go out and you get a cornerback [Gilmore] that Belichick told me ‘you can’t even throw on.’ He couldn’t even throw on him. And he has a corner on the other side [Malcolm Butler] who is playing for a 50- , 60- , 70-million dollar contract.
“So you have all these guys with a sense of urgency. The Patriots will never become complacent.”
Then there’s the priceless value of Brady’s experience in all situations.
“Experience helps with maybe just some recall about things we could do to solve the problems that a team is presenting,” Brady said. “I’ve said before, when I was younger, we’d come in on Monday morning and make corrections. Now, we’ll be making corrections after the first drive based on things that they’ve been doing and things that they haven’t shown, things that they’re trying to do to slow us down. I mean, that’s how football’s played. It’s very much like checkers.”
And Brady doesn’t sound like a guy who is becoming bored by full-contact checkers. When a reporter asked if playing the game ever “feels old” to him, Brady seemed surprised by the question.
“Playing football?” he asked. “Oh, no. Football is one of the great joys of my life. I love it every day.”
The Road to Minneapolis has 150 more days. And while this might not be Brady’s last stand, Belichick certainly has stockpiled enough veteran talent just in case Minneapolis is their final destination together.