Like a lot of Pats fans out there, we aren’t quite ready to concede that the 21st-century dynasty is over just yet. The team is in decent position to rebound in 2021 (maybe with a new quarterback on board?), and at this point it’s just hard to imagine Belichick staying down long. But with Julian Edelman’s career coming to an end, one season after Tom Brady and Ron Gronkowski joined the Bucs, it truly feels like the end of an era.
In other words, there may well be more success to come, but whatever strands connected the dominant Patriots of the last 20 years are now cut. That will take some getting used to for all of us. Meanwhile though, what better time is there to look back on the players who have defined the dynasty (and where they are now)?
As far as we’re concerned, these guys — in no particular order — were the best.
It’s pretty easy for casual fans to choose Edelman over Welker for two reasons: playoff heroics and recent bias. And because of some of his high-stakes moments and his play later in his career, Edelman will always be remembered as a great Patriot. But all things considered, Welker was the better and more productive player, and one of just three receivers who will make our list. Nowadays, Welker is passing is knowledge on to a next generation of pass catchers, as the wide receivers coach for the 49ers. It’ll be interesting to see how much young WRs Kendrick Bourne and Deebo Samuel improve under Welker’s tutelage.
How could we not include Vinatieri on the list? Sure, he wound up spending the bulk of his career with the then-rival Colts, but he was hands-down the best kicker in the league during the 2002 and 2004 Super Bowl runs — which is good enough for us, particularly given that those were two close Super Bowls. As for where he is today, Vinatieri might still be playing. It remains to be seen if he’s coming back from a 2019 knee injury.
Among casual football fans who don’t gravitate toward the Pats specifically, Ty Law seems to be the forgotten monster of the dynasty. In his prime, Law was simply an elite cornerback, showcasing not just incredible on-field talent, but the self-assurance and brashness that seems to be almost obligatory among great corners. Law may have been a bit of a rebel — something we don’t much associate with the Belichick era — but it never got in the way of his success on the field. He was both one of the best and one of the most fun defensive players of the era. He also has a characteristically weird-but-fun post-retirement story: Law founded a chain of trampoline parks that now consists of 28 franchises.
We said Welker was one of only three wide receivers we’d include, and there was no mystery as to what the other names would be. Randy Moss is one. He may not be the best receiver of all time from a statistical standpoint, but he has a legitimate argument as the most talented human being to ever play the position. Pairing him with Tom Brady bordered on being unfair, and gave us the kind of otherworldly teammate partnership we only ever see a few of in a lifetime. It’s a no-brainer to include Moss even if his time with the Pats was relatively brief. And for is part, he’s gone on to become a very good TV analyst.
Brown is the final wide receiver on our list, and another undeniably fitting inclusion. He was really the first reliably great receiver Brady ever got to play with, and can thus be credited in part with helping Brady come into his own. Even more significant from the average Pats fan’s perspective though is that Brown — like Brady himself — was basically a massive overachiever. Before the Patriots were modern football royalty they were underdogs and grinders, and Brown personified those characteristics. As many fans know, Brown is now back with the Pats coaching running backs and kick returners.
There’s a real argument to be made that aside from Tom Brady, no one man impacted Super Bowl wins for the Patriots as much as Richard Seymour. He was an absolute force during the first three Super Bowl campaigns — an unrivaled defensive end, and quite possibly the most talented and dominant player on those early dynasty teams. We know that he and Belichick ultimately had something of a break-up, leading Seymour to depart for Oakland. But in his time with the Patriots he established himself as one of the true greats. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Seymour’s post-playing career has been marked by competitive ventures as well. A recent article on world-class athletes who play poker revealed that Seymour has won several hundred thousand dollars at card tables, and is a regular at major tournament events. Despite poker not exactly being a contact sport, we imagine there’s a pretty strong intimidation factor working in Seymour’s favor….
Vince Wilfork may have missed the first two Super Bowls, but he helped tremendously to win the third in 2004, and thereafter was among he main reasons the Pats stayed so consistently competitive in the years to follow. There are a few other defensive studs we considered tacking onto the list here — most notably linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel. But Wilfrok was just a little more dominant for a little bit longer. Along with Seymour and Law, he represents the best of Patriots defense during the dynasty. Wilfork has led a quiet retirement outside of the spotlight, but we last saw him presenting the Lombardi Trophy to the Pats after the 2018 Super Bowl win.
Tom Brady & Rob Gronkowski
At this point you almost have to talk about these two together. They were the best of the dynasty, often the most beloved by fans, and both unspeakably dominant at the peak of their powers. And of course, they’re now both Super Bowl champions yet again for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — which will always be weird, but which also kind of seems like something we should be proud of.
There are of course more names we could have included. But this feels like an appropriate top tier. Now here’s hoping someone on the 2021 roster starts to make a leap toward this level.