Commentary

All good things...

The end draws near for the Patriots' dyansty. Appreciate them while you still can.

Originally Published: December 27, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Bryant IlloMark Smith for ESPNDon't take New England's success for granted because time is no longer on Tom Brady's side.

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AT ONE POINT during the Patriots' 42-14 demolition of the Texans in Week 14, Jon Gruden mentioned blithely that Tom Brady was 35 years old. That sparked a recollection of a sentence from a 1971 issue of The New Yorker, in which the great writer Roger Angell caught himself in a similar shock about Willie Mays: "Now just turned 40 and beginning his 21st year in the majors ... [he is] playing the game with enormous pleasure." (Willie Mays: 40 !)

A main tenet of Buddhism is that the basis of life is suffering; loss is inevitable. And so it's only human to wonder when Brady's career will end. Like Mays and Montana and all the rest of the golden youths who can defeat every opponent except time, Brady won't always be back there. He is transient. But rather than suffer that fact, we can relish his fleeting moment in the pocket -- to wonder how he makes space for himself with small adjustment steps, to marvel at how he scans his first read to his fourth, only to return to his first, to enjoy his mastery of the position.

The Patriots are just as remarkable to behold. It has been less than two decades since Bill Parcells led them to Super Bowl XXXI, shedding the previous 36 years of ineptitude. Few teams in sports had invited more ridicule, all in that special Patriots Way: banned from Monday Night Football, Victor Kiam, Zeke Mowatt, a cocaine scandal tainting their first Super Bowl appearance in 1986, the Sullivan family's promotion of the ill-fated Michael Jackson Victory Tour that sent them into bankruptcy and Robert Kraft's hands. From 1960 to 1993, the Patriots had six 10-win seasons and 16 losing seasons, including seven years of no more than three wins.

New England has been so good for so long now that it's easy to take for granted just how drastically it has turned around its fortunes. In the land of parity, where seven-win teams win divisions and nine-win teams win the Super Bowl and no team is supposed to be perennially dominant at the behest of the NFL, the Patriots have won at least 10 games in each of the last 10 seasons. They are, in many ways, the second coming of the 49ers, who from 1946 to 1980 won 10 games exactly twice, but from 1981 to '98 they were the last modern NFL dynasty. Like the Niners, the Patriots achieved one of the most difficult feats in sports: rewriting a franchise's history.

At the forefront, of course, are Brady and Bill Belichick, underscoring a truth of all NFL success. Outside of Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls in 10 years with different quarterbacks, an elite coach-QB combination is essential to sustained success. This season, Brady could very well play in his sixth Super Bowl in 12 years, and his story speaks to the American mythology of making the most of one's good fortune. Famously, the sixth-round draft pick was not tabbed for greatness, and it took a serendipitous combination of a Mo Lewis hit on Drew Bledsoe, the tuck rule that saved defeat against Oakland and an underdog championship win over the Rams to create his dynastic run.

Likewise, there will ultimately be much to say about the Belichick Way -- but for all its genius, it is a darker story. There is his unfortunate and unnecessarily harsh treatment of people; the effects of his spying program and how it contributed to three Super Bowl victories, each won by a field goal margin; the way he and the Patriots sharpened the cruel edges of a brutal game by paying lower salaries for lesser terms. Of course, compared to Brady, the 60-year-old Belichick could still have many years ahead of him; he may yet rewrite his legacy.

Elsewhere across sports, the bottom of the hourglass fills. Derek Jeter is 38. Peyton Manning is 36. Mariano Rivera is 43. The Buddhists suggest it is our nature to suffer because instead of living through each moment of life, we evaluate it, attach value to it: to the bad, by hoping it passes; to the neutral, by wondering why it isn't better; and to the good, by knowing it won't last. Brady, for several more years anyway, presents us the opportunity to challenge that mindset, to savor greatness, if not for the results, then for the craft.

It won't last forever.

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