Are the Patriots the greatest major North American pro sports team?

Feb 2, 2018, 6:03 AM

Determining the greatest major North American pro sports team of all-time is a tough job. There are countless variables to consider, and those variables differ dramatically from sport to sport, making comparisons suspect at best.

Football, baseball, basketball and hockey pose dramatically different challenges due to roster sizes, the nature of each sport, the number of players on the playing surface, average career lengths and a host of more subtle variables.

In an attempt to set context for the New England Patriots’ quest for a sixth Super Bowl title in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, we’re setting some parameters and laying out four teams that can make strong arguments as the most dominant team of the post-expansion era.

We are limiting the scope to the post-expansion era because the large increase in teams makes winning multiple titles far more challenging.

With apologies to the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the New York Yankees of the 1940s and 1950s, the Boston Celtics of the 1960s and the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1950s and mid 1960s to early 1970s, winning titles now is much harder than it was then.

Even the post-expansion era model presents challenges because the leagues expanded at different paces, and different times. We’ll use 20 teams as a threshold and start in 1980 for the NBA and NHL, the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 and 1969 for Major League Baseball.

There is an argument to be made for analyzing the pre- vs. post-salary cap eras — which makes New England’s sustained excellence all the more impressive — but it is nuanced because baseball does not have a salary cap.

With that in mind, if New England wins its sixth Super Bowl title since the turn of the millennium, are the Patriots the greatest North American pro sports in the post-expansion era?

Here are the teams in play.

2001-2018 New England Patriots

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Super Bowl titles (5): 2002, 2004, 2005, 2015, 2017
Super Bowl appearances over same span: 8 (2008, 2012, *2018) *to be played Sunday

Pro: The NFL’s salary cap is difficult to manage with a 53-man roster. NFL windows of opportunity generally aren’t that long as a result, yet here are Belichick and Brady making their eighth Super Bowl appearance since 2002 in a game where an ever-changing mix of 40-plus players makes an impact on each week’s results.

The Patriots’ longevity is astounding. It is our view that if they win Sunday, they will hold the title of the greatest team of the post-expansion era.

Con: Nobody will ever know just how much impact New England’s spying tendencies had on its early success. Commissioner Roger Goodell destroyed the SpyGate tapes in an act that screams of Belichick’s guilt, but does not prove it. What would have happened to this dynasty had New England not enjoyed early success? Let’s also note what a dumpster fire the Patriots’ division, the AFC East, has been for much of their reign. That has eased their path to postseason berths and success.

1990s Chicago Bulls

(AP Photo/Jack Smith)

NBA titles (6): 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998
NBA Finals appearances over same span: 6

Pro: The Michael Jordan-led Bulls were a dominant 6-0 in Finals appearances, never needing a Game 7 to defeat their Western Conference opponents. Had Jordan not retired for two seasons (1994, 1995), it’s conceivable the Bulls would have won eight straight and laid claim to the crown.

Con: Repeats, even three-peats are more commonplace in the NBA where one or two great players can dictate outcomes because fewer players actually play than any of the other sports. The NBA saw six repeat champions from 1987-2002.

The Bulls also played in a watered-down Eastern Conference where the Detroit Pistons were in decline and the New York Knicks never got over the hump.

1983-90 Edmonton Oilers

(AP Photo/James Finley)

Stanley Cups (5): 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990
Stanley Cup Final appearances over same span: 6 (1983)

Pro: Few will argue that the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers were the greatest NHL team of the post-expansion era. Six players from those teams (Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson) are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

By the way, the Oilers won their final Cup after trading Gretzky, likely the greatest player in the game’s history, to Los Angeles. That is an astonishing achievement.

Con: The Oilers’ five Cups in seven years came on the heels of four straight Cups (and five finals appearances) by the New York Islanders, who followed four straight Cups by the Montreal Canadiens. Dynasties were commonplace in the NHL in that time period.

1996-2009 New York Yankees

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

World Series titles (5): 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2009
World Series appearances over same span: 7 (2001, 2003)

Pro: Many of the names changed, but the Yankees sustained dominance over a 14-year span with a core of players that included closer Mariano Rivera, shortstop Derek Jeter and pitcher Andy Petitte.

Con: Baseball’s lack of a salary cap meant the Yankees could spend substantially more on payroll than most teams, tilting the playing field unfairly in their favor.

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Are the Patriots the greatest major North American pro sports team?