Patriots Franchise Five: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick headline greatest to ever play in New England

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Patriots Franchise Five: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick headline greatest to ever play in New England

Since the turn of the millennium, the New England Patriots have sat on the NFL’s throne. The combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady sparked a dynastic run that lasted two decades and resulted in six Super Bowl titles, turning a once laughingstock of a franchise into one of the blue-chip organizations the league has to offer. No team has more Super Bowl titles, more trips to the big game or more playoff wins than Robert Kraft’s team. The Patriots also currently ranked as the third-best team of all-time in terms of winning percentage.

That historic duo of Brady and Belichick came to an end this offseason, but their impact on the franchise has forever changed it for the better. With that success comes a lot of legendary figures that go beyond just the coach-quarterback tandem. For the “Franchise Five” series we have going here at CBS Sports, we’ll certainly highlight some key players from these past two decades but will also give a well-deserved nod to the past, as there were obviously some greats to put on Pats uniform well before the team won Super Bowls. 

Before we go any further, let’s go over the rules: We are to select one head coach, one quarterback and three non-quarterbacks to highlight as the very best ever in New England. I also want to give a quick shoutout to Tom E. Curran of NBC Sports Boston, who offered up his expertise and stamp of approval for the folks who made the list. 

Ready? Let’s go! 

QB Tom Brady 

Patriots career: 2000-19

Patriots résumé:

  • 6x Super Bowl champion (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLIX, LI, LIII)  
  • 4x Super Bowl MVP (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XLIX, LI) 
  • 3x NFL MVP (2007, 2010, 2017)
  • 14x Pro Bowl (2001, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009-2018) 
  • 3x first-team All-Pro (2007, 2010,  2017) 
  • NFL 2000s All-Decade Team 
  • NFL 2010s All-Decade Team (unanimous)
  • NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team

By essentially any meaningful mark, Tom Brady is the most successful player to ever step on a football field and is widely considered to be the greatest of all-time. His story is something out of a movie. He was selected in the sixth round at No. 199 overall, sat behind Drew Bledsoe for the 2000 season, fought his way onto the roster in 2001 as the backup and once Bledsoe got hurt against the Jets later that season, he assumed the role as the starter and led New England to its first Super Bowl title ever. The rest is history. 

Brady has won more Super Bowls than any player in league history and is the winningest starting quarterback in NFL history with 219 regular-season wins. Second on that all-time wins list is Brett Favre with 186, and the next active player trailing Brady is Drew Brees at No. 163. When you account for playoff wins, Brady’s lead is ever larger. Brady also owns the record for most total (regular season and playoffs) passing yards (85,959), most total passing touchdowns (614), and total game-winning drives (58). His four Super Bowl MVPs are an NFL record, as are his nine appearances. In the Super Bowl, Brady owns the record for total touchdown passes (18) and passing yards (2,838). 

On top of all the stats, Brady also has the legendary moments that separates himself from the rest. His two-minute drill at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI to set up the game-winning field goal to beat “The Greatest Show on Turf” Rams was the stuff of legends. He was historic in 2007, shattering records while leading New England to a perfect regular season. Brady was otherworldly when he helped erase a 28-3 lead by the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. And those are just some of the great accomplishments he pulled out of his helmet while a member of the Patriots. 

It would have been poetic for him to finish his career with the Patriots instead of signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency this offseason, but what Tom Brady was able to do in New England will likely never be replicated ever again. 

Coach Bill Belichick

Patriots career: 1996, 2000-present 

Patriots résumé:

  • 6x Super Bowl champion (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLIX, LI, LIII)  
  • 3x AP NFL Coach of the Year (2003, 2007, 2010) 
  • NFL 2000s All-Decade Team 
  • NFL 2010s All-Decade Team 
  • NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team

The greatest head coach of all-time. I could stop right there, but let’s dive a bit deeper. While Bill Parcells certainly helped change the culture in New England, it was his protégé in Bill Belichick, who took this franchise to legendary heights. My favorite nugget about Belichick that often goes overlooked is that he almost won a Super Bowl title with New England before he became the head coach. Back in 1996, Belichick was the assistant head coach and defensive backs coach for the Patriots and was on-hand as they went to Super Bowl XXXI and fell to the Packers. 

A few years later in 2000, Belichick signed on as the head coach of the Patriots. He went 5-11 that year, which is still his only losing season since coming to New England. Of course, the emergence of Tom Brady came that following year, which Belichick should be given credit for. He had the moxie to keep Brady as the starter even as franchise cornerstone Drew Bledsoe returned to full strength. Belichick was rewarded with a Super Bowl title later that year, then five more to boot. 

His six Super Bowl titles as a head coach are an NFL record as are his nine Super Bowl appearances. He has more playoff wins (31) than any other head coach and is currently No. 3 on the all-time wins list with 273 victories. Only Don Shula (328 wins) and George Halas (318 wins) are ahead of Belichick.

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Illustration by Mike Meredith

G John Hannah

Patriots career: 1973-85

Patriots résumé:

  • 10x All-Pro (1976-1985) 
  • 9x Pro Bowl (1976, 1978-1985) 
  • NFL 1970s All-Decade Team 
  • NFL 1980s All-Decade Team 
  • NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team 
  • NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team 
  • New England Patriots No. 73 retired
  • New England Patriots Hall of Fame (1991)
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame (1991)

While the Golden Era for New England starts in the early 2000s with Brady and Belichick, there were Patriots teams well before the hoodie and TB12 came to town. Prior to their arrival, it was John Hannah who was looked at as the very best to ever put on a Patriots uniform. 

Hannah is considered to be arguably the greatest offensive lineman of all-time and spent his entire 13-year career with New England. The 6-foot-2, 265-pounder was considered to be a bit small for his position but was remarkably fast and strong, which made him a terror as a pulling guard on sweeps. In 1978, Hannah was able to help the offense rush for an NFL-record 3,165 yards. He never won a Super Bowl with the Patriots but did help New England reach the big game in 1985, with Super Bowl XX — a loss to the Chicago Bears — being his final game in the NFL. 

Hannah was pegged for two all-decade teams and was the first player ever inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame. 

TE: Rob Gronkowski

Patriots career: 2010-18

Patriots résumé:

  • 3x Super Bowl champion (XLIX, LI, LIII) 
  • 4x first-team All-Pro (2011, 2014, 2015, 2017)
  • 5x Pro Bowl (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017) 
  • NFL 2010s All-Decade Team
  • NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team 

Similar to his fellow Franchise Five members above, Rob Gronkowski is widely considered to be one of the greatest players to ever play his position. Almost immediately after he was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft, Gronk started to make waves within the Patriots offense, catching 10 touchdowns his rookie season. The 6-foot-6, 268-pound tight end was a nightmare for opposing secondaries as his combination of size, speed, physicality, and catching ability is something that has been rarely seen in NFL history. At the peak of his powers, there was arguably no greater pass-catching threat in the league during Gronkowski’s tenure. 

Gronkowski is the only tight end in NFL history to lead the league in receiving touchdowns (17, 2011). He also has the most seasons with 10 or more touchdowns by a tight end (4). In the postseason, Gronkowski was the first tight end to go over 1,000 career receiving yards and has the most career postseason touchdowns by a tight end with 12. In the Super Bowl, he has the most receptions (23) by a tight end in the game’s history along with the most receiving yards (297) by a tight end in Super Bowl history.

In Patriots history, Gronkowski is the all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (79) and No. 2 all-time in receiving yards (7,861). Only Stanley Morgan has totaled more receiving yards than him. In terms of NFL history. Gronkowski’s 7,861 receiving yards are nowhere close to Tony Gonzalez’s record of 15,127 career receiving yards, but what separates the Patriots legend from his contemporaries was his blocking ability, which one could argue was just as or even more lethal than his pass-catching ability. Injuries also have played a major part in Gronkowski’s career. Had he remained a bit healthier, his stats would likely be even more mind-boggling. 

Rob Gronkowski was the most complete tight end imaginable and will eventually find himself in Canton as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  

CB: Ty Law 

Patriots career: 1995-2004

Patriots résumé:

  • 3x Super Bowl champion (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX) 
  • 2x first-team All-Pro (1998, 2003) 
  • 4x Pro Bowl (1998, 2001-2003)
  • NFL 2000s All-Decade Team
  • New England Patriots Hall of Fame (2019) 
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame (2019)

The final spot was admittedly a bit tricky. I originally had Andre Tippett in here, but after discussing things over with Curran, it was clear that Ty Law deserved to be elevated. Law spent his first 10 seasons with the Patriots after the franchise selected him with the No. 23 overall pick in the 1995 draft, and he blossomed into a true shutdown corner for this defense. 

Law was a key piece of the bridge that led the Patriots through the Parcells era and eventually into Belichick’s tenure that ultimately started to produce Super Bowls. The corner was a cornerstone in New England’s first three Super Bowl titles, establishing the start of the two-decade-long dynasty. 

A signature moment for Law came during that first title against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI when he was able to pick off Kurt Warner and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. Anther came during the 2003 AFC Championship where Law was able to knock Marvin Harrison and other Colts receivers off their routes and pick off Peyton Manning three times. Because of Law’s physicality in that game, the league had to redefine illegal contact and crack down on pass interference plays. He truly changed the game. 

Law, who Tom Brady once fondly called ‘a pain in the ass,” is tied for the franchise lead with 36 interceptions, but his six interceptions returned for a touchdown still remain a franchise record. He ranks No. 3 all-time in Patriots history with 65 passes defended. What also speaks to his impact on the Patriots is his No. 24, which has now become synonymous with elite cornerback play as Darrelle Revis and currently Stephon Gilmore have since taken on the mantle and continued the legacy he left behind. 

Honorable mentions 

  • Andre Tippett
  • Troy Brown
  • Adam Vinatieri 
  • Willie McGinest
  • Bill Parcells