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Great unknown

If the Patriots go 19-0, where will they rank in NFL annals? It's a question some say is best left unanswered

How would Randy Moss (left) and Wes Welker have fared in the '70s, when defenders could hit receivers all over the field? How would Randy Moss (left) and Wes Welker have fared in the '70s, when defenders could hit receivers all over the field? (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / January 27, 2008

To their majestic presence, let us raise a toast and pay tribute to the accomplishments of these men and this greatest-ever football team. Indelible images with each and every close of the eyes measure a collective spirit that could never be broken and a drive that had no match.

Hark back to that most gallant effort, an unseasonably warm December Sunday in New York with a game played upon a frozen tundra as Papa Bear Lombardi shouted instructions to Luckman, who handed off to Ameche for a touchdown that ended overtime and put the sport into overdrive. It was a most memorable play from behind Kramer's block and culminated Montana's surgical work in a scintillating two-minute drill, though surely Unitas's passes to Berry were at the heart of a drive that commanded a nation's fascination and provided the sport with its soul. Oh, how a wall of suffocation was thrown up by Mean Joe and his Steel Curtain mates, behind which Singletary's piercing eyes melted the opposition's mettle and afforded a legend named Otto prime field position time and time again.

And in the end, a group of so-called "No-Name" defenders orchestrated by the iconic Shula and powered by the bullish Csonka proved victorious, much to the delight of coach Brown, who unleashed a relentless fury named Motley, a locomotive of a man.

If it is a montage of yesteryear's glory, it is because a gridiron gallantry that has stretched across more than six decades has produced so many legendary teams that perception is blurred and impossible is the task to single one out. Yet into that delectable mix storm this year's Patriots, the latest to apply for the title of "greatest team ever."

Sitting undefeated through 18 games and a mere four quarters away from a fourth Super Bowl win in seven years, they have momentum and history on their side, not to mention the priceless commodity of being so "now." But strip away all the numbers and all the emotions and all the passion, and ask yourself this about the debate on where the 2007 Patriots rank:

"What difference does it make?"

Such a calming reason defined his Pulitizer Prize-winning career, and even now in retirement, the New York Times's esteemed sports columnist, Dave Anderson, casts a keen eye on the landscape he covered for all those many years. He begrudgingly accepts that the media are fascinated by assigning "greatest ever" labels, yet Anderson long ago found that a senseless task.

"You can't compare players to players, coaches to coaches, teams to teams from all those different eras," said Anderson. "There are so many different rules, so many different size of players. You can point out what [teams] did, but how can you compare them?"

Yet, should the Patriots win the Super Bowl, such comparisons will be made in a variety of ways, with so many writers offering the opinion that they are or are not the best NFL team ever. Some will pass this information along under the guise of "perspective," but what they have is a forum and space to fill; with nary any knowledge of Gale Sayers's magic, let alone that of Jim Thorpe or Johnny "Blood" McNally, they haven't a clue about perspective.

Question with no answer

Anderson is saturated in perspective; thus does he find all this "greatest ever" talk silly.

"For one year, if the Patriots win and finish 19-0, you could say they had a better season than the '72 Dolphins. You can't argue against that," said Anderson. "But to say that the 49ers [of the 1980s] were better than the Steelers [of the 1970s] or the Steelers were better than the Packers [of the 1960s] or the Packers were better than the Bears [of the 1940s] . . . you can't do it. How can you?"

You can't, which is, in a strange way, why we do it.

"There is no answer to it. If there was an answer to it, there wouldn't be much discussion," said Vince Doria, vice president and director of news at ESPN and former sports editor at the Globe. "It's an obvious discussion, one to which there is no real resolution."

Doria doesn't deny that ESPN gets good mileage out of such debates, but so, too, do newspaper columnists, and it's Grade A fodder for sports-talk radio. It's hard to believe that any of the people engaging in such a discussion would think there will be any semblance of a consensus, yet that won't put a halt to the raging talk sessions and screaming that will accompany it all.

"It's what people do," said Dan Rooney, whose family has owned the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1933. "I agree, it's silly, because I say this all the time, but when you judge a team, you have to ask yourself, 'Did it do what it had to do?' That's all you can ask."

Thus will Rooney make sure that a team as formidable as George Halas's 1940-41 Chicago Bears is included in any discussion. No Super Bowls for them, but in posting a 22-6 record and back-to-back championship campaigns, said Rooney, "They knew what they had to do and they did it."

In that, the Bears of Sid Luckman and George McAfee stand out, but not alone, because great teams have graced the football landscape since the days of Curly Lambeau. Identifying them has never been a demanding assignment.

Taking it one at a time

Seemingly, this dead-end debate about the "greatest team ever" gets blurred when advocates lump together a series of great teams, like the Browns of the '50s (they played in six consecutive NFL Championships, winning three), the Packers of the '60s (five titles in seven years), the Steelers of the '70s (four Super Bowls in six years), or the 49ers of the '80s (four Super Bowls in nine years. No question, the Patriots, with three Super Bowls in four years - and possibly four in seven - fit like a square peg in a square hole with those teams.

Yet, when ESPN and other media outlets have gathered so-called experts to rank the greatest teams, the two that consistently generate the most respect are from none of those "best-of-the-decade" choices. Instead, the 1985 Bears and 1972 Dolphins are favored by many, and while there's good reason for that - Chicago went 18-1 and demolished the Patriots in the Super Bowl; Miami currently owns the only undefeated season in NFL history - it's easier to zero in on those teams than it is to sift through the dynasties to choose a team. Which great Cleveland team was the best? Which Green Bay? Which San Francisco?

Pittsburgh is a fascinating example. No question, the 1974-75 and 1978-79 teams deserve great praise for having won it all, but it is the 1976 edition that many think could have been the best. After a 1-4 start, the Steelers won their last nine games, five by shutout, and allowed a mere 28 points in the process. Injuries to the team's top three running backs and the placekicker were too much to overcome against a sterling Oakland team in the AFC Championship, but that doesn't dent the love Rooney feels for that team.

Though he graciously leaves the "greatest team" debate to others, knowing it is a silly endeavor ("We did what we had to do, just as other teams did before us," he said), Rooney affords himself one observation: "In the '70s, I will say our defense was the best I ever saw."

Rooney tells a cute story about a young boy who was doing a school paper on the great running backs in pro football. As they talked, Rooney realized the youngster knew all of today's great runners, but didn't mention Jim Brown. So Rooney did.

"Was he any good?" asked the boy. As innocent as the story is, it points to a profound problem that swirls whenever these "greatest-ever" lists are produced. All too often they are put forth by people whose frame of reference is suspect, at best. To those whose passion for pro football goes back to the 1949 Philadelphia Eagles (like Ernie Accorsi) and the great Paul Brown (like Jack Clary), these "greatest-ever team" lists make them cringe.

Accorsi considers Vince Lombardi's 1962 entry to be the best of the Green Bay era. That team won its first 10 games, got stunned by the Lions on Thanksgiving, then rolled to three more regular-season wins to set up a 16-7 win over the Giants in the NFL Championship. It is noteworthy, suggests Accorsi, that there were nearly a dozen Hall of Famers involved in that '62 Packers team, and the numbers on the '72 Dolphins (seven) and Super Bowl Steelers (10) provide glaring testimony that we are talking about very special teams. Subjective lists based on second-hand analysis and hearsay make some folks shake their heads.

It's not that they don't marvel at what the Patriots have done this season, it's just that they hate for past glory to be dismissed so casually.

"Every year should stand alone. We shouldn't compare them," said Clary, who has written more than 60 sports book and is a former president of the Pro Football Researchers Association. "Why can't people just enjoy that one season for what it is?"

A snapshot from 1958

While he admires Bill Belichick and what he has done with New England - "Bill learned from his father, who learned from Paul Brown, and he knows how to construct a team of equal parts," said Clary - you will never pry out of him any sort of opinion about which NFL team was the best ever. Rooney would never participate, nor would Accorsi or Anderson. They have too much respect for the game and how teams have always played within the parameters of the rules of the time.

For instance, if the rules from the early 1970s were still in effect and defenders could knock receivers to the ground all over the field, would Randy Moss and Wes Welker have had the success they enjoyed in 2007? Would Tom Brady? Would the Patriots? Would defenders have applied more pressure on Brady had the head slap still been allowed? To ponder those thoughts for even a few seconds would be fruitless, for it doesn't matter.

At least not to those who've watched the game for years and can truly appreciate what the Patriots have done - because they've seen others play similarly.

That unseasonably warm December day? It was in 1958 and Anderson was there when magic unfolded at Yankee Stadium. It was a game for the ages, a classic encounter that for all intents and purposes brought pro football into a nation's conscience. "Never has there been a game like this one," is how Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule started his account of the game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, and nearly 50 years later, his assessment has stood the test of time.

After leading the Colts to a game-tying field goal with seven seconds left, Johnny Unitas took his team on a dramatic drive in overtime. It was a second-down pass completion to Jim Mutscheller that stuck out in Anderson's mind, for even though it got the ball to the goal line and set up a winning plunge by Alan Ameche, the throw nearly was intercepted. Over the roar of celebrating Colts, Anderson wondered if Unitas had feared being intercepted on that pass.

"He looked at me with those cold Croatian eyes and said, 'When you know what you're doing, you don't get intercepted,' " recalls Anderson, laughing. It was almost as if Unitas were oblivious to the pressure, and Anderson nearly 50 years later can still feel the aura that emanated from No. 19 as he waved off any fear of his pass landing in the wrong hands. It was as if Unitas were saying, "When you're good, you're good."

It's that way with teams, too, said Anderson. The great ones will be forever great and they don't need anyone to put them on some sort of list to prove it. But if you feel strongly about compiling just such a list and ranking the teams and you find yourself putting the 2007 Patriots at the top, Anderson has a question for you: "How do you know?"

The answer is: You don't.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com

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