Hard to compare teams from different eras

Like the Patriots, the three other modern teams to win 18 straight were led by great coaches and QBs.

Updated: October 6, 2004, 12:53 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

So without channeling the spirit of the late George Halas, at some hastily convened séance, try to identify the leading passer for the 1933-34 Chicago Bears, the first club in NFL history to hammer out 18 consecutive victories.

We'll save you the trouble of scurrying to the bookshelf. While the Bears had no less than a dozen different players throw passes in 1934, playing, of course from the single wing, the top thrower a year earlier was Keith Molesworth, who completed 19 of 38 attempts for 428 yards, four touchdowns, eight interceptions, and was hailed as one of the league's premier passers.

Seventy years later, there are games, as opposed to whole seasons when New England quarterback Tom Brady, who has directed the league's latest record streak, has outdistanced Molesworth's numbers. The point: Comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the six franchises that share the league record with 18 straight wins, is an impossible task.

Their focus is remarkable. I know the pressure we felt 30-some years ago. Since then, the media attention is so much more, and there are more distractions. But they seem able, as a group, to just block out everything else and look to see who's next on the schedule.
Dick Anderson, former Dolphins safety on the Patriots' current winning streak

The game has changed in inordinate ways, not the least of which is the current salary cap system, coupled with free agency. Only one other franchise, the Denver Broncos, strung together 18 consecutive victories while working under the natural constraints of the salary cap. And, as evidenced by the two fines in three years levied against the Broncos for their circumvention of the cap, they weren't paying attention to the spending rules anyway.

Denver won its 18 straight games over the course of the 1997 and '98 campaigns, and also captured Super Bowl titles in both those seasons, with John Elway finishing up his Hall of Fame career in storybook fashion. But notable was that Elway, at that point in his career, had lost his centerpiece status to tailback Terrell Davis, the catalyst for much of what the Denver offense accomplished.

Conversely, the Patriots and Brady carved out much of their current streak without a true go-to tailback, and with a running game that statistically ranked among the puniest in the league. That deficiency apparently was solved with the acquisition of Corey Dillon in an offseason trade and his presence in the backfield augurs well, not just in terms of a third Super Bowl win in four years, but for continuing the impressive winning streak.

That there is no telling just when the Pats' magic carpet ride will end, that few pundits even dare prognosticate about the demise of the streak, is testimony to the high regard in which New England is held. In comparing the Patriots to the other five teams which had 18-game winning streaks, this much seems clear: New England is deeper than were the Broncos (1997-98) and San Francisco 49ers (1989-90) and shares the same anonymous but admirable makeup of the Miami Dolphins (1972-73).

The Bears, who remarkably won 18 straight contests on two separate occasions, in 1933-34 and 1941-42, aren't factors in the comparison. That isn't to diminish what owner and coach George Halas wrought, of course, in the earliest days of the league. But to include the Bears goes miles beyond assaying apples and oranges. Even attempting to analyze the Dolphins and 49ers in their 18-game streaks, since they operated outside the purview of a spending limit, makes any comparison dicey at best.

As is the case with the Patriots, the three other modern-era teams were brilliantly coached and had Hall of Fame quarterbacks. They played much better defense than they were credited for and, for the most part, were resilient. But even some former Dolphins players, who guard their '72 perfect season as if it were the Hope Diamond (the group still breaks out champagne every year when the last undefeated franchise loses its initial game), harbor no small degree of admiration for what Bill Belichick and has team have done.

"Their focus is remarkable," acknowledged former Dolphins safety Dick Anderson. "I know the pressure we felt 30-some years ago. Since then, the media attention is so much more, and there are more distractions. But they seem able, as a group, to just block out everything else and look to see who's next on the schedule."

Much as coach Don Shula did, similar to the resolve of the "No-Name Defense," the Pats indeed possess a unique capacity for subjugating individual agendas. And they are clearly, at a time when roster depth is supposed to be a futile pursuit because of the salary cap, a team deep at virtually every position. There wasn't free agency, of course, when Miami and San Francisco won 18 straight. But notable is that 14 of the Pats' 22 starters, not counting kicking specialists, are home-grown talent.

Shula and Bill Walsh drafted well (particularly the latter), and Mike Shanahan has had mixed success with the lottery, but the Pats for the most part still follow a tried-and-true formula of developing from within. That marks them as kind of a throwback but, given the cap, makes them more a modern-day wonder.

The Miami and San Francisco teams that won 18 consecutive games each have sent more players to the Hall of Fame than the Pats figure to dispatch to the Canton shrine. Denver has Elway enshrined and Davis and perhaps offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman could well follow him. The Pats, on the other hand, may not be so rewarded, but that hardly makes them any less a team.

In fact, it might define New England, in the end, as the best team of them all.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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