When the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title last week, they did what all other NBA teams had failed to do for the past two seasons: stop the Miami Heat from winning a championship. By claiming the franchise's fifth title since 1999, the Spurs also rewrote the way history will judge them. The New England Patriots need a chapter (read: season) with a happy ending to do the same.
On Monday, the Patriots announced their training camp schedule. The 2014 season is the 10th since their last Super Bowl victory. The Patriots are San Antonio's comrades in consistency. New England's only losing season under coach Bill Belichick was in 1999, his first year on the job. The Spurs haven't missed the playoffs since 1997 when coach Gregg Popovich took over the team midseason.
The Spurs' victory came seven seasons after San Antonio last lifted the Larry O'Brien trophy. If they had lost a second consecutive Finals matchup to Miami, there would have been a dividing line in team history. The four titles from 1999-2007 speak for themselves. But as the Spurs strung together close-but-no-cigar campaigns, the history books were starting to show a long, slow fade to black (and silver) for the partnership between Popovich and power forward Tim Duncan. Then San Antonio delivered a still-the-kings (not the Sacramento kind) notice to the NBA by crushing the Heat in five games.
Now look at the Patriots' year-by-year record. From 2001 to 2004, they won three out of four Super Bowls. Then in 2007, New England famously went 16-0 in the regular season and rolled through the playoffs only to have a perfect season undone by a late-game Eli Manning to David Tyree miracle that gave the New York Giants the Super Bowl.
But the team's finishes since 2008 read more like the championship-free Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb Philadelphia Eagles squads than an extension of the Brady-Belichick dynasty.
2008 - Missed playoffs
2009 - Wildcard round loss
2010 - Divisional round loss
2011 - Another Super Bowl loss to the Giants
2012 & 2013 - AFC Championship losses
There are plenty of NFL fanbases (Hello, Cleveland!) that would be thrilled to have those kind of results. But when any pro sports team wins it all, the elation turns into expectations (Hello, Red Sox Nation!).
In an interview with Only A Game last week, Bleacher Report NBA senior writer Howard Beck noted that athletes like Duncan — who's still an elite player at the age of 38 — have changed fans' expectations.
"Here’s the thing: They win the championship in 2007, and let’s say Tim Duncan, a couple years later, decided to call it quits. We would still look at them as a dynasty because of the sustained excellence," Beck said. "But Duncan’s longevity has given us this different perception where it’s, 'Oh, look how long it took to get back [to winning a title] again.' But five championships in 15 years is incredible."
The same could be said of Tom Brady, who turns 37 in August. When 12 wins, 4,300-plus yards passing and a playoff run every season start to seem routine, you're witnessing something — and someone — special. But for the Patriots to equal the extended-dynasty status that San Antonio has achieved, they'll need to punctuate their string of recent near-misses with an exclamation point.