This is the latest post in Kurt’s continuing series to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player of All-Time. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
The fate of alphabetical order brings me to the Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick portion of MSF’s Ultimate Franchise Player Series.
Patriots, Giants, Jets (well, at least Belichick was on the payroll as head coach of the Jets for a few hours…)
Thanks to the vision of owner Robert Kraft, the New England franchise is now considered among the most valuable in the league, in the high-rent district along with the Dallas Cowboys and Manchester United.
It’s amazing to think that for the first 40 years of the Patriots’ existence, things were not nearly that way.
Like the rest of the original eight AFL franchises, the Pats had a hardscrabble beginning juggling their home games between Fenway Park and a number of college facilities in the area. The Boston school district loaned them a field to practice on, but they caught heat from parents complaining that their kids had one less playground.
With the 1970 consolidation between the two leagues, the Patriots needed a facility of at least 50,000. Without the benefit of public money, they decided to construct a bare-bones facility in Foxborough.
It lacked the amenities of other modern stadiums at the time and parking/traffic was a nightmare. The one plus was that the stadium was not multi-purpose, so thus it did not have to share with baseball.
The franchise did not do well making a profit, but the stadium served its purpose for 30 years. Then came Parcells, and later Belichick and Tom Brady – just in time for the long-awaited state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2002.
The Tuck Rule game was the final contest in the old barn.
Due to time constraints, I will zoom through some of the more notable names in Patriots history before revealing the finalists for Ultimate Franchise Player.
Gino Cappelletti (WR/K 1960-70)
If you were in an AFL fantasy league during the 1960s, Gino would have been a perennial top-pick. The Minnesota native was one of three players to play all 140 of his team’s regular season games in AFL history, and he also finished as the AFL’s leading all-time scorer.
That would be a good enough resume – but then there is also his near-three decades as a color analyst on radio working mostly alongside Gil Santos, along with three years in which Gino served on the coaching staff.
Gino also did other broadcasting work, and he was on the call with Dan Davis for the famous Doug Flutie/Gerald Phelan play at the end of Boston College/Miami in 1984. Years later Dan Davis holed out at a celebrity golf event and those in attendance predictably yelled, ‘DAVIS DID IT!!!’
In all, Cappelletti was on the Patriots payroll for 45 years, and he deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame as an all-around contributor.
Nick Buoniconti (MLB 1962-68)
Sticking with the Italian theme, Nick was recently profiled on Miami Dolphins UFP, but the first half of his 15-year career was spent in Boston. The Notre Dame product was an AFL All-Star in five of his seven seasons with the team.
Jim Nance (RB 1965-71)
One of a number of running back legends in his era to come out of the University of Syracuse, Nance is still the Patriots all-time leading TD scorer (60) and the only AFL runner to go over 1,000 yards rushing in consecutive seasons. Nance was the AFL’s MVP for the 1966 season.
Jon Morris (C 1964-74)
Earned All-Star/All-Pro recognition in his first seven years with the team and in all did 15 years in the pros, closing his career with the Lions and Bears.
Sam Cunningham (RB 1973-82)
In his college days, Sam was best remembered for scoring four times v. Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl, and later that spring became the 11th overall selection of the Pats. Sam had one 1,000 yard season and is also the older brother of Randall Cunningham.
Steve Grogan (QB 1975-90)
Not to be a confused with a Manson Family Henchman, Steve Grogan was the unquestioned leader of the franchise for many years. The final stat line (182 TD’s v. 208 INT’s) was not great, but he gets extra points for his toughness – his injuries over his career included five knee surgeries, several concussions, and two ruptured disks in his neck. The latter injury was the reason for the gigantic neck collar he wore late in his career.
Grogan is a member of the franchise’s 1970s and 1980s all-decade teams.
Steve Nelson (ILB 1974-87)
While Grogan was the head of the offense, Steve Nelson was the lynchpin of the defense during that era. Nelson led the team in tackles for most of his 14 seasons in Foxborough.
Leon Gray (OT 1973-78)
Offensive line became a team strength as the team improved going in the late-1970s. Gray was one of two tremendous tackles on the team at the time. Gray was part of a holdout orchestrated by then infamous agent Howard Slusher on the eve of the first regular season game one year.
Leon would spend the second half of his career with the Oilers and Saints.
Russ Francis (TE 1975-80, 1988)
He was one of the most talented players in team history, and back in the day was regularly proclaimed as ‘All-World’ by Howard Cosell during Monday Night Football halftime highlights.
That said, he was considered an underachiever during much of his tenure with the Patriots. The son of a wrestling promoter, Russ moonlighted in the squared circle himself during the off-season early in his career.
A couple of tipping points during his New England tenure were an off-field motorcycle accident, and also the fact that he was shook up in the aftermath of good friend Darryl Stingley’s quadriplegia at the hands of a Jack Tatum hit in a pre-season game.
Russ ultimately took a one-year sabbatical from football before resurfacing for several years with the San Francisco 49ers.
Irving Fryar (WR 1984-92)
An explosive return man as well as a receiver, Fryar was the first overall pick of the 1984 NFL Draft following a legendary career at the University of Nebraska.
For most of his tenure with the Pats, Fryar was more a diva/headache than anything else. Fryar missed a team flight leading up to the 1985 AFC Championship in Miami because he was being held in the aftermath of a domestic dispute. Fryar also rubbed his fan-base wrong by wearing a New York Mets lid in the locker room in the aftermath of the 1986 World Series.
Fryar wound up playing 17 years in the league, but four of his five Pro-Bowl berths were earned after leaving New England.
Stanley Morgan (WR 1977-89)
The ‘Stanley Steamer’ was one of the most dangerous deep threats in team history, and he is number one in franchise history with over 10,000 receiving yards.
Morgan averaged over 19 yards per catch over his career, including six consecutive seasons averaging 20+ yards during his first six seasons. The final career average is the highest in league history amongst receivers with more than 500 receptions.
Julius Adams (DE 1971-85, 1987)
Another player who made the franchises 1970’s and 1980’s All-Decade teams. Adams only earned one Pro Bowl appearance, but he appeared in 206 games.
The Patriots hit rock-bottom again as a franchise in the late 1980s-early 1990s, and the team again had the overall number one pick in 1993. They had to decide between Bledsoe, who put up prolific numbers at Washington State, or overhyped QB Rick Mirer out of Notre Dame. The Patriots wound up making the right pick.
The Bledsoe/Parcells relationship was rocky at times, as Drew threw the ball far more than traditional Parcells QBs. In his second year alone Bledsoe threw 691 times.
The best way to describe the Bledsoe legacy is of a poor-man’s Dan Marino, whom he dueled with on several occasions in the AFC East during his time.
Curtis Martin (RB 1995-97, HOF)
It’s surprising to find that Martin only played his first three seasons in New England, with his final eight years coming with the rival Jets.
In his three seasons, CuMart accounted for nearly 4,700 yards from scrimmage in just 45 games.
Martin potentially gets another chance when I eventually unveil the Jets Ultimate Franchise Player.
Bruce Armstrong (OT 1987-2000)
Armstrong is one of the most elite offensive linemen in franchise history, and he started 212 of the 220 games with the varsity (not counting the three scab games in ’87). Bruce was a perennial All-Pro selection throughout the 1990s.
Pro Football Reference’s Fan Elo Rater ranks Armstrong just ahead of Dan Dierdorf.
Ben Coates (TE 1991-99)
Was never an ‘Oh My God’ all-everything tight end, but Ben ‘Winter’ Coates is the best tight end in franchise history. Coates earned five straight All-Pro selections during the mid-1990s, the first of which was a 96 catch/1,174 yard season.
Terry Glenn (WR 1996-2001)
Another of the players who had a combustible relationship with Bill Parcells to say the least. Glenn was referred to as ‘she’ while working through an injury during his first training camp.
Glenn did catch 90 passes his rookie campaign and was a contributor when he was actually able to make it on the field.
Willie McGinest (DE/OLB 1994-2005)
McGinest wore the iconic #55 with the University of Southern California before arriving with the Patriots as a top-five overall pick.
He only earned two Pro Bowl berths during his career, but one of his final games was his best, recording 4 ½ sacks in a 2005 playoff game versus Jacksonville. McGinest also holds the NFL playoff record with 16 career sacks. Leading a late-goal line stand in a regular season game versus the Colts in 2003 was another of Willie’s signature moments.
Lawyer Milloy (S 1996-2002)
Milloy became one of the top players in his position during his time in New England, earning four Pro Bowl selections in seven years. Cut just days before the first game of the 2003 season, MIlloy was picked up by the Buffalo Bills, who wound up embarrassing New England 31-0 that weekend.
Milloy remained in the league through 2010, but nhe ever again enjoyed the success he had with the Patriots.
Ty Law (CB 1995-2004)
Law had 53 interceptions in his career, and he led the league twice, including nine picks for the Pats in 1998. Law was yet another cap casualty during the Pats title run and spent the final five years of his 15-year career elsewhere.
Rodney Harrison (S 2003-08)
Most people forget that the majority of his 15-year career was actually spent with the San Diego Chargers (he just doesn’t talk about it on FNIA). Rodney made his contributions during the Belichick era.
How would history be different if he just could had gotten David Tyree not to hold on to that ball??
Troy Brown (WR 1993-2007)
Longevity and a couple of seasons in the 100-catch neighborhood in 2001-02 seasons gets Brown on the list. He was Tom Brady’s security blanket early in his career.
Randy Moss (WR 2007-10)
Moss eventually wore out his welcome like he did everywhere else, but his 23-TD campaign in 2007 remains one of the best seasons of any receiver in league history.
Wes Welker (WR 2007-present)
In five of his six seasons with the team, Welker has caught 112, 111, 123, 122, and 118 passes. A couple of more solid campaigns and Wes should eventually land in the discussion room regarding the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Adam Vinatieri (K 1996-2005)
The 45-yarder versus the Raiders that somehow got through the snow, along with the game-winner later that night. Then the game-winning kicks in Super Bowl 36 and Super Bowl 38. Adam gets more run than any other recent kickers, and deservedly so.
Richard Seymour (DE 2001-08)
The last time the Pats had a high first-round draft choice is when they selected Seymour at #6 overall in 2001. By the time he left eight years later, he had earned five Pro Bowl berths and was First Team All-Pro in 2003, ’04, and ’05.
Lots of linemen to choose from in the Belichick era, Light has had the most longevity during that period while earning three Pro Bowl berths.
Light was one of 65 players brought in on the cheap by Belichick and Scott Pioli during the summer of 2001.
Logan Mankins (OG 2005-present)
Selected with the final pick of the first round of the 2005 Draft, Mankins is now among the highest paid players at his position. He has made the Pro Bowl in five of his eight seasons thus far.
Vince Wilfork (NT 2004-present)
A first-round draft pick in 2004, Wilfork has become one of the premier interior linemen in the league. Beginning in 2007, he has made the Pro Bowl five out of six years.
Mike Vrabel (OLB 2001-08)
A defensive lineman with the Steelers early in his career, Vrabel came into his own as a linebacker and goal-line tight end during the Belichick era. Vrabel only made the Pro Bowl once but was definitely part of the championship nucleus.
Tedy Bruschi (ILB 1996-2008)
He only made it to the Pro Bowl once, but he still is one of the most well-known and popular players of recent times. The first of his four Super Bowl appearances was in his rookie season in 1996 under the Bill Parcells watch.
Rob Gronkowski (TE 2010-present)
Gronk had a historic season (90 catches/1,327 yards/17 TD’) in 2011. The long-term questions will be how long the organization will live with some of his off-field antics.
THE UFP FINALISTS
Mike Haynes (CB 1976-89, HOF)
Currently ranked #45 all-time by Pro Football Reference (but only #93 on The Sporting News 1999 list), Haynes spent the first half of his career in New England. In his rookie campaign, the top-five overall pick intercepted eight passes and led the league in punt return yardage, twice taking it to the house.
Mid-career, Haynes held out, with his contract ultimately going to the Raiders in exchange for first and second round draft choices.
John Hannah (OG 1973-85, HOF)
At the height of his career, Hannah was considered the best lineman ever to play the game, and to this day he remains in the conversation. In the 1978 season, the Patriots ran for a league record 3,165 yards rushing.
The fourth overall pick of the 1973 Draft, Hannah was selected to the NFL All-Decade teams for both the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Andre Tippett (OLB 1982-93, HOF)
A legend that began in Iowa City way back in the day continued after Tippett was drafted in the second round in 1982. Tippett earned five consecutive Pro Bowl berths from 1984-88, and he recorded 35 sacks over a two-year period.
Tippett remains one of the best pass-rushing linebackers in league hisotry to this day. Tippett and Hannah remain the two members of the HOF who spent their entire careers with the Pats
Tom Brady (QB 2000-present)
On September 23, 2001, Drew Bledsoe suffered internal injuries on a hit by the Jets Mo Lewis while trying to get out of bounds. In real time, it appeared the Pats were in serious trouble. They lost the game to drop to 0-2 on the year, and now were forced to turn to a sixth-rounder out of the University of Michigan.
Three Super Bowl titles, five Super Bowl appearances, and a near three-to-one TD to interception ratio later, you can say Brady worked out fairly well. Chad Pennington and Tee Martin were just some of the QBs who had their names called on Draft Weekend 2000 before Brady.
And one final Brady stat: his all-time regular season won-loss record through 2012 is a cool 136-39.
AND THE WINNER IS…
- Andre Tippett was a legend, but his RPI falls below that of the other three, so he’s out.
- Mike Haynes was ranked #49 on the NFL Network’s All-Time top 100 list. He is also a gold player in All Pro Football 2K8 (although after an update he was renamed to a generic handle). The knock on considering Haynes for UFP is that he spent the second half of his career in another uniform.
- John Hannah was ranked #24 on the NFL Network list; among offensive lineman only Anthony Munoz ranks higher.
- Finally, Tom Brady ranked 21st with the NFL Network, and he has padded his resume and made his fifth Super Bowl appearance since that list aired.
So we are left with Hannah and Brady – but jewelry collection is an easy tie-breaker. Hannah got to his lone Super Bowl in his final game in 1985, Brady had already beaten that hand by the final minute of Super Bowl 36.
Number 24 is a solid RPI number, so Hannah is a lock to get one of the 32 at-large selections to fill out my eventual 64-player NFL UFP field.
Despite still being active, the obvious selection for New England Patriots Ultimate Franchise Player is…