BY Steve Rudman 06:30AM 01/27/2015

Kraft’s Patriots the model in era of free agency

No team has been as successful as the New England Patriots during the free-agency era than the New England Patriots, who play the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX Sunday.

Robert Kraft purchased the New England Patriots in 1994, the first year of free agency in the NFL. / Wiki Commons

Seahawks fans watched in various degrees of horror the past March as a parade of operatives key to the 43-8 Super Bowl triumph bolted town, lured by greater dollars than the champions could pay. On March 11-12 alone, the Seahawks lost in free agency DEs Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to Jacksonville, WR Golden Tate to Detroit and RT Breno Giacomini to the New York Jets.

Had the Seahawks not featured the youngest roster to win a Super Bowl, had they not had sufficient depth to replace those lost in the exodus, had they not recovered from a 3-3 start this season to win nine of their final 10, and had they not rallied from a 12-point deficit with 2:13 to play in the NFC Championship game, they would not have become the first team in 10 years to reach consecutive Super Bowls.

It’s close to a landmark achievement in the era of free agency (since 1994), which fosters parity and legislates against sustained success. In that time, only Denver (1998-99) and New England (2004-05) have won back-to-back Super Bowls, which makes what the Patriots have accomplished so stunning.

The free-agency era overlaps precisely the ownership of Robert Kraft, an industrialist/philanthropist who purchased the franchise from St. Louis businessman James Orthwein for $175 million. At the time, the Patriots were considered one of the leastvaluable franchises in the NFL, and had gone seven years without a playoff appearance.

The Patriots have made 16 postseason showings — 12 in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era — in 21 years under Kraft vs. six in the franchise’s first 33 years.

This might be the best way to assess Kraft’s stewardship: Since 1994, and despite the constraints of free agency, the Patriots sport a .678 winning percentage (regular season and playoffs),  best among all owners or ownership groups since 1960 with a minimum of 200 wins:

Years Team Owner Win Pct. Playoffs
1994-2015 Patriots Robert Kraft .678 23 wins, 7 Super Bowls
1977-99 49ers Eddie DeBartolo .636 19 wins, 5 Super Bowls
1960-83 Cowboys Clint Murchison .634 19 wins, 5 Super Bowls
1966-89 Dolphins Joe Robbie .609 14 wins, 5 Super Bowls
1984-14 Broncos Pat Bowlen .605 18 wins, 6 Super Bowls

Only Kraft and Denver’s Pat Bowlen have a winning percentage above .600 achieved entirely in the free-agent era, with Kraft coming in first with 23 playoff wins and seven Super Bowl appearances, counting Sunday’s against the Seahawks.

The Patriots are never a one or two-year wonder. Unlike say, Cleveland, which hasn’t made a playoff appearance since 2002, or the New York Jets, who have averaged an 8-8 record for a decade, the Patriots are title contenders every year. Lucky New Englanders: The worst they ever get is a division championship.

New England has reached the postseason six consecutive seasons and 11 of the past 12, missing only in 2008 when the Patriots finished 11-5. In their most recent run, the Patriots have won six consecutive AFC East championships, one shy of the all-time divisional record of seven by the 1973-79 Los Angeles Rams (NFC West). The only other team in AFC East history to win as many as five: the 2003-07 Patriots.

This is a snapshot of the Patriots under Kraft since 1994, how they compare to the No. 2-ranked team in each category, and how they also compare to the Seahawks:

Category NE No. 2 Sea Skinny
Super Bowl wins 3 2 1 NYG, GB, Dal, Den, Bal, Pitt, all 2
Conference titles 7 4 3 No. 2 Pitt in 1995, 2005, 2008, 2010
Playoff games 35 30 20 No. 2 GB 30 playoff games since 1994
Playoff wins 23 17 11 No. 2 GB 17 playoff wins since 1994

The Patriots have strung together 14 consecutive winning seasons (the Seahawks just completed their third and have never had more than five such years in a row). In the free-agent era, that’s eight more than the next-best team, Green Bay, with six.

Seahawks fans just bore witness to how extraordinarily difficult it is to finish with 12 wins. The Seahawks had to win nine of their final 10 and needed four fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks to do it.

The Seahawks have had four 12+-win seasons since 1976 , including a pair of 13-3 campaigns (2005, 2013). During Kraft’s ownership, the Patriots have one perfect (16-0) regular season (2007), three 14-2 years, one 13-3 season and four 12-4s.

These franchises have had the most 12+-win years in the free-agent era:

Team No. Skinny
New England 9 12+ wins in each of last 5 years; also 16-0 win 2007
Indianapolis 8 7 of 8 12-win seasons came with Peyton Manning at QB
Green Bay 7 5 12-win seasons with Brett Favre, 2 with Aaron Rodgers
San Francisco 7 4 of the 7 came under George Seifert and Steve Mariucci
Denver 7 12+ wins last 3, 2 1st-round ousters, blowout loss in SB
Pittsburgh 4 Last 3 12-win seasons resulted in 2 SB appearances — ’08, ’10
Baltimore 4 2 12-win years under Brian Billick, 2 under John Harbaugh
Tennessee 4 Back-to-back 13-win seasons under Jeff Fisher in 1999-00

This is more far impressive than a franchise making an occasional Super Bowl appearance, especially considering that while the Patriots have nine 12+-win seasons under Kraft, Buffalo, Miami, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Washington, Detroit and Arizona have zero 12-win years over the same span.

From Kraft on down, the Patriots have had a better handle on how to win in the modern NFL than any other franchise – even if they have trampled the rules a few times to get it done.



  • jafabian

    Free agency is exactly why taking away draft picks does nothing to the Patriots if they’re punished for Deflategate. They typically have low picks due to their success. What they don’t get in the draft they will sign as a free agent. Look at their starting CB’s. Look how over the years they went and got players like Corey Dillon. They should either be completely banned from this years draft AND denied signing any free agents or get a two year probation from the first 3 rounds and a big monetary penalty. The Patriots could be guilty of doctoring the footballs and still win the Super Bowl and not be punished until later. That isn’t right. That’s why the punishment should be very strong.

    Sadly, I think Richard Sherman is right. I don’t see the NFL bring down the hammer very hard on one of their “model franchises” headed by one of their more influential owners.

    • eYeDEF

      Just suspend Belichick like Sean Payton was suspended. That would gift them a bad record and make them a pay for free agents wouldn’t want to go and play for the Pats with only an interim coach in charge.

  • eYeDEF

    Unlike say, Cleveland, which hasn’t made a playoff appearance since
    2002, or the New York Jets, who have averaged an 8-8 record for a
    decade, the Patriots are title contenders every year.

    And to be fair, let’s take an equanimous view and ask what it is that sets apart the Pats from the Browns or Jets the past decade. First and foremost is their having a franchise quarterback while the Jets and Browns do not.