The New England Patriots: Masters of the Salary Cap

The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl after a 3 year hiatus and are making their fifth appearance in eleven years.  Although a few other teams had comparable periods of success, they occurred before the 1994 collective bargaining agreement which introduced salary caps and free agency to the NFL.  Successful organizations were better able to retain their most valuable players and keep the core of their team intact before that landmark labor agreement.  An indication of how personnel decisions have changed is the Indianapolis Colts are likely to release Peyton Manning, one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time, rather than pay a $28 million roster bonus.

The four years that elapsed since the Giants and Patriots played in Glendale is a generation when measured in football-years, because of the relatively short careers of most players.  In the pre-salary cap era 9 teams played in a Super Bowl four years after a previous appearance.  In the average return visit 12 of 22 starters had played in the earlier Super Bowl.  In contrast, only 6 Patriot starters on Sunday played in the 2008 Super Bowl.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is the only non-starter who played in Glendale.  The New York Giants are also making their second appearance in 5 years with 9 starters and 5 non-starters who played in the 2008 Super Bowl.

The Patriots organization differs from elite pre-salary cap teams because they have been consistently winning their Division while replenishing their roster and staying within the salary cap.  Returning to a Super Bowl in four years, with 16 starters new to the team, is unprecedented.  The Patriots nearly accomplished the same feat in 2008 when 14 of the starters in Glendale were not on the 2004 Super Bowl roster.

The Pittsburgh Steelers of the late 1970s may be the best team in the Super Bowl era, winning four titles in six years.  The key players on these historic teams remained Steelers; 63% of the starters appeared in all four Super Bowls between 1975 and 1980.  Chuck Noll and the Rooney family had unprecedented success, but they achieved it with the same core group of players.

Only Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk, and Matt Light have played on all 5 Patriots Super Bowl teams in the past decade.  The other constant has been Bill Belichick and the Patriots organization.  Belichick and the Patriots have devised a winning strategy in an era when personnel decisions depend as much on salary cap concerns as they do on gridiron performance.

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