For the majority of the past two decades, the New England Patriots were led by the most successful head coach-quarterback duo in NFL history. Two future Hall of Famers, each the greatest of all time at his position, were the pillars upon which the Patriots’ two-decade dynasty was built.
On the one side, there’s Bill Belichick. Coaching genius and architect of six championship teams, Belichick is the most successful head coach of the Super Bowl era. On the other side, there’s Tom Brady. Even though he has since left to win another title with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady is a Patriots legend and the undisputed greatest quarterback to ever grace the gridiron.
Belichick and Brady are the GOATs, but while they stand out among the rest due to the prominence of their respective roles they are not the only members of the organization to fall into the same category. In fact, there are six other men who have strong arguments as the greatest in their respective fields.
In August 1981, Sports Illustrated put John Hannah on its cover with a simple caption: “The best offensive lineman of all time.” At that point nine years in his pro career, Hannah had already established a reputation as a ferocious blocker from the left guard position.
A first-round draft pick by the Patriots in 1973, he went on to be named first-team All-Pro seven times and become a member of the NFL’s team of the decades for both the 1970s and the 1980s. Appearing in 183 regular season and seven playoff games over 13 seasons, Hannah was an intimidating presence as both a pass protector and run blocker.
The latter showed in the 70s: In 1976, Hannah helped New England average 210.6 rushing yards over the course of the 14-game regular season — a franchise mark that still stands today. Two years later, after the NFL had switched to a 16-game regular season format, he and the rest of the Patriots’ offensive line paved the way for an NFL record 3,165 rushing yards that stood for more than four decades.
“This guy is really looking to hit somebody,“ Belichick said about Hannah during the NFL 100th anniversary team special on NFL Network. “John was just looking for contact. And you could see his height, he really used it to his advantage: he got under defenders, played with great leverage and explosion. He wiped some guys out — wiped them out consistently.”
While Ernie Adams’ role with the Patriots was shrouded in mystery and the subject of speculation and rumor, his impact on the organization cannot be denied. He was one of the architects of its dynasty in the early 2000s, and has been involved in every part of the football operations — something Bill Belichick himself noted during a speech in New England’s war room on the third day of this year’s draft.
“Ernie’s career, and especially in the draft room, is legendary. ... Ernie literally wrote the book on scouting. The grading scale, the lettering, the numbering, the different classification of players, the report writing, critical factors, he has been a part of all that really for four decades,” Belichick said.
“His impact in not only the scouting for me personally in this organization, but honestly through all the people who have been here and left here as well as obviously the acquisitions of some of the great players of those organizations and the championships that eventually come with them.”
Adams’ impact did extend far beyond the draft room, though. As New England’s research director he also was heavily involved in the game preparation process. He may have kept a low profile and worked behind the curtains, but New England’s on-field product and dominance over two decades would not have happened without his impact.
Adams therefore has a very strong case as the greatest research director the league has ever seen.
While Robert Kraft’s impact on the Patriots’ on-field product is non-existent — he made clear numerous times that he is paying Bill Belichick to take care of this — he still is the one who brought the band together in the first place. Not only did Kraft hire Belichick in 2000, he also kept the franchise from moving to St. Louis in the early 1990s.
Those moves alone laid the foundation for what was to follow. With Kraft atop the organization, the Patriots won six Super Bowls between 2001 and 2018. He set the course and is now the most successful owner in NFL history.
Add the fact that he also played a pivotal role in negotiating the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement and ending the lockdown that same year — all while mourning the passing of his wife of 48 years — and you can see why Kraft belongs not just in the Pro Football Hall of Fame but in any conversation about the GOOAT, the greatest owner of all time.
Vinatieri came to New England in 1996 as an undrafted rookie and following a one-year stint in NFL Europe. He went on to kick for the team for the following 10 seasons and established himself as one of the most reliable players his position has ever seen — and one with a knack at making the big play: Vinatieri kicked the game-winning field goal in Super Bowl 36 as time expired and two years later also helped the Patriots to a title with a last-second kick.
His most impressive moment, however, might have come during the 2001 season when he helped New England defeat the Oakland Raiders in the divisional playoff round: Despite playing in snowy and windy conditions, he was able to make a 45-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter to tie the game — one of the greatest kicks in NFL history. In overtime, he made the game-winner to keep the Patriots alive in the playoffs and en route to their first championship.
After winning three titles with the Patriots, Vinatieri left the organization as a free agent in 2006 and promptly won another Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts. He spent a total of 14 seasons as a Colt, but was not brought back by the team in 2020. Instead, the now-48-year-old remained unsigned through the entire season.
Unsurprisingly, he called it a career earlier this month. After a combined 397 regular season and playoff games as well as four rings, Vinatieri is now headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Buffalo Bills legend Steve Tasker may have a strong case as the greatest special teams player in NFL history if not for one Mr. Matthew Slater.
While Tasker has been voted to seven Pro Bowl and first-time All-Pro squads each, Slater is a nine-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro (plus two-time second-teamer). The rings department is where the scales significantly tip in the Patriot’s favor: Slater helped his team win three of them in the 2010s, whereas Tasker finished his career without any hardware despite playing in four straight Super Bowls.
One thing both men have in common is that their careers are Hall of Fame-worthy.
Slater’s started in 2008, when the Patriots drafted him 153rd overall. While not seeing any significant action at his listed position of wide receiver over the course of his career, he developed into one of the best kick coverage players in NFL history. Regularly being among the team leaders in special teams tackles and other impact plays in the return game, he played a crucial role in New England’s second dynasty.
Slater did not just serve as a special teams leader on those three championship squads in 2014, 2016 and 2018, but also as one of the most respected members in the locker room. He therefore became a central figure for the organization — one that has appeared in 189 regular season and 23 playoff contests for the club and was voted team captain every year since 2011.
Even though Gronkowski is still going strong alongside Tom Brady in Tampa, the foundation of his Hall of Fame career was laid in New England.
The “Gronk” earned three Super Bowl rings and four first-team All-Pro nominations during his nine seasons in New England, and he became the prototype for an NFL tight end in the 21st century. He was a constant mismatch in the passing game, had the size and catch radius to catch nearly every pass thrown his way, and also was as good a blocker as any the position has ever seen.
Even though he developed into the total package, Gronkowski entered the NFL as a project. Having missed his junior season due to back surgery, he did not hear his name called in the draft until the second round: New England moved up to get him, and over the years that followed made him a focal point in its offensive attack.
All in all, Gronkowski went on to appear in 115 regular season games and 16 playoff contests between his arrival in 2010 and his final season in New England in 2018. Along the way, he caught 602 passes for 9,024 yards as well as 91 touchdowns.
Following the Patriots’ win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53, however, Gronkowski announced his retirement. While the timing of the announcement may have been unfortunate from New England’s perspective, the decision did not come as a surprise: Gronkowski had won everything, but also suffered his fair share of injuries.
His retirement was short-lived, though, and he has since only added to his impressive résumé as a Buccaneer: Gronkowski won a fourth ring this February, contributing two touchdowns in Tampa Bay’s blowout win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.