By: Bob George/
August 03, 2004

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1976 and 2001 were great times to be called Patriots. But 2003 topped them both.

The United States of America turned 200 years old in 1976. The New England Patriots nearly rode that wave of national spirit all the way to a Super Bowl title. The 1976 Patriots rang up an 11-3 record, lost the AFC East on a tiebreaker with the Colts, but made the playoffs as a Wild Card and went out to play Oakland. The Patriots outplayed the Raiders for the second time that year (the Pats beat the Raiders 48-17 back on October 3rd), but a bad penalty call by Ben Dreith on Raymond Hamilton helped Oakland squeak by the Patriots, 24-21 and sent them towards a win in Super Bowl XI.

September 11th, 2001 set the tone for a Patriotic year for every American. Upon accepting the Vince Lombardi trophy the following February in the Louisiana Superdome, Bob Kraft proudly proclaimed, "We are all Patriots! And tonight, the Patriots are World Champions!” Super Bowl XXXVI was replete with tributes to that horrid day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and the team which best symbolized our great nation prevailed that evening on the gridiron.

Playoff teams came along in 1978, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1994, and 1996 through 1998, as well as the champs of 2001. But through all these years and these great teams, the 1976 team was judged by most Patriot fans as the best in team history. Even the Super Bowl teams of 1985, 1996 and 2001 didn't reach the level the 1976 team reached, though the 2001 team did win a Vince.

The biggest reason why the 76ers are held in such high esteem is the belief that if Dreith had not made his stupefyingly bad call (even Raider QB Ken Stabler is on the record as saying that it was not roughing the passer), the Patriots win Super Bowl XI. If the call is not made, the Raiders are forced to try and convert 4th and 18, which likely leads to the Patriots running out the clock and winning the game. The Patriots would then have needed to beat a Pittsburgh Steeler squad decimated by key injuries on offense (the Raiders won, 24-7 without having to deal with Franco Harris or Lynn Swann), and a Minnesota Vikings team which historically does terrible in Super Bowls (Oakland won, 32-14; Minnesota is 0-4 all-time in Super Bowls) to claim the NFL title in 1976. All this stemmed from Dreith making his ruling on Hamilton. To this day Dreith still passionately claims that this was the correct call, a ruling which likely cost the Patriots a championship.

Another reason for this belief, albeit a little fanciful at that, was a pretend contest run by Patriots Football Weekly some time back. It ran a "playoff” featuring the 16 best Patriot teams in history playing against each other on a computer. The "tournament” was won by the 1976 team. Interpret this any way you wish, but it is somewhat telling that even a computer game which put all 16 teams on equal footing had the 1976 team come out as the overall winner.

If that tournament were run today, it would be folly to believe that the result would be different from popular opinion. The 2003 champs now rule. 17-2 and a Vince help a great deal, but this bunch which won the whole thing last year were the realest of real deals, and clearly assumed the lofty perch of the best Patriot team ever. Overcoming injuries, defeating as many opponents with winning records as they did, and doing so without a blue chip running back or a brick wall for an offensive line all add up to this special designation for the 2003 Patriots.

But since it's so much fun to break things down in football, let's see how the two squads compare, position by position.

Quarterback This is a landmine. A powder keg. You want this to be a push, but it simply isn't. Two beloved quarterbacks, and you have to rate one better than the other. Steve Grogan was one of the best running quarterbacks ever, was tough as nails, was as competitive as anyone who played the game, and wore the Patriot uniform for more years than any other Patriot in history (he broke Julius Adams' record in his final season of 1990). But birthday boy Tom Brady (he turns 27 on Tuesday) has two rings and two Super Bowl MVPs at this relatively tender age. He is a better game manager and has a much lower interception rate. His passer rating for 2003 exceeded Grogan's for 1976 by some 25 points. And he's still a star on the rise. What more is left for this guy, other than a movie star for a bride? Edge: 2003.

Running back Antowain Smith was at best serviceable, while Kevin Faulk has distinct roles and is not an every down back. But the Patriots of 1976-78 were one of the best rushing teams in NFL history. The 1978 rushers set an NFL record with 3,165, while the 1976 team was second in team history with 2,948. This squad had Sam (Bam) Cunningham, Don Calhoun and Andy Johnson who all topped 700 yards rushing (Johnson actually had 699, but that's close enough); Calhoun had an insane 5.6 yards per carry. Throw in Grogan's 397 yards rushing and 6.6 average, and the argument is over. Edge: 1976.

Receivers Where you rank Russ Francis on your all-time list of Patriot tight ends depends upon your opinion of Marv Cook. Ben Coates is the best, but Francis is right up there and was a major weapon for Grogan in 1976. He was so good that Howard Cosell, who if he were alive would probably confide to someone that he disliked the Patriots, called him "all-world”. Darryl Stingley and Randy Vataha formed a nice wideout duo. The problem is that Cunningham and Johnson caught more passes than Stingley, and all three backs caught more than Vataha. In Troy Brown, Deion Branch and David Givens, the Patriots have their best wideout trio in team history, and that won't change when Bethel Johnson supplants Brown some day. Daniel Graham has a ways to go before he gets into Francis territory. Edge: 2003.

Offensive line Dan Koppen, Tom Ashworth and Russ Hochstein make for great storytelling. Start with references to David And Goliath and go from there. Think back to 9/11 and you'll never dislike Joe Andruzzi. Matt Light has developed into a fine left tackle and was a big reason why Brady was never sacked in the postseason. But in 1976, you had Sam Adams (whose son plays defensive line for Buffalo), Tom Neville, Bob McKay and Dr. Bill Lenkaitis, who were plenty good enough right there. Then you go to the left side and find the best tandem in Patriot history: tackle Leon Gray and the best guard in NFL history. John Hannah is who he is, but one can only wonder what Gray's career, and his legacy, would have turned out had he played only for the Patriots in his career like Hannah did. Edge: 1976.

Defensive line Both squads happen to play a base 3-4. The 1976 team featured Mel Lunsford, Hamilton and Richard Bishop, with sack master Tony McGee spelling Lunsford on passing downs. The 2003 team had Bobby Hamilton, Ted Washington and Richard Seymour as their three down linemen. Very tough call here as both units played extremely well. Big Ted (now a Raider) and Seymour provide the key difference here. Edge: 2003.

Linebacker Someone please ask Mrs. Hunt why she named her bouncing baby boy Sam instead of Steve. Some Patriot fans called him Steve anyway. Like Monty Python's hilarious routine Bruces, where everyone in the philosophy department is named Bruce "just to keep it clear”, this would have done nicely for the 1976 Patriot linebackers. The Society of Steves â€" Nelson, King and Zabel, formed a decent unit along with Hunt, with Nelson going down in history as one of the finest Patriot linebackers in history. The 2003 corps of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer and Mike Vrabel, along with Ted Johnson, simply gets more done and causes more disruptions in pass rushing. Edge: 2003.

Secondary This is close. Call Ty Law versus Mike Haynes a push. Tim Fox and Eugene Wilson were both rookie free safeties who played well, albeit Wilson learning a new position all the time. Bob Howard and Tyrone Poole were both good at the right corner. The big difference is at strong safety, where Prentice McCray, while a good one, cannot match Rodney Harrison and his ability to hit harder than most anyone in the league. Edge: 2003.

Punter Mike Patrick versus Ken Walter. Edge: 1976.

Kicker As popular as Briton John Smith was, he can't touch Adam Vinatieri and his clutch kicks. Besides, Smith needs a snowplow to kick in snow, Vinatieri does not. Edge: 2003.

Return teams Ricky Feacher and Jess Phillips did nice work returning kickoffs, but Bethel Johnson is more of a breakaway threat and faster than either of the two. Troy Brown had a season like Haynes did in 1976 returning punts, but that season was in 2001, not 2003. The two areas cancel each other out, call this a push.

Coaching Chuck Fairbanks ruined all the good feelings he engendered in his Patriot tenure as head coach thanks to the way he departed in 1978. In 1976, all the promise he exuded when he came here from the University of Oklahoma three years prior came to full fruition. He was a rare coach who made the option play work in the NFL thanks to Grogan. He had no designated "coordinators”, and shockingly, did not list Dante Scarnecchia as one of his assistants (Scar was coaching offensive line at SMU in 1976, and did not join the Patriots until 1982). In Bill Belichick, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, they form the best coaching troika in the NFL. Belichick may be the best defensive mind in the NFL in the last 30 years, maybe ever. Edge: 2003.

Add that all up and you get seven for 2003, three for 1976, and one push. But you really didn't need this to convince you that 2003 is the best. The comparison itself is fun enough.

In the abstract, the 2003 Patriots didn't have Ben Dreith to deal with, but it really didn't matter one bit. The Patriots dominated the league in 2003, and rightfully won its top prize. Still, the segment of Patriot fans who saw the 1976 team and saw the playoff loss to Oakland fervently believe that the Patriots were the real Super Bowl champs that year, further fortified by the fact that the only Raider loss that year was at Foxborough.

That is why when a Raider fan brings up Walt Coleman in 2001, just ignore them and hope they go away. The nice thing is that, after the 2003 season, they pretty much have sat down and shut up.