Tom Sorensen

Super Bowl contenders every season? Why Panthers, 30 other NFL franchises can only hope to be

Compete for a Super Bowl berth every year? Only the New England Patriots, with quarterback Tom Brady, left, and coach Bill Belichick have figured out how.
Compete for a Super Bowl berth every year? Only the New England Patriots, with quarterback Tom Brady, left, and coach Bill Belichick have figured out how. AP

Atlanta’s Dan Quinn doesn’t want to coach a team that makes a Super Bowl. He wants to coach a team that annually contends for one.

But how do you do that? Last season Carolina’s Ron Rivera would have said the same thing Quinn says. Yet when I watch the Panthers getting handled by Denver in Super Bowl 50, the game feels so old I expect the tape to be in black and white.

How do you compete annually? One way is to feature the best coach in football in Bill Belichick (I wish I didn't have to write that) and perhaps the best quarterback of all time in Tom Brady. Belichick and Brady already have won four Super Bowls together, and a week from Sunday will go for five.

When somebody asks me whom I consider the best quarterback of all time I automatically say Joe Montana. Montana, who won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, retired in 1995. At 60, he's not much older than Brady. (Brady will turn 40 in August.) As good as Montana was, Brady might be better.

The Patriots do so many things so well, among them giving reserves an opportunity to excel. If Belichick says, “Look, in this situation you’re going to play,” the player will play.

Not every coach has the confidence to do this. When a game is tight, there’s a temptation to stay with starters and stars. Regardless of the situation, New England's reserves get the call. If they succeed, they remain Patriots. If they fail, they become Jacksonville Jaguars.

New England also is willing to dump good players. If the Patriots can parlay a star into a high draft choice or draft choices, they will.

The Panthers won't unless they are ready to ditch the guy (Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams). But if you want to criticize them for their loyalty, how would you feel if, say, linebacker Thomas Davis was jettisoned?

The Patriots obviously see NFL bylaws as suggestions. But their sustained excellence has much more to do with their coach and quarterback than it does playing outside the rules.

A season from now, the Patriots again will compete. The Falcons might. The Panthers won’t, not yet. They’re at least another season away.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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