By Sterling Pingree
This week, former Patriots defensive stalwart Vince Wilfork announced his retirement from the NFL. After spending two seasons in Houston, Vince signed a one day contract and ended his career where it started 14 years ago. It was hard to see #75 in a Texans uniform but there was a certain poetic justice that Wilfork’s last game was at Gillette Stadium during the divisional round of last year’s playoffs. Wilfork will go down as one of the great Patriots of all-time. Belichick said on Wednesday, that Vince Wilfork was the best defensive lineman he ever coached. From someone who has coached in the NFL for over 40 years and won seven rings, that is a badge of honor that may give #75 access to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Patriots drafted Vince Wilfork #21 overall in the 2004 NFL Draft out of Miami. At that time, Tom Brady was coming off of his second Super Bowl ring in his first three seasons as the Patriots starter. As a rookie in 2004, Wilfork would earn a ring as a member of the Super Bowl XXXIX championship team and in his final season with the team in 2014 he won another Lombardi Trophy. It bares mentioning that in Vince Wilfork’s final season in the NFL, Tom Brady and the Patriots won the Super Bowl just as they did in his first season 14 years ago.
It is milestones and benchmarks such as these that we now measure the tremendous longevity of Tom Brady’s career. The fact that TB12 was already a 2-time Super Bowl winning quarterback when the Patriots drafted a player, who would go on to play a huge role with the team (no pun intended), and that when that player retired after a stellar 14-year career, Brady is still the starter in New England is incredible. Entire, perhaps Hall of Fame caliber, careers are passing within the span of Tom Brady’s own career.
It’s been said for years that we will never see anything like “The Brady & Belichick era” but I ask you, is it only one era? In this day and age of football, the average length of a career has dropped over the last decade for quarterbacks from 6 years in 2008 to just over 3 years as reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2016. So I ask, is the Brady & Belichick era only one era or is it multiple?
Great teams in the past had fairly finite starts and stops which generally began with the addition of a core group and when that core group retired or broke down that was the end. Look at the Lombardi Packers or Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain of the 1970’s. When Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert retired, Terry Bradshaw followed them right out the door, but that isn’t the case now in New England. We’ve seen just this off season two great Patriots retire, and both started their careers well after Brady. Rob Ninkovich didn’t come to the Patriots until 2009 and he retired a couple of weeks ago. Think of it this way, Ninkovich wasn’t here for the 18-1 season, or the Matt Cassell season and he’s already called it a career.
You think of the names that you’ve seen come and go since Brady became the starter. I remember reading articles about the Pats rookie wide receiver Deion Branch in 2003 and how the Louisville product had really developed a chemistry with Brady during training camp. Branch retired five years ago! Richard Seymour was a rookie on the 2001 Super Bowl XXXVI championship team and he retired five years ago as well. Asante Samuel won two rings in New England during his first two seasons of 2003 and 2004. Samuel went on to have a more than solid NFL career which culminated in Atlanta, four seasons ago. Entire careers are playing out before our very eyes in the singular career of Tom Brady.
Sports Illustrated released a special issue to commemorate Tom Brady turning 40, perhaps we should be celebrating his 18th season in the NFL because just getting to this point is an accomplishment in and of itself. Vince Wilfork’s time as a Patriot was bookended with championships and the constant before and after on the field was Tom Brady. This run of success has been longer than any other and in doing so has spanned multiple generations of players. These eras keep passing and so does Tom Brady.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.