Searching for a definition of greatness   

Updated: January 28, 2008, 2:02 PM ET

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Sometime during the final nine minutes of the AFC Championship Game -- after the Chargers had cowered and conceded and the Patriots had ascended to their fourth Super Bowl in the last seven seasons -- I figured I'd better get to work on the question everyone will be asking, nonstop, for the next 11 days. (1)

Are the Patriots the Greatest Team of All Time?

Tom Brady

Photo by Evan Pinkus/Getty Images

Is merely going 19-0 enough to secure a legacy as the greatest team of all time?

First, of course, you have to put aside the fact that the Patriots still have to beat the Giants. (2) Not an easy task since, if you ask me, New York's junkyard dog 10-game road winning streak is nearly as impressive as New England's 18-0 mark. But, to me, the greatest challenge in determining exactly where the Patriots stand in the pantheon of sports is first defining what it is to be great.

So on Sunday night, while the Patriots celebrated on the field, I started jotting down a few ideas. Can you base it on wins, loses, stats and awards alone? Champions can be determined that way. But greatness is a little more complicated. Is it excellence over time? Is it innovation? Is it about mastering your field? Is it about being at your best when it matters most? Is it changing the world? Does greatness require responsibility and honor? (3)

Before I knew it I had 10 pages (4) filled up and not one definitive answer. So I sought out help from as many different viewpoints as I could find. And the first two that came back were from Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who is always surly but straight with me, and Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind person to climb Mt. Everest and reach all "Seven Summits" and one of the more remarkable people I've ever interviewed. (5)

"Greatness is what sportswriters argue about until the next season starts," Cuban fired back. "Teams, rules, circumstances are always changing. It's a pointless argument." (6)

"Greatness," countered Erik, "is working with your own circumstances, not necessarily with exceptional talent, but with what you possess as a person, to make an imprint on the world, to nudge society forward and, hopefully, in the process, to push people and nations closer to realizing their full potential."

These two completely accurate, but totally incongruent, responses helped me understand just what I was up against in trying to define greatness. Data. I needed more data, more ideas and much more perspective to form a consensus on what, exactly, constitutes true greatness and whether the Patriots can achieve it in 11 days.

Here's what I found:

"A great man is he who has not lost the heart of a child." -- Mencius (7)

"I think you look in someone's heart to find out if they are great." -- Ally Fleming (8)

"Everyone can be great because everyone can serve." -- Martin Luther King (9)

"A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men." -- Thomas Carlyle (9)

"I'm not the greatest, I'm the double greatest. Not only do I knock 'em out, I pick the round." -- Muhammad Ali (10)

"Bow in the presence of greatness, 'cause right now thou has forsaken us; You should be honored by my lateness, that I would even show up to this fake s---." -- Kanye West (10)

"You have to be willing to do things the masses would never do, that's how you separate yourself from the masses." -- Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti (10)

"Responsibility is the price of greatness." Winston Churchill (11)

"The way I like to measure greatness is: How many people do you affect? In your time on earth, how many people can you affect? How many people can you make want to be better? Or how many people can you inspire?" -- Will Smith in Vanity Fair (11)

"No man is truly great who is great only in his own lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history." -- William Hazlitt (12)

"The Pats are a great team -- until they lose. Then they are like the Steelers, 49ers, Cowboys, etc. Just something that happened years ago." -- Mark Cuban (12)

"Greatness be nothing, unless it be lasting." -- Napoleon Bonaparte (12)

"Man's greatness lies in his power of thought." -- Blaise Pascal (13)

"Greatness is so often a courteous synonym for great success." -- Philip Guedalla (14)

"To be simple is to be great." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson (15)

"A great man is always willing to be little." -- Emerson (15)

"Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood." -- Emerson (15)

"A person marked by greatness is a person that rises above the obstacles that have been placed in his or her life and aims to be 'great' whether or not they achieve fame or recognition for their achievements. These are the kinds of people that not only excel in their field, but also inspire, motivate and challenge us to reach our own goals." -- Kelsey Farson (16)

"The measure of a person's greatness is his/her ability to consistently transcend expectations with humility and integrity that inspires everyone around them to rise above their potential." Arist Mastorides, Kimberly-Clark (16)

"'Development of Others: 3%" -- Harvard Business Journal survey of 7,000 executives asking them about reasons cited for greatness (17)

"Greatness breaks laws." -- Louise Nevelson (18)

"Defining greatness is perhaps even harder than achieving it." -- Flem (19)

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1: Beside the reason a guy like Tom Brady, whose worth 100 mil, easy, would be carrying carnations, I mean.

2: Personally, I'm starting to wonder whether the team of destiny in this game isn't the Giants -- a team that is very good in the areas the Patriots are suspect: pressure on the quarterback, a physical clock-killing run game, play-action passing that can exploit New England's inside linebackers who struggle to cover people in space. Plus, Eli Manning has beaten the New York media at their own game. How hard could the Patriots be after that? It's just too bad they couldn't play against Brett Favre every week.

3: The answer to all these questions is yes.

4: Albeit, little reporter notebook pages.

5: Do yourself a favor and read his autobiography: "Touch the Top of the World."

6: And by that he means I'm pointless, this column is pointless and my profession is pointless. But between the two of us, he's the only one who ever signed up for Dancing With the Stars.

7: I know everyone, perhaps even Mencius the Chinese philosopher himself, thinks of the Patriots as cold hearted and calculated robots. But I sat and watched them celebrate after beating the Chargers and the emotion and affection the team has for one another was moving and undeniable. With U2's "Beautiful Day" blasting from the stadium speakers while waiting for the trophy presentation players, coaches, family members all raced around pulling on their AFC Champs T-shirts and bear hugging each other. They looked relieved and joyous and, just for a second, the Pats gave us a window into their spirit. There are a lot of athletes who are expected to succeed their whole life and when they finally do they find the moment joyless because, hey, it's what they were meant to do. Tony Stewart was like this after his first NASCAR title. But not the Pats. And I applaud them for that.

8: In the first grade this is how I define greatness: for her heritage project my 6-year-old daughter sang about Ireland to her class to the tune of Hannah Montana's "Best of Both Worlds." Ireland is a big island that's green, where Bono rocks out the scene.

9: This quote, from the Scottish essayist, is the first of many impossible contradictions on the subject. To be great you must be bold enough to aim for things no one else has dared accomplish and, at the same time, many people want to define it in very common ways. I don't agree. Most of the quotes I came across that tried to equate greatness with humility and the common man seemed more like hopeful prayers than statements. If everyone ends up great that really just means no one ends up great. But, hey, if it's humility you want, the Pats have got that covered. Have you ever seen a more dominant team that talks less? I don't know if it's true humility or just fear of Belichick but these guys are humble, soft-spoken, they honor the concept of team, they rarely showboat and they usually let their play do the talking. Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys they aren't. Hey, Carlyle never said greatness had to be fun. Although I wish he had.

10: Maybe we can't define greatness, but we know it when we see it, hear it and watch it, right? No one who has ever watched Ali in his prime would call him anything other than great. There is a boldness to men and teams who are great -- they make the impossible look easy, they covet challenges rather than cower from them and they are set free by their willingness to lose it all. There's also an undeniable swagger to greatness, too. Ali had it. The Pats have it, they just don't show it too much. (Like when Brady got up in the toasted grille of Steelers defensive back Anthony Smith after he guaranteed a victory.) Kanye's shown flashes of it, too. I mean, an artist who can create a hook like this one and then use it to espouse and examine god, the plight of the world, celebrity culture and his own narcissism in 10 notes. Dang.

11: One of the few common themes in most definitions of greatness is the notion that it goes hand in hand with things like responsibility and honor and if those are lacking so too must be the presence of greatness. The idea of true greatness is a measure of spirit not fame, of contribution, not promotion. Can you be truly great and not stand for anything larger than yourself? I don't think so. True athletic transcendence requires more. Which is why athletes like Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson have reached an almost sacred level of a achievement that is probably beyond the reach of the Patriots.

Ask yourself this question: What does Bill Belichick stand for beyond himself, his team and his tunnel vision approach to success on the football field? Not much.

12: Hazlitt, the English writer, Cuban and Napoleon are all talking about perspective, something completely missing from sports. I don't mean this in a bad way, necessarily. The escapism of sports, getting lost in your blind love of the game or a particular player or risking frostbite to attend the NFC Championship Game, that's what we love about sports.

The problem of perspective is one of the keys to defining greatness and that makes things problematic in a sports culture with zero attention span and analysis brought to you by a sea of shouters who haven't realized that the snark has jumped the shark. Between now and Super Bowl Sunday I'm going to be asked 177 times to pick a winner and sum up the historic aspects of this season and I will do it, but what I'd really like to say is: "Listen, I know enough about the NFL to know I can't predict who will win, and as for as the Pats' legacy, get back to me in 10 years and I'll let you know." Because one of the best definitions of greatness that I could come up with is this: Excellence achieved and judged over time.

In the 1950s Winston Churchill was considered great. And in a survey during the 1980s Eddie Murphy was often cited as being great. Greatness requires the perspective of time. Just for argument's sake, what happens if we all declare the Pats GOATs (Greatest of All Time) and during the next five seasons four more teams go 19-0?

Then what?

13: This one not only defines the Patriots but they may be the only team in the NFL it even relates to. Belichick's ability to remain three strategic steps ahead of everyone else in the league is uncanny and it was on full display against the Chargers. A week after beating the Jags with a nearly perfect passing attack the Pats beat up the Chargers with a brutally effective ground game. In the second half I counted at least 25 times that the Patriots lined up in a multiple tight end formations and ran the ball down the throat of the stunned Chargers who, it seemed, had prepared all week to stop the pass.

It's not the Patriots' plays that are great, it's the way they disguise them. Lined up in a three-wide package I saw them attack vertically, attack shallow and then run the ball on three consecutive plays that all looked exactly the same at the snap. When the Jags hit them with a lot of 3-3 nickel (six defensive backs) the Pats reacted with a yawn. The way that Belichick is able to customize his team each week and prepare it, perfectly, for several potential schemes is truly what Pascal meant by greatness being defined by the power of thoughts.

14: What's wrong with that? Results are important. I'm not saying it's the only way to define greatness but this is another category the Pats have locked up. It's not just the wins, the streak, the Lombardis, the record-setting offense, the MVPs and the Coach of the Year Awards, but more so the way the stats prove a very key point in this argument: Greatness is being at your very best against the very best and when it's needed the most. Under pressure the Pats never falter. Never. (OK, once against the Colts in last year's AFC Championship Game, but I don't know how to footnote a footnote.) Belichick is 3-0 in Super Bowls, he's 15-3 in the postseason and he's practically unbeatable from December on.

15: OK, so I'm not the only Waldo obsessed with defining greatness. Emerson helps point out the subjective nature of the title, that there are probably as many definitions of greatness as there are ways to achieve it. But mainly, each of us defines greatness for him- or herself and in doing so we bring our own perspective and biases. It's only human nature to see your ideal world and to define greatness accordingly, which is why Ali and Emerson have such different ideas about it. Emerson's last quote is his best. Belichick is nothing if not misunderstood and the fact that he won't let us know him shouldn't have anything to do with whether we think of him as great or not.

16: Kelsey is a 17-year-old forward on my roller-hockey team who just scored 1520 on her SATs. Arist is a fraternity brother of mine and a sick Vikings fan. Both of them are essentially saying the same thing: that the true measure of greatness should be a person (or a team's) ability to make those around them better. This is why Peyton Manning is great, the way he elevates the entire Colts organization. A few weeks ago Tony Dungy told me people actually study their playbooks harder because they know that's what Manning is doing. And this is why the Patriots are great, too. Remember a few years ago when all the "experts" believed NFL parity made it impossible to build a dynasty. Now we know differently because of the Pats, and whether you're a fan or not, they have elevated the entire league by changing the idea and standard of what is possible.

17: Now you're beginning to understand my frustrations and the difficulty in defining true Greatness. For every Kelsey and Arist out there, there is a contradictory voice, or study, like this one from Harvard where "developing others" finished dead last in a survey of executives on what defines greatness. You know what finished next to last in this survey: "Impact on Society." "Financial Performance," by the way, beat them both and finished with 17 percent of the vote.

18: A very appropriate quote for the Patriots, I think, in light of the Spygate scandal that, I'm afraid, will always be at least an ugly, embarrassing footnote (get it?) to their legacy. This is, after all, an era of sports that will be known for the way people tried to find shortcuts to greatness. And, right or wrong, the Pats are a part of that mess. Still, I think Nevelson, a renowned American abstract expressionist best know for her "boxes" sculptures, was speaking more to the connection between greatness and innovation -- something that also applies to the Patriots, a team that has re-invented, among other things, the concepts of team building, scheme customization based on opponents, in-game strategic adjustments and, yes, the ugly, lasting, effects of a win-at-all-costs mentality.

19: This is, um, the end of the column and probably the sum total of what I learned during this exercise. Greatness is, first and foremost, subjective. But there are common ideals in almost every definition: Responsibility, honor, innovation, excellence, accomplishments that stand the test of time, the ability to elevate those around you and it's pretty clear the Patriots qualify on almost every one of them.

But, are they truly great?

We won't know for sure for another 11 days.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His latest book, "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship,", published by ESPN Books, has been optioned as a movie. In addition, he is the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow." The Flem File runs each Thursday during the NFL season.


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