Prior to 1994, the New England Patriots were one of the least valuable teams in the NFL. With a disinterested fan base and no measureable success, the team looked likely to move. But a rich season ticket holder named Robert Kraft bought the team turning it into one of the most successful franchises in professional sports. His achievements will be on display again Sunday when the Patriots win their tenth AFC East title in twelve years.
In 1992 a St. Louis businessman, James Orthwein, bought the Patriots with the intention of moving them to his hometown. This didn’t sit well with Kraft, a Brookline native, who had been a season ticket holder since 1971. Kraft had bought the stadium in 1988 out of bankruptcy which included the team’s lease to play in Foxboro Stadium. This purchase would lead to the most important acquisition in team history.
In 1994 Orthwein was ready to move his newly purchased team to his native St. Louis which had lost the Cardinals to Arizona in 1988. He offered Kraft $75 million to buy out the remainder of the lease and move the team but Kraft wouldn’t budge. Holding the lease that kept the team in New England, Kraft used his leverage to buy the Patriots for $175 million saving the franchise from relocation.
With his new franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, who had been drafted as the number one overall pick the year before, Kraft was ready to build a winning team. In 1995 the Patriots selected running back Curtis Martin and cornerback Ty Law. A year later they drafted wide receiver Terry Glenn and linebacker Tedy Bruschi. This would be the nucleus of the team that would win the franchise’s first division and conference titles in 1996.
After winning the AFC East in 1996 and 1997, they wouldn’t reclaim that spot again until 2001. But that would start a remarkable run that has been unmatched by any other team and still continues today. With a serious injury to Bledsoe early in the 2001 season, an unknown sixth round selection from the previous NFL draft named Tom Brady took over as quarterback. While controversial, this decision to start Brady would be the start of the most unexpected dynasty in NFL history.
The Patriots would go on to win three Super Bowls in four years taking the crown in 2001, 2003, and 2004. Since 2001, the only two seasons the Patriots haven’t won the AFC East was in 2002 and 2008 when Brady suffered a season-ending injury early in the team’s first game. The Patriots now haven’t finished a regular season under .500 since 2000. In 2007 they nearly were the second team in NFL history to go undefeated starting 18-0 but lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.
Since Kraft purchased the Patriots, they have won twelve AFC East titles in seventeen years. They’ve won six AFC championships and three Super Bowls. In less than a decade, Kraft turned a floundering Patriots franchise that looked on its way to the Midwest into the best run and most successful professional sports franchise in North America.
With a win over the Miami Dolphins Sunday, the Patriots will win their thirteenth AFC East crown since Kraft took over the team in 1994. It’ll be the tenth title in the twelve years that Brady has been the team’s starting quarterback. Above all else, it’ll also be just another example of what Kraft has built the Patriots franchise into, the most successful franchise in professional sports.