Gather round boys and girls, and I will tell you a parable. Once upon a time, there was a young boy named Eric Cartman. Eric was a wicked child, who had performed many troubling misdeeds and whose heart was full of hatred. One sad day, Eric’s grandmother died, and she left her favorite grandson the dizzying amount of one million dollars. Rather than investing, saving, or donating a single cent of the money, Eric spent every last penny purchasing a failing theme park so that he could enjoy its rides and attractions without allowing even one other person in to share them with him. Eric even made commercials just to tell his friends that they would not be able to partake in the fun of his newfound wealth. Meanwhile, Eric’s friend Kyle, another young boy in the town grew baffled at these events. Kyle had always tried his best to be good and righteous, and he wondered how someone as cruel and undeserving as Eric Cartman could have received such a bounty. As Cartman’s vindictiveness increased, Kyle simple grew more and more puzzled and continued questioning how such an event could happen in a just world. Eventually, this issue proved so troubling that Kyle became seriously ill, to the point where his life was threatened and no friend or medicine could console him. He had given up on life, and it seemed as though all hope was lost.
For a while, Cartman was absolutely gleeful. He scampered about the park, taking in every ride and attraction it had to offer as he lived his dream. However, Cartman neglected to realize that even with only one person in the newly dubbed “Cartmanland” at a time, he would need security, maintenance, cleaning, and many other services. Thus, he had to let more and more people into the park in order to generate enough money to keep it running. Eventually, Eric had even more people in the park than were present before he had owned it, robbing him of his hope to enjoy an amusement park all to himself. He had to wait in those long lines which had so aggravated him previously. In fact, it was not wanting to wait in line which had prompted him to pursue this goal in the first place. Disgusted, Eric sold the park back to its original owner in exchange for his million dollars back, hoping to use it for some other scheme to achieve his sadistic pleasure. Yet, immediately afterwards, the IRS came and told Eric that he had failed to pay any taxes during his ownership of Cartmanland. Not only did they seize his million dollars, but he even owed an additional debt of thirteen thousand more. The very security guard he had hired to protect him sprayed Eric with the piercing sting of mace when he attempted to trespass into the park he had once owned.
Soon after, Cartman began to weep at the scope and severity of his predicament, wishing he had never achieved so much of his goal so as not to have to suffer the angst of losing it. As a result of these events, not only did the kindly owner of the amusement park see vastly increased revenue and profit from his business, but Kyle made a full recovery. That day, both boys learned an important lesson. Cartman’s pain, humiliation, and punishment had been all the worse because he had grasped his dreams, and lost them. All Kyle needed to do was to have patience for the scales to balance out. For one glistening moment, justice had been served, and all was right with the world. Just as Eric felt the poetic, methodical, and devastating hand of justice that day, so too did the 2007 New England Patriots receive their comeuppance.
Before I explain to you why the Patriots proved themselves deserving of such a result, I feel compelled to stop and offer a word of caution. There is a German word which has, perhaps appropriately, become increasingly a part of the English vernacular. The word is “schadenfreude.” Schadenfreude means “shameful joy” or “taking pleasure in another’s misfortunes.” Even amidst the harsh consonants and guttural utterances of the German language, it is an ugly, accusatory word, and its harshness portends why we ought to make a reasonable effort to avoid becoming deserving of such a label.
The Talmud tells the story of Moses having parted the red sea and led the Israelites out of Egypt, when the sea suddenly collapsed on the Egyptian army who would dare pursue them. When this happened, it is written that the angels in heaven let up a raucous and joyful cheer. God immediately silenced them saying that “they too are my children, and yet you celebrate as they suffer?” Without any attempt to rely on the veracity of this religious text, the story merely reminds us that there are good reasons not to become victims of schadenfreude. It is incumbent upon us as those brave fools groping blindly towards enlightenment, to make the fine distinction between happiness at seeing justice served and happiness at seeing others suffer. Perhaps this is a mere rationalization, but at the very least, before I detail the reasons why what The New England Patriots received was their just desserts, it behooves me to recognize that the members of that team and their fans are human beings as well, and thus entitled to a modicum of our sympathy and compassion. They are not merely two-dimensional thumbnail sketches depicting so much that is wrong in an otherwise beautiful game, even though, as the lens of the parable bends our view, it becomes increasingly easy to see them that way.
My distaste for The Patriots goes back all the way to the 2001-2002 season and a couple of improbable events therein, but what lead to that distaste began a few of years before. I grew up during The Cowboys dynasty years and they are far and away my favorite team, but the complex rules of the game they played eluded me to a large extent. The Cowboys were simply the good guys. I figured out when they won and when they were doing well, and at the time, it was enough. I only started to really understand football around the same time I began to play it – at the age of twelve. Like anyone watching the NFL at the time, I became enthralled with the so-called “Greatest Show on Turf” of the St. Louis Rams who stormed to an impressive Superbowl victory in the 1999-2000 season.
St. Louis would never pop up as one of my favorite teams like their greatest foes that year – the Titans, or the defensive-minded group whom St. Louis beat to earn that trip to The Superbowl – the Buccaneers, or of course, my beloved Cowboys. Still, the Rams were a team I came to respect a great deal. I witnessed the impressive receiving duo of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, the incredible shifts and jukes of Marshall Faulk, as well as the hard-hitting tackles of London Fletcher. They all impressed me at that young age when I was only just beginning to have a feel for the ins and outs of the game. However, the greatest story became Kurt Warner, an Arena League nobody who, as it became popular to mention, went from stocking shelves to become the MVP of the Superbowl and of the league. While I had been cheering for Tennessee, one simply had to admire the talent and skill exhibited by that 1999 Championship team from St. Louis.
The next year, The Rams seemed poised for victory yet again. Long before the recent talk of New England putting together a perfect season, St. Louis made it through the first half of the year without a blemish on their record, simply blowing by any team who stood in their way. Yet, the unthinkable and unfortunate happened – Kurt Warner broke his hand. The team struggled without the man who had improbably become such a key to their success. While he managed to return to the team eventually, they were never able to regain that same swagger of the first eight games of the year. They only scraped into the playoffs with a measly 10-6 record, and lost in the first round to New Orleans, a team whom they had beaten just a week before. Certainly, any team who loses in the first round must be disappointed with the results, but what really stung is that anyone could plainly see the raw potential for greatness amid the blue and gold warriors who walked back to the locker room for the final time that season. Alas, they would have to wait for another year, and wait they did.
The following ’01-’02 season was a different story for The Rams. With Kurt Warner healthy, they bounced back with renewed vigor and success equal to their first Superbowl run. This was also the first year that I had discovered the joys, and dare I say, addiction of Fantasy Football. Through some stroke of luck, I managed to draft Fletcher, Bruce, and Faulk to my fantasy team (not to mention a young upstart receiver out of San Francisco named Terrell Owens), and as such I followed the Rams much more closely that year than I otherwise would have. Returning to form, St. Louis posted an NFL best 14-2 record that year, as they practically cruised into a Superbowl matchup with an unlikely underdog team – the New England Patriots.
That Superbowl was a very disappointing one for me. The Rams came out flat, and New England had managed to squeeze out a 14-3 lead at halftime. The fans and announcers were bewildered, as St. Louis, 14 point favorites, were now trailing by eleven points in the biggest game of the year. What’s more, they were not playing like the team who had dominated so many in the regular season. Perhaps it was the pressure, perhaps it was taking their opponents too lightly, but for the first two quarters, the Rams were not the Rams. Still, they came out roaring in the second half, tying the game at 17-17 with a mere 1:30 left in the fourth quarter. St. Louis had come back from adversity, and they threatened to make this game the first Superbowl to go to overtime in NFL history. Then, it happened. An improbable drive by the Patriots took them into field goal range and allowed a then unknown kicker named Adam Vinatieri to kick the winning field goal. Once again, after showing so much promise, so much ability, the Rams season became all for not with one powerful kick.
For better or for worse, the NFL Championship does not always go to the better team, but rather to the better team on a particular day. In my heart of hearts, I feel that if they had played that game one-hundred times, The Rams would have won ninety of them. Sunday, February 3rd, 2002 just happened to fall into the Pats’ ten percent. I accepted the Patriots’ victory as fair, with no lackluster officiating or questionable calls to point to. I accept and even rejoice at the “any given Sunday” nature of this game. However, I can still find frustration with the fact that a team widely acknowledged as inferior managed to just barely eke out a victory over a team deserving of such praise and accolades. The Rams’ brief falter cost them the grandest prize in their sport, and the Patriots, beneficiaries of this ostensible glitch in how things ought to be, received not my blame, but still my disfavor on that account.
Yet there is more to this story. To make it to the Superbowl, the Patriots had a questionable victory over a surging Oakland Raiders team in a snow-covered divisional playoff game. With roughly two minutes left in the game, Brady and the Pats, down 13-10 drove in the snow to attempt a field goal which could tie the game and send it into overtime. At the last minute, Brady fumbled the ball, and Oakland Raider Greg Biekert recovered it. The play as called would have effectively ended the game, allowing Oakland to run out the clock while in the lead and head to the AFC Championship match. However, the play was reviewed by the officials, and to the consternation of many, the referee cited a new regulation about “tucking the ball.” He ruled the play an incomplete pass, allowing New England to retain possession.
I watched this match up live, and though I had no real stake in the game at the time, I thought the call was complete nonsense. Thus, it seemed unjust as the Patriots managed to take the game into overtime and win on another Vinatieri field goal. Again, as with The Superbowl, The Patriots cannot be blamed for what happened. Walt Coleman, the referee who made the infamous call, deserves that culpability. What’s more, one play does not decide a game, and Oakland had many other opportunities to pull out a win and failed to do so. Yet, here again, the Patriots had benefited from something unfair, something that arguably screwed over another team. After The Superbowl that year, it occurred to me that not only had the Patriots managed to barely escape with a victory over what I considered to be the better team, but they did so in a game which, by many accounts, they should never have been playing in the first place. As such, my distaste for the team from New England grew even more.
The intervening years between that game and this most recent Superbowl can be considered half and half for someone who does not like the Patriots. After falling prey to the typical post-Superbowl stumbles that seem to befall most teams the year after they make it to the big game, the Pats returned to glory. The won back to back NFL Championships for the ’03-’04 and ’04-’05 seasons. The fact that they matched a feat previously only accomplished by my Cowboys – winning three Superbowls in four years, irked me a bit. On the other hand, the teams they beat to do it meant little to me. Having played the position in high school, I admired Carolina for their defensive line, but felt no real affinity for them, and I certainly was not rooting for the Eagles. Yet, the media does what it does, tripping over themselves to worship over whoever’s on top at the moment, and having to hear constantly how great these teams were did nothing to endear The Patriots to me.
Still, there were a few bright spots. The year after New England’s first championship, the Buccaneers who had clocked in as a team below only the Cowboys on my list of favorites, managed to win one of their own. Incidentally, the winning coach was John Gruden, the man who had been on the losing end of New England’s infamous “tuck rule” game. After the Pats’ back-to-back wins, the Steelers, the team who New England beat in the AFC Championship prior to that first improbable Superbowl victory, took the NFL crown. While I have no real love for the team from Pittsburgh, it was hard not to pull for a workman running back like Jerome Bettis winning his last big game in his home town. Finally last year, the winner of the NFL Championship was none other than the Patriots’ arch enemies, the Indianapolis Colts. I have a great deal of admiration for the Colts, which I will explain in greater detail later, but there’s one specifically relevant reason I pulled for the Colts; Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy had been fired from Tampa Bay the year before their championship run. While there is no doubt that the coaching of John Gruden was a major part of the Bucs’ success that year, he coached a team largely put together by Dungy. I always felt that Coach Dungy deserved a share of that prize, and now he finally had it. Which brings us to this year.
As with every autumn, I was excited for the start of the NFL season when the first September in 2007 came around. One of the downsides to living in New York is that for the most part, you get nothing but Giants and Jets games. Now this worked out in my favor to some extent given that the G-Men played The Cowboys in week one, but it also meant that I was stuck with Jets-Pats for the AFC game that weekend. Still, given that outside of a few pre-season games, I had been football starved since February, I watched. It was, by all accounts, an uninspiring game. The Patriots whooped New York, and by and large, the game offered little besides boredom. Little did I know what an important game that was.
During that game, league officials apprehended a member of the New England staff illegally videotaping the Jets’ signals, and Spygate was born. The incident prompted an investigation by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. After examining the tapes sent by the Patriots’ Organization, Goodell concluded that there had been no significant advantage gained, but still levied the heaviest punishment in NFL history. Belichick was fined $500,000. The team was fined $250,000 and docked a draft pick. Belichick issued a half-hearted non-apology where he said he was sorry that there had been “differing interpretations of the rules.”
As I think I mentioned, I was not exactly overflowing with love for this team to begin with, but the revelation of cheating truly pushed my disgust with them over the edge. It was and still is difficult to say how far back the cheating goes or how much of an advantage having those defensive signals proved, especially at the time the accusations first came to light. On the other hand, each of The Superbowls that New England played were won by a mere three points; in such circumstances, even if the advantage was minimal, in may have been enough to put them over the top. Regardless, their blatant disregard of the rules tarnished not just their organization, but the league in which they played, and I rooted for them to lose every game that season because of it.
Unfortunately for me, they did the exact opposite. Not only did the Patriots continue to win, but they obliterated their opponents. Through the first five weeks of the season, they had won each game by double digit margins, some by more than thirty points. Many speculated that Belichick set out to prove that the Patriots did not need to cheat to win and that the ostentatious scores were a means of thumbing their collective noses at the league who had questioned them. In week seven they played my Dallas Cowboys in a match up of undefeated teams. America’s Team held their own for most of the game, even holding a three-point lead over The Pats in the 3rd quarter, but it was not to be. The Patriots kept rolling to a 48-27 win over The Boys. New England continued to flex their muscles in week eight where they hung fifty-seven points on Washington who could only muster one measly touchdown in response. Yet, there was hope for week nine, when the Patriots would play the Colts.
Much like the St. Louis Rams, I would never call the Colts one of my favorite teams, but I do have a great deal of respect for them. For starters, when this incarnation of the Colts first rose to prominence, commentators largely attributed their success to a trio of players: Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, and Peyton Manning, whose style often warranted comparisons to the Cowboys’ “triplets” of the dynasty years – Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, and Troy Aikman. Those who have seen me repeatedly note my hatred of advertisements in the past may be surprised at the fact that I really like Peyton Manning. Lord knows you’ll see his face on television at least fifteen or twenty times during your average game, and that’s when he’s not even playing. Yet for some reason, either because he has proven himself a fairly decent spokesman who comes across affably, or because his thirty-second slates of shilling are actually pretty funny for the most part, I do not seem to hold that against him too strongly.
I genuinely believe that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of this era. He plays football like a surgeon, dissecting the defenses that challenge him and moving his team down the field with meticulous accuracy. One of the things that I most enjoy about football is how much strategy it involves compared to other sports, and Manning epitomizes that. He calls audibles on the line, reading defenses like they were children’s books. He throws precision passes through the clutches of the defenders to his chosen targets. Instead of relying solely on long bombs or big runs, The Colts employ controlled gains that wear down the defense and set the stage for offensive fireworks later in the drive. There is something about the way an offense run by Manning works that is simply a thing of beauty for any true football fan. As I mentioned, we rarely see non-Giants/Jets games in New York, but late in the season I got to watch Manning and The Colts play a tight game against the Jags. I commented to a friend after the Indy offense drove down the field for a go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, that such a drive by the Colts is probably the closest thing to art that can be found in today’s NFL.
Additionally, I greatly admire Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy for several reasons. He led a perennial cellar dweller team in Tampa Bay to consistent success. He managed to take The Colts, who had come so close so many times, all the way to a championship for the first time since they were in Baltimore. Moreover, the man exudes class, honor, and dignity. He is known for what became the title of his book, “quiet strength,” in a game that could certainly use more of his type of attitude at times. Perhaps a certain amount of this affinity stems from the fact that he reminds me of my own coach in high school, who incidentally, acted as a scout for Dungy when he was with the Buccaneers. For these reasons, among others, I respect the Colts. The fact that they were often a thorn in the side of the Patriots didn’t hurt either.
The ninth week in the NFL would see the season’s second big match up between two undefeated teams. 8-0 New England took on 7-0 Indianapolis in a battle that many speculated would decide home field advantage in the AFC Championship game. By and large, the game lived up to the hype that saw both teams take the lead on multiple occasions. Though not clearly reflected on the scoreboard, The Colts set the tempo in the first half, and managed to carry most of that momentum into the second. Eventually the Colts had secured a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter and it seemed as though this might be the night that the evil empire fell. Alas, we were not so lucky. The Patriots quickly scored two unanswered touchdowns to put them ahead by four points, which would prove enough to win the game. It was a disappointing night. Even without Marvin Harrison, and with many starters knocked out during the game, The Colts had come so close, and yet come up short. I could only hope that some other team would be able to knock New England down a peg later in the season, but if Indy could not pull it off, I had to ask how another team could even come close.
My question was answered by a most unlikely source. In week twelve, the Pats played a woeful Philadelphia Eagles team who were without their starting quarterback. The Patriots came in favored by one of the biggest lines in NFL betting history. The game was expected to be a total blowout. Instead, I found myself (with a bit of shame) cheering on Philly as they stayed competitive the entire game. Philadelphia walked into halftime down by a mere three points to a team who had registered five more wins than them. The Eagles even managed to pull ahead in the third quarter to take a four point lead over the NFL’s only undefeated team at the time. It was at that point I called my friend Tegan, a Philly fan, and told her that if the Eagles managed to unseat the Pats, I would wear whatever jersey she wanted the next day. Yet again, it was not to be. The Pats scored one more touchdown in the fourth quarter to escape with a win, and my hopes were dashed yet again. The game still gave me hope. Excepting the match up with Indy, every Patriots game had pretty much been a blowout. Here they had nearly lost to a much weaker team, and it proved that New England was mortal, that they could be wounded, and maybe, some team would have just the right combination of skill and luck to finish them off.
The very next week, by several accounts, somebody did, but extenuating circumstances kept the Baltimore Ravens from taking out the bad guys in lucky week thirteen. As the last few minutes in the game ticked away on Monday Night Football, the Ravens had the Pats pinned. Baltimore, who were coming off a five game losing streak managed to force New England into a fourth down do or die situation. The Ravens were up by four points on the 12-0 team. Tom Brady tried to scramble for the first down, but was tackled short of the line. The Ravens had possession. Game over. Patriots lose. But wait. The refs nullified the play because apparently a Baltimore coach called time out, despite the fact that the play was allowed to go to fruition. One questionable penalty later, and the Patriots received a fresh set of downs.
The Ravens managed to force another fourth down with a little over a minute left in the game. Tom Brady threw a pass into the end zone. It was incomplete. Game over. Patriots lose. But wait. The refs make an extremely suspect defensive holding call against Baltimore, and the Pats get a fresh set of downs. Brady throws a go ahead touchdown with less than a minute on the clock. With only forty seconds remaining, Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller throws a Hail Mary pass and comes within three yards of scoring a miraculous game winning touchdown, but it’s not enough, and the Patriots escape Baltimore with a win. With shades of the tuck game, a number of questionable calls saved New England’s rear ends and allowed them to slither away with the victory. My distaste for them only grew.
Flash forward to the Patriots’ very last game of the regular season. With some appropriate symmetry, they played New York, although it was the Giants who suited up across the field this time. A victory over Big Blue would give New England the first 16-0 record of the modern NFL. All it would take was one more win. Fortunately for me, the Giants were up on the Patriots 28-16 in the third quarter, and it seemed as though despite the harshness of seeing New England so successful, New York might just be able to keep the Pats from that perfect season. Or so I had hoped.
Yet again, as has seemed to have happened all year, the Patriots quickly scored two touchdowns, making the two-point conversion on the latter to go up 31-28. Eventually they tacked on another to give New York a ten point deficit from which they could not recover. The game ended with a final score of 38-35. It was all over. Like it or not, New England had put together the first undefeated regular season since 1972. Randy Moss broke Jerry Rice’s touchdown record. Tom Brady broke Peyton Manning’s. This was it. The bad guys had won.
My descriptions of these close calls do not do justice to how frustrating it was to see New England weasel their way out of defeat each and every time. In every one of these instances, particularly Baltimore, you believed that someone had finally done it. Sure, it would still stink if The Patriots won the Superbowl, but just that one loss to keep them out of the history books would be enough. Dallas, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, all seemed like they could fulfill that goal at one point or another. Each time, something would go wrong. One play of confused coverage, one missed tackle, one cheap penalty, and it would all go up in smoke. In some ways, if the Patriots had simply continued dominating every team in their path, it would have been better. Sure, the media would be drinking their kool-aid all the more, but at the very least they would not be teasing us with these close games.
Nevertheless, regardless of what could happen next, The Patriots had accomplished a feat which had never been seen in the National Football League – the perfect sixteen-game regular season. Upon seeing this result, I sought to explain why this was such a dark day for professional football. Though I held out hope that someone could knock New England out of the playoffs, there was no denying the Patriots as the odds on favorites to become world champions. I began to accept the strong possibility that this abhorrent group would go 19-0. As I did, a thought occurred to me that elucidated why I was so strenuously rooting against this team.
No one could deny that the New England Patriots are a talented team or that their accomplishment is a tremendous one. To be fair to them, part of the reason that the Pats engender such dislike from so many people is that success often brings contempt. However, I realized that there are deeper reasons why the people who I consider to be true fans of the game, not just of a particular team, felt a great deal of enmity towards New England. When you have a team that is being called one of the greatest of all time, it is your hope that they have a character to match their talent, and that simply does not and has not rung true for this team.
The most obvious strike against the Pats is the cheating. I am unsure if we will ever know the extent to which the Patriots employed the illegal videotaping or how much of an advantage it gave them. Their organization only handed over six tapes, and the commissioner, in a very puzzling move, destroyed them all. Roger Goodell claims to have done so only so that if other tapes popped up he would know the Patriots had not been completely forthcoming. It seems as if this could have been accomplished by locking the tapes in a certain location, transferring them to a secure medium, or any number of solutions that did not involve getting rid of the evidence. Destroying the tapes only makes people suspicious that there was something on them which could threaten the integrity of the league.
What’s more, we do not know what had been already destroyed by the Patriots’ organization themselves. As I mentioned, many of the biggest games in Patriots’ history have also been the closest. Even if the advantage gained was minimal, it could have given them the edge in all of those tight match ups. The lockstep response from the Patriot faithful seems to be, “well everybody does it.” As if, somehow, the fact that other people are doing something wrong exonerates you from any blame for doing the same. The team, for their part, has been entirely unrepentant, and the league, despite the fines and punishment, seems to have been as eager to put out this fire as much as anyone.
Yet in what may be an even worse offense, the Patriots consistently ran up the score on their opponents throughout the first half of the season. They insulted respected coaches like Joe Gibbs and Dick Jauron by going for it on fourth down while up by double digits. This unnecessary curb-stomping of inferior teams only served to pad statistics and deliver a big “screw you” to the people who dared speak ill of the team that had benefited from cheating. Not only did it show extreme disrespect to the opposing players, coaches, and the league as a whole, but it showed disrespect to the game itself. Football ought to promote values like sportsmanship and goodwill. These important ideals were entirely absent from such disgusting displays.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that as a result of this practice, both Tom Brady and Randy Moss managed to set NFL single season touchdown records. I found this to be aggravatingly unjust. The duo only managed to break these cherished records by playing more games than the previous record holders and by torching bad teams in garbage time. Even then, they only managed to eclipse the previous record holders by a single score. Hopefully history will remember how those names in the record book arrived there, and recognize who truly deserved that honor, those who proved themselves the better, more honorable players.
This brings us to individual character. Take three of the team’s biggest stars. Who could doubt the character of Tom Brady in his crushed velvet sport coats dumping his pregnant girlfriend to start banging a supermodel? Randy Moss has a laundry list of troubling issues: Calling the tragedy which struck his alma mater, Marshall, “nothing big,” pretending to moon the fans, leaving the field before the game was over while his team still had a chance to win, and making his notorious statement “I play when I want to play.” His list goes on and on and he fulfills all the criteria for a stereotypical me-first receiver. Throw in Richard Seymour who was both suspended for testing positive for steroids and voted the dirtiest player in the game by his peers. What a fantastic trio of role models and representatives for the league.
Yet, these three pale in comparison to their grinch of a coach. In many ways, Bill Belichick is the antithesis of Tony Dungy. Where Dungy is renowned as a decidedly upstanding individual, Belichick has shown a consistent lack of courtesy for his colleagues and his sport. Dungy is known for his kind, welcoming, and humble personality. Belichick is aloof, arrogant, and above all disrespectful of the game that has benefited him so greatly. To boot, it’s been speculated that Belichick’s divorce stemmed from his cheating on his wife with a league receptionist. Moreover, rather than apologizing for his rule breaking, or accepting any responsibility, he stubbornly took offense to the audacity of he and his team receiving a punishment for their skullduggery. He, more than anyone, is responsible for why the Patriots are deserving of our collective enmity.
There’s a difference between playing to win the game and playing to break records. There’s a difference between protecting a lead and running up the score. There’s a difference between taking responsibility for your errors of the past and giving a big middle finger to the league, or to the game as a whole. When I think about watching football with my kids years from now, and their asking me about watching the first undefeated season in the modern NFL, I want to tell them about a team and about the individuals that comprised it, who are worthy of being admired as both players and people, and despite the undeniable impressiveness of an undefeated regular season, that is a standard that these New England Patriots cannot live up to. Winning match-ups and setting records is all well and good, but if you cannot do it with class, then in my mind you have already lost the most important game of all.
Regardless of my sentiment, the cards seemed to be decidedly stacked in New England’s favor. There was some hope for the Patriots’ divisional playoff game against the Jaguars. Maybe Jacksonsville’s two-pronged running attack of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew could punish the Pats’ aging linebacker corps enough to allow them succeed. The Jags put up a good fight, but it was not enough to win. That same weekend, the Colts, my last great hope for defeating the Patriots, lost to a Chargers team who had many marquee players injured by the time the game ended. The Pats rolled over the ailing team from San Diego in the AFC Championship game. They prepared for The Superbowl and the perfect season they seemed destined to achieve. They were set to play a most unlikely opponent – a fifth seed New York Giants team who had upset the number one seed in the NFC, my beloved Cowboys, and the number two seed, Brett Favre’s resurgent Green Bay Packers, to make it to the big game.
I did everything I could to avoid the sports media in the two weeks between the conference championships and The Superbowl. I did not need to watch fourteen days worth of proverbial slobbering over New England, nor hear them compared to the greatest teams of all time. Though I hoped that the Giants would beat the Patriots, I did not consider it anywhere close to likely to happen. After all the close calls the Patriots had navigated their way through this year, and with two weeks to prepare for a team they had already played and beaten, it seemed like The Giants did not stand a chance.
Yet, when the whistle blew signaling the end of the first quarter of The Superbowl, the score was a mere 7-3 in favor of New England, and each team had only managed one drive. The Giants pulled off the longest drive in Superbowl history, taking nearly ten whole minutes to travel seventy-seven yards to kick a field goal. The Patriots responded after a big return by Laurence Maroney with a Benjamin Watson touchdown reception to put them ahead. The rest of the first half was a defensive struggle. The Pats caught an interception while the Giants recovered a fumble. New England’s defense kept New York’s offense from making much progress, let alone scoring, while the G-men’s defensive line absolutely attacked Tom Brady, pounding him even when they could not register a sack. Some people call this type of game boring. I found it riveting. There are some defense-heavy games where it’s less the power of talented defenses and more the ineptitude of mediocre offenses. This was not the case here. Both the Giants and the Patriots made progress down the field, and the defenses would give up significant ground for a while, but something would just stifle the drive each time for both teams. Both sides of the ball seemed to be evenly matched, and the defenses just happened to be keeping the upper hand.
That would change to some degree in the second half. The Patriots would charge down the field all the way to the New York twenty-five yard line. On a fourth-and-thirteen, Belichick decided to go for the first down rather than a field goal in what I suspect is a decision he greatly regrets now. The resulting play was an incomplete pass from Brady, and the Giants took over. Eli drove the team eighty yards, throwing a go ahead touchdown to little-known receiver David Tyree, putting the Giants up 10-7. The score remained the same as both the Giants and the Patriots traded three-and-outs for the bulk of the quarter.
Suddenly, the Patriots took over the ball on their own twenty yard line, and started resembling the team we had seen for eighteen previous games. Brady spread the field with big passes to Welker, Moss, and Faulk. The Giants defensive backs did not seem to have an answer and the defensive line could not get there in time to stop the onslaught. After New York defender Corey Webster slipped in coverage, Brady threw a touchdown pass to a wide open Randy Moss to put the Patriots ahead 14-10 with two minutes and forty-two seconds to play in the game. “This is it,” I thought. After teasing us with such great play for 90% of the game, The Giants would fold like everyone else. Not only would the game end with such a sour result, but the last score would be Brady-to-Moss, those villains who were so often praised as heroes. This same story we had seen all season seemed to be unfolding all over again.
The Giants would start on their own seventeen yard line with a little over two and a half minutes to play. Eli is not exactly known for his fourth quarter comebacks. As older sibling Peyton was shown on camera cheering on his little brother, I speculated that Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin might have wanted to trade Mannings right about then. New York had three time outs left, but still scant few seconds to spare and eight-three yards to travel. After a sticky fourth-and-one early in the drive, Brandon Jacobs, a monster of a running back pulsed through the Patriots’ line to make the first down on his second effort. Only a few seconds later, the Giants faced a third-and-five from their own forty-four yard line with barely over a minute left in the game.
There are some plays where you know as soon as you witness them that they will live on in football lore for ages to come, and I had the privilege of watching one that day. As the pocket collapsed around Eli, I had already hung my head and grunted a snort of disgust. A sack seemed imminent. Suddenly, the man hardly known as a scrambler made it out of the scrum and into the open field. With only a few ticks to get set, Manning lobbed a long bomb into New England territory. I cringed as I expected some dastardly defensive back from the Patriots to swoop in and steal an interception to end the game. Yet, miraculously, thirty yards down the field, David Tyree leapt into the air and stretched for the ball. As he came back to the ground, battling contact from all sides by the Patriots’ safeties, he pressed the ball against his helmet, maintaining possession. As he landed back down with Rodney Harrison practically pummeling him, the entire room held their breath. The referee ran to the line, and across America, millions sat on the edge of their seat. Two hands coming together, sure enough, it was a catch.
The Eli-to-Tyree catch will be firmly cemented in NFL history as one of the most improbable and amazing plays to ever dazzle the fans watching the biggest game of the year. It energized The Giants and decimated the spirits of a tired Patriots’ defense who thought they had New York locked down for good. Only a few plays later, Eli caught Patriots’ corner Ellis Hobbs, the man who had intercepted him earlier in the game, on a pump fake and threw a pass into the endzone. The ball reached the waiting arms of Plaxico Burress, the New York receiver who had been fighting nagging injuries all year, and the only Giant bold enough to predict a three-point New York victory over New England. The touchdown gave The Giants a 17-14 lead with one minute and thirty-five seconds left in the game.
Most of the room jumped up and down with glee, but I was not ready to celebrate just yet. I remembered two other Patriot Superbowl victories that rested on one big last minute field goal. I remembered Baltimore where it seemed so certain that New England had been finished off, but they refused to die like some pack of cockroaches. Most of all, I remembered that snow-covered evening in Oakland. For this offense, having its big play receivers, having all three timeouts, and having only to get into field goal range, thirty-five seconds might as well have been an eternity.
The kick return took six seconds off the clock and the Patriots started from their own twenty-six yard line. First down, Brady throws an incomplete pass. Second down, the offensive line misses a cue, and unheralded Giants lineman Jay Alford gores Tom Brady like a bull to get the sack and keep the clock rolling. Third down, Brady airs it out to his go-to-guy, Randy Moss and for a second it looks like he has the jump on the defenders running down the sideline. However, Corey Webster, the man who slipped earlier in the quarter to allow Moss to score the last New England touchdown, reaches into the air and bats the ball away. Fourth down, twenty yards to go for the first down marker with barely any time left on the clock. Brady gives his receivers as much time to get open as possible and throws a Hail Mary pass as far as him arm can manage.
One more lob. One last chance. One last play. Could the Patriots yet manage their own Music City Miracle, their own Cal-Stanford, some last minute athletic feat to win the game? I watched with eyes wide open as the brown blur sailed through the air and down the field. The ball bounced off the fingertips of three players – two from New York, one from New England and then…to the ground. This was it. The Giants had really won. The Patriots had really lost. The game was over, the year was over, and New England’s hopes for the perfect season were over. Instead of being the first team to go 19-0, they were the first team to go 18-1 without winning The Superbowl. I found that dubious distinction fitting.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of realizing what had happened. If there’s a sentiment that I would wager Patriots fans and I shared in that moment, it was a sense that what we had just witnessed was unreal. I said about midway through the third quarter that regardless of whoever won the game, this was one of the best Superbowls in history. The game went back and fourth, with both teams looking like they had firmly cemented control at several points in the competition. Yet, knowing that New England had really lost, after having been teased at the prospect so many times, is the strangest sort of fulfillment I have ever experienced. It was a strong emotional fulfillment that had been built from the past twenty-one weeks, or even, as chronicled here, the past seven years, but which stemmed from events I had nothing directly to do with. As I said, it’s a very odd thing to describe, but to put it in simplistic terms, it felt good.
It would be difficult to say that these were ideal circumstances. In a dream world, it’s Tony Romo who engineers a game winning drive in the fourth quarter to defeat the Patriots and kickstart a new Cowboys’ dynasty. I would even have been satisfied to see Brett Favre slay the New England dragon and ride off into the sunset. At the very least, I can envision scenarios in which it’s not the team who knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs that ends up winning the Superbowl.
On the other hand, as I said when calling to congratulate my friends who are New York fans, the Giants were still the lesser of two evils. When the Cowboys-Giants playoff matchup loomed on the horizon, I discussed it among friends, and did so without great confidence, maybe bordering on concern. Despite the fact that the Cowboys had swept the Giants in their regular season matchups, at no point did I feel Dallas dominated either game. New York was always competitive right to the end. It made me wary of the two teams locking horns in the playoffs. When New York prevailed over Dallas, I was saddened, but not surprised. I spoke about my respect for the Rams and the Colts, but perhaps the strong concern that another team will seriously challenge your favorite squad, even after two victories, offers much more genuine form of respect than simple admiration can provide. In any event, with a twinge of hesitance at cheering on Big Blue, I was glad to see The Giants hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy that fateful day in February.
As I said, it is not the necessarily the best team, but rather the best team on a particular day that wins The Superbowl. There’s a very reasonable argument to be made that the New England Patriots were rightfully the superior team. I might even go as far as to say that ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the Pats win that game. However, as New England knows as well as anyone, no matter how big of a favorite you are coming into the game, no matter what you’ve accomplished prior to The Superbowl, what you bring onto the field that one day makes or breaks your entire season. Turn about is fair play, and at that loss, many veteran Patriots knew the pain they that mighty St. Louis had experienced six years earlier.
There was an odd symmetry between that game and the 2002 Superbowl with the Rams. In both cases, fans witnessed a double-digit underdog shock the favorites early, followed by the favored team roaring back, only for the underdogs to pull out one last minute drive to pull off a three-point victory. In another interesting connection, The Boston Herald reported a mere two days before this Superbowl that New England may have employed its illegal videotaping to record the Rams’ offensive walkthrough prior to that first Superbowl. Some speculated that the story, in conjunction with Senator Arlen Specter seeking further investigation into Spygate, may have provided just enough distraction to keep the Patriots off their game. I generally consider such pronouncements to be gross overstatements, but if these allegations played any role in the Patriots’ loss, I would deem it poetic justice. Finally, as Eli Manning stood on the podium receiving his MVP award, it took me a minute to recall a little detail I had long since forgotten. When Eli first came into the league, like most rookies, he did not start games immediately. As is the custom, he spent much of that first season sitting on the bench, and learning under the tutelage of a veteran quarterback. In Eli’s case, it was some guy named Kurt Warner.
I have a great deal of skepticism when it comes to the concept of divine justice, particularly as it applies to football games. If there is a God, I would hope he has more pressing issues on his agenda than to decide who wins The Superbowl. I do believe in karma, but only insofar as your performing good deeds encourages those around you to follow your example. I do not believe in karma as some sort of cosmic stock exchange for good and bad where favor is redistributed accordingly. Despite this fact, it’s nice to be able to point to the Patriots season and compare it to Eric Cartman’s well-earned misery. Both came so close to having their dream and then watched as it was ripped away. The Patriots sat on the precipice of history, three minutes away from the closest thing to immortality that professional football can confer. Literally at the last minute, that prize that had seemed so close at hand for dastardly New England, slipped through their fingertips. The historic honor they pursued would not go to those who did not deserve it.
The bad guys, blinded with hubris, had managed to reach the summit of the mountain, but it only served to make their fall that much further, and the impact that much harder. Sometimes, whether it be by design, by divine plan, by the determinant course of nature, by human will, or simply by random chance, justice is served. When that happens, when for whatever reason things just work out, it makes me happy. That day I was happy.
Tags: New England Patriots, New York Giants