When I returned home to Boston in September 1985, after 20 years of wandering in the sports desert, my Uncle Jason bestowed upon me a New England Patriots ticket that was once my father's. So over 23 seasons now I have attended almost 200 games in Foxboro in primo seats—there is a reward for holding tickets since the very first season back in 1960—and my wife has accompanied me to the stadium on exactly zero occasions.
In other words, she's not much of a fan. Still, that didn't stop me from trying to explain the venom being directed at the Patriots for running up the score in a succession of lopsided victories (Patriots 49, Dolphins 28; Patriots 52, Redskins 7; Patriots 56, Bills 10). My wife, who by osmosis knows far more about sports than she wants to, looked completely puzzled. I tried once again to explain the ethical issues, and, while her expression didn't change, she started shaking her head. Finally, she blurted out, "What is this, high school?"
When the Patriots opened the season they were regarded as the model franchise, the most respected in the league and an exemplar when it came to team values. But the spying incident—"Videogate"—against the New York Jets in the opening game changed everything. Even though the incident, given its lack of secrecy, was more a reflection of neurosis than of skullduggery, the Patriots had traded in their white hats for black. And everything the undefeated team has done since has been viewed through that dark prism. Coach Belichick remains a genius, but now a sinister one, loosing a scorched-earth policy against his enemies—and those enemies are, of course, legion. Running up the score is about vengeance and nothing else.
As the bad form of the Patriots' bully-boy approach is ceaseless fodder for the media, all I keep thinking, to quote a sage, is, "What is this, high school?" It's clear that these accusations of ethical misconduct stem largely from burgeoning media resentment of Belichick—not just for his arrogance in the Videogate affair but also for his mirthless style, his clumsy, at times rude, behavior and his unwavering refusal to provide reporters with any useful information. It's obvious that there are plenty of reasons—beyond petty revenge—for the Pats to keep attacking into the fourth quarter, regardless of the score, and more occurred to me after listening to a candid quarterback Tom Brady discuss the subject on Boston's WEEI radio.
Intimidation! OK, it's not a pretty concept. But intimidation is at the heart of the NFL game, a factor in every matchup—team vs. team or one on one. Right now every talking head is making the case that the Patriots are unbeatable, quite possibly the best team in NFL history. That works to the Pats' advantage. They do not want to take their feet off the opposition's throats. They don't want to give future opponents even a glimpse of vulnerability.
Brady says a loss can be more than a loss. He notes that two seasons ago, when the Indianapolis Colts went 13-0 before losing to the San Diego Chargers, the Pittsburgh Steelers used a game plan similar to the Chargers' to whip the Colts in the playoffs. That's how, Brady says, one loss can turn into two losses.
The extraordinary chemistry and communication between a great quarterback and a great receiver—Montana and Rice, Manning and Harrison—is not accidental or telepathic. It is developed in long hours of hard work on and off the field. As Brady explains it, he has had only 10 games to work with his three new wideouts, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. It may not seem as if there is any room for improvement in the Patriots offense, but Brady believes that the more they work and play together, the better the chances they will click in the future.
I am not exactly clear why kicking a field goal with a big lead on fourth and short to make the score 45-7 is good form while going for it—a 0- or 7-point option—is inhumane. Brady points out that going for it gives the offense a chance to work on something that may come up later in a more critical situation. The Patriots view everything as a learning experience. No surprise that last season the team was more successful on fourth down—16 for 20—than any other in the league.
Brady wants to play, and there's something to be said for keeping your quarterback happy. He has a well-earned reputation for his work ethic in practice. The reward, all the fun, comes in the game, and he believes he's earned his full share of it. He certainly doesn't want to come out of the game in the third quarter, no matter what the score, and isn't even thrilled at coming out early in the fourth quarter.
Pats fans worry that Brady might get injured on some meaningless fourth-quarter play, costing the team all the historic goals in sight. And some players have even suggested that the Pats' bad manners will eventually lead to somebody taking a cheap shot that could hurt Brady. But a team that essentially stops playing is far more vulnerable to injury. If they are just handing it off to a running back, defenders can tee off. And a second-string quarterback, with an inferior arm and poorer judgment, can put his receivers at risk. If the offense isn't trying to move the ball, that forces the defense onto the field—and, given the injury history in the Pats' secondary, it may be more vulnerable to injury.
Brady is clearly the player the Pats can't afford to lose. But nobody on the team acknowledges that. After all, the Patriots won their first Super Bowl when backup Brady took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe. That was also the year when the Pats ceased to have players introduced onto the field individually, only the team. That egalitarian notion leads Brady to wonder, if he is substituted for safety's sake who else warrants protection? Randy Moss? Richard Seymour? Tedy Bruschi? Rodney Harrison? Assante Samuel? Only 45 players dress for a game, including kickers and players whose roles don't extend much beyond special teams. A coach can't substitute out all his starters. Take too many starters out and the injury risk is greater to any player left on the field.
For the record, here's a little sampler from the championship seasons of the most storied coaches in NFL history, hall-of-famers all. George Halas's 1940 Chicago Bears: 41-10 vs. Packers; 47-25 vs. Rams; 73-0 vs. Redskins. Paul Brown's 1954 Cleveland Browns; 62-3 vs. Rams; 42-7 vs. Steelers; 56-10 vs. Lions. Vince Lombardi's 1962 Green Bay Packers: 49-0 vs. Bears; 49-0 vs. Eagles; 41-10 vs. Rams. Tom Landry's 1971 Dallas Cowboys: 42-7 vs. Eagles; 56-17 vs. Falcons; 41-14 vs. Steelers. Don Shula's 1972 Miami Dolphins: 52-0 vs. Patriots. Bill Walsh's 1984 San Francisco 49ers: 41-7 vs. Bears; 51-7 vs. Falcons. Joe Gibbs's 1991 Washington Redskins: 45-0 vs. Lions; 56-17 vs. Falcons; 41-14 vs. Steelers.
Sure, I understand what goes around comes around, that the shoe will someday be on the other foot and every other cliché that sportswriters and sportscasters can bandy about. Trust me, having attended the very first Patriots game ever and having followed the team all of its life, the shoe was most often on the other foot. And what goes around already went around. For years our team was the Patsies and nobody wept for us, Argentina. When the Pats finally made it to their first Super Bowl, XX in 1986, I don't recall anything but laughter and cheers when Chicago handed the ball off to a nose guard, "The Fridge," for a TD that put the Bears up 44-3. Maybe everybody was just too busy dancing to "The Super Bowl Shuffle" to worry about ethics.