Perhaps the oddest thing about a very odd week in the history of the New England Patriots, a franchise that has known its share of very odd weeks, was the identity of the commissioner who finally brought the hammer down on the lawless regime of Bill Belichick (last seen stalking the sidelines dressed like he’d just knocked over a 7-Eleven while his enraged team performed public ritual murder on the San Diego Chargers). Way back in 1970, Sen. Charles Goodell, R-N.Y., lost his political career at least in part because he took legislative action to curb the unilateralist excesses of Richard Nixon. (Sen. Goodell lost to William F. Buckley’s less-easily parodied brother James.) So, here’s his kid, Roger, conducting himself in such a way that he probably should be standing on a balcony somewhere, his medals gleaming in the tropical sun. No wonder Nixon lusted after the job of the commissioner of the National Football League. Everything about the position would appeal to him.
Anyway, seeing a Goodell acting as the New Sheriff in Town—to use the John Ford-ism that’s become trendy among America’s sporty press—has brought out the latent authoritarian in everyone, it seems. He’d already knuckled Pacman Jones for gunplay, Michael Vick for aggravated Rovercide, and Dallas quarterback coach Wade Wilson for practicing pharmacy without either a license or a decent lie. Goodell couldn’t very well have taken a pass on laying the wood to Belichick, who went out of his way to steal defensive signals on a sideline only 20 miles or so from Goodell’s desk. In truth, he should have suspended Coach Beyond-The-Law for a couple of games, too, but a half-million bucks is a considerable fine, and the loss of a draft pick makes any football executive cry. People who have been waiting six years to see the Patriots get their comeuppance seemed generally quite happy with Goodell. And then the game started.
Quite simply, no NFL team in recent memory has played a game as well from start to finish as New England did Sunday night. The 38-14 final is not even remotely a measure of it. Neither is the 407-201 margin in total offense, or the 35:46 to 24:14 gap in the time of possession. This was one football operation beating the other one into the ground. The Patriots built this lead in the offseason. San Diego canned head coach Marty Schottenheimer because he lost a playoff game to the Patriots, replacing him with Norv Turner, who has now coached 325 NFL teams in his life. For their part, the Patriots picked up receivers Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, and, most notably, Randy Moss to give Tom Brady some actual weapons to use. They also signed Adalius Thomas, a frighteningly athletic linebacker from the Baltimore Ravens. It was Thomas who broke the game open, stepping in front of a terrible Philip Rivers pass and outracing all of the Chargers more than 65 yards for a touchdown. By the time Thomas made his play, Brady already had used two of the other newcomers, Welker and Moss, to carve up the Charger secondary, the latter on a 23-yard post route that bisected two San Diego defenders and was as perfectly an executed football play as ever has been. Brady looked off the defenders and came back to Moss, who found the ball on his fingertips as he crossed the goal line at full speed.
On the other side of the ball, Thomas has given Belichick so many options on defense that the coach’s creativity is at floodtide, and the team doesn’t even feel the absence of all-pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour and explosive safety Rodney Harrison, the latter of whom Goodell earlier busted on a banned-substances rap. The beating was so obvious and thorough that the postgame commentary from the Patriots had more to do with the vicissitudes of the previous five days than it did with the problems inherent in beating a team that went 14-2 last season. There was all manner of chortling and gloating about how the team had managed to overcome the stigma of the media’s pointing out that its head coach had gotten caught behaving like an arrogant jackass. A team this good, this dominant, got to cast itself in its own mind as outraged innocents battling to stick it to The Man.
It was like watching conservatives talk about how Michael Moore was picking on them while they were running the entire government.
It’s why, absent catastrophic injury, New England can win every football game it plays this season.
For years, the rest of the NFL has chafed at the ability of the Patriots to play Poor Widdle Us while pushing the envelope of league regulations on everything from the injury list, to media obligations, to what you can and can’t do on the sidelines. If, ironically, Goodell is Nixon as “the president,” then Belichick is the Nixon who hired the “plumbers,” right down to the ludicrous written statement that remains his only public comment on the affair and which lacks only a reference to his mother, the saint, to match old Tricky’s farewell speech for unmitigated smarm. When Belichick finally got caught this week, you may have noticed that the rest of the league wasn’t exactly rallying to his side. Jerome Bettis grabbed onto a retroactive alibi for having been whipped by New England over the past decade, and Tony Dungy offered a plaintive “what-about-the-children” rumination that was just inches from actual sincerity. This was not an accident. In many ways, everybody in the NFL is against the Patriots, and a lot of them have damned good reason for being so.
However, the only thing that New England didn’t pick up in the offseason was a cause, and now it has one, especially if the investigation is as thorough and ongoing as Goodell seems to be saying it will be. It is possible that we will have a revelation a week in which, as New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi put it after Sunday night’s game, New England’s “integrity” comes into question. More ill-feeling. More bad blood. More grist for Belichick’s endlessly grinding motivation mill. Moreover, the players seemed all week to resent most that their work in winning three Super Bowls suddenly had been devalued by their coach’s misbehavior. That’s the obverse of a general feeling that has arisen among Patriots in recent years—that their own talents have been made subordinate to their coach’s alleged genius.
One of these is inspiration enough. Both of them together is a volatile mix. If more sordid details come out, and Goodell feels obligated to suspend Belichick for a week, the New England players themselves might beat some team 100-0. The whole mishegas puts the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ distinction as the only team to play an entire NFL season undefeated in serious jeopardy. Roger Goodell did the right thing last week, but he also created a situation in which, come February, when the Patriots win the Super Bowl, and he has to hand the trophy to Bill Belichick, it’s perfectly plausible to wonder if it shouldn’t be the other way around.