There were two days of shock, and now there will be about four months’ worth of bitter recriminations. It’s been a long time since Boston’s sports community has been able to indulge all of its ancient addictions, but people are off the wagon now, lolling in the gutters, intoxicated by their own misery and still soaked by the great big bucket of fail that the New England Patriots dumped all over them last Sunday night against the New York Giants. Unreformed drunks are always more pathetic than prereformed drunks, largely because the old habits come back so very easily. Believe me, the town’s capacity for maudlin self-loathing is still limitless. To its credit, very little of this has been aimed at fate or the referees. The team’s partisans—and those objective observers who predicted an undefeated season in pixels that looked very similar to these—seem quite content to give the New York Giants credit for knocking the Pats history over teakettle. (The only real kindergarten moments came when several local pundits opined that an 18-1 season was somehow a failure because now the rest of the country could go “nyah-nyah” at New England for the foreseeable future. Jesus, have a cookie and take a nappy-nap, OK?) In fact, given that Eli Manning was the least deserving Super Bowl MVP in history, it should be noted that the only vote garnered by the actual MVP—Justin Tuck, the ferocious young defensive end—was cast by Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe, which leads one to the painful conclusion that Reiss was the only journalist in attendance who actually watched the game. Just give a vote to Tom Petty next time.
I mean, my lord, for most of the final drive, Manning was cracking like a walnut. Like pitchers who can say they’ve had someone struck out three times only to have the calls go against them, the Patriots had the New York quarterback picked off three times on that final series of plays, and they had him sacked once, and they failed to close the deal on all four occasions. Most memorable was the third-and-five play when Manning, to his credit, wriggled free from two New England defenders and heaved the ball downfield so that David Tyree could make the greatest catch I’ve ever seen on a football field. (Come to think of it, why wasn’t Tyree, who also scored the first New York touchdown, the MVP? You’re going to see his pinned-to-the-noggin catch on highlight reels until Steve Sabol’s great-grandchildren are making myths.) On the New England side, both Tom Brady and Randy Moss have decided to pass on this weekend’s Pro Bowl in Hawaii. In all fairness, based on their performance last weekend, the three New England offensive linemen who were chosen to participate probably should have been politely disinvited.
The game was a great and wonderful throwback—a puncher’s battle in which, even though he spent most of the game limping for his life, Brady managed to get the Patriots into the lead with a little more than two minutes left. At that point, it looked like something out of the late 1960s, when the Giants were the only football team whose games were pumped into the New England market. (At one point, before the blessed founding of the American Football League, Homer Jones was the favorite player of entirely too many of my childhood friends.) Chris Schenkel should have been behind the mic. Or Ray Scott, the great minimalist. (“Manning … Burress … touchdown!”)
Even though the stadium was in suburban sprawl laid upon a desert, it almost felt as though they were playing it in the snow.
OK, dammit, now what? The wiseguys in Vegas already have installed the Patriots as favorites to win next year’s Super Bowl, but the franchise is in for an off-season of deep soul-searching. If it wasn’t plain to Robert and Jonathan Kraft before, most of America has come truly to dislike their football team. Some of it is jealousy. Some of it is a desire to see the champion fall. But, for an ownership that has rightly prided itself on being fan-friendly, the hostility engendered by this team during Super Bowl week had to be daunting. Most of it circulated around Bill Belichick, with whom football America seems to be fed up. For most of the week, Belichick was as charming as most of his acolytes tell you he can be, which is very charming indeed. However, once Arlen Specter got all up in Roger Goodell’s grill about the destruction of the Spygate tapes, you could almost see the Gates of Mordor close around the team and its coach again. (For the benefit of those of you scoring at home, Specter began his public career by, ah, creatively debunking the notion of a conspiracy to kill John Kennedy and is now ending it by intimating that there is a conspiracy to protect the New England Patriots. If only Abraham Zapruder had been around to film the signals of the New York Jets, Specter might have been inclined to lay off.)
Belichick then found himself outcoached by Tom Coughlin, to which he responded by leaving the field one second early and thereupon engaging in a series of public interviews so grim and boorish that they made the collected oeuvre of Bob Knight look like Mardi Gras. It has now been three seasons between Super Bowls, so the “at least he wins” excuse is less tenable than it’s ever been. If there actually is more to the Spygate story, and if it turns out that the Patriots staff misled the commissioner’s office in the
original investigation last fall, Belichick’s not going to have two votes in the room. He’s already cost the franchise a quarter-million dollars and a first-round draft pick. Were he to get suspended, the public relations debacle would be infinitely worse for a team that doesn’t need another one.
On the field, well, they’re still awfully good. They need to get younger at linebacker, and they need to decide if left tackle Matt (two false starts) Light is one step over the hill and whether Ellis Hobbs, who got beat on the game-winning touchdown, will ever be a big-time cornerback, especially if Asante Samuel, who actually is one, takes the money and runs in the off-season. But, thanks to the complete ineptitude that is the San Francisco 49ers, the Patriots have the seventh overall pick in the draft. Consider: Two years ago, they got beat in the second round of the playoffs; last year, they had the eventual world champions beaten until the last minute; and this year, they got all the way to the last 35 seconds of the Super Bowl with the lead. This is a young team on the way up, I’m thinking.
Sad, isn’t it?