Update, Feb. 4: The Patriots won again. Our fan weighs in: “I understand that this was, objectively, not a fun game to watch, other than maybe for punting (and punt coverage) enthusiasts. But I was on the edge of my seat, starting with Brady’s interception. (Just one of several nerve-racking Patriots Super Bowl trademarks that appeared tonight—their inability to grab a touchdown early, [kicker] Stephen Gostkowski missing a gimme. Could have used an improbable fourth quarter catch from an opposing wide receiver, though.) I was kind of a wreck until Gostkowski hit the field goal to put them up two scores. I may have underplayed my investment in the game when we talked last week.
Focusing on the positive, it was an incredible performance by the defense, capping off a remarkable postseason run against three of the best offenses in the league. They put tremendous pressure on Jared Goff all night, and I thought Dont’a Hightower would have been a worthy choice for MVP, as a sort of synecdoche for the entire defensive game plan and execution. But Julian Edelman was obviously great as well, getting open whenever he wanted and hauling in just about everything Brady gave him. And it was nice to see Gronk make some big plays in what it sounds like was probably his final game. That last catch he made on the touchdown drive was a superb effort.
I’d like to give a shout-out to my guy Jason McCourty, whom I identified last week as someone worth rooting for even if you’re not a Patriots fan. A year ago he played for an 0-16 Browns team; tonight he made what was easily the play of the game (maybe the season), when he broke off his coverage to fly over and break up a sure touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks that at the time seemed like it could have sealed the game for the Rams. This isn’t a game I particularly want to rewatch, but that play is one we’ll remember.
All in all it was a satisfying night. I’m looking forward to the duck boat parade Tuesday—for some reason those never get old. Speaking of which, pitchers and catchers report next week.”
That last part would be a reference to the Boston Red Sox’s 2018 World Series title. When it rains, it pours.
Original post, Jan. 29: On Sunday, the New England Patriots play the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. It will be the team’s mind-boggling ninth title-game appearance in 17 years, and a win would earn the franchise its sixth championship in that span. It’s a run of success that’s perhaps only matched in modern sports by Nick Saban’s Alabama and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, and it has created a certain amount of resentment toward the Patriots, particularly directed toward quarterback Tom Brady (purportedly a vapid pretty-boy narcissist), coach Bill Belichick (a cheater, it’s said), and the team’s fans (in the popular imagination, a mob of fratty, front-running chowderheads named Sully). I spoke to one such chowderhead, 37-year-old Boston attorney Nathaniel Adams, about what it’s like to root for a team that much of the rest of the country is sick of—and whether there are diminishing returns on the joy of victory when victory is all you know. Our conversation, which has been condensed and edited, was conducted by phone with some follow-ups via email.
Ben Mathis-Lilley: Everyone hates your team and assumes that you, by being a fan of that team, are a jerk. Would you like to respond to that?
Nathaniel Adams: I mean, I get it. It’s not that complicated. You understand that people have various reasons for disliking a team. Some of them are good, some of them are, I think, not so good. But it just comes with the territory of being a sports fan, so I don’t take it personally when I’m a subject of vile personal attacks.
What do you think are some of the valid criticisms of the Patriots? Do you have a positive case that people should actually admire them?
I’m not going to offer anything that I think is admirable about the team [as a whole], because I don’t know if there’s anything particularly admirable about any sports team. I also think that criticisms of the team are a little silly and probably petty and born of jealousy. But I think that the general air of discontent or dissatisfaction around the Patriots has more to do with the way they are treated in the media. First, there’s the fact of their being at the saturation point, or well beyond the saturation point by now. It’s just impossible to avoid them. There’s been a lot of Patriots fatigue for at least the better part of the last 10, 15 years. But then there’s also the way that they’re talked about, especially the notion of the “Patriot Way,” the idea that there’s an ethos that they have adopted among their players and staff, and that that’s what has led to their success, as opposed to the fact that they seem to have developed a coaching and player development and salary cap strategy that has enabled them to weather the changes in the league.
It gets presented as an almost ethereal quality.
Ethereal, sort of mythological. I guess that’s my read on what would be a valid criticism, this notion that there’s something about them that is unique and special.
As opposed to just being more clever, more attuned to the conditions in the league.
Yeah, maybe having some foresight, maybe being a little bit ahead of some trends. Like this week, there was an article on nesn.com about how a few years ago Belichick started moving towards a man-to-man coverage scheme on pass defense in response to what he saw as trends on offense across the league, and that has been shown to be the more effective way of dealing with the high-flying passing attacks this year.
Look, they have been caught bending rules, breaking rules. They’ve been punished, I think severely in both cases. They’ve lost two first-round picks in the Belichick era. I don’t know—Deflategate was so ridiculous. I really am trying hard not to sound like a Neanderthal homer, but it was so idiotic, the idea that they were getting some kind of massive competitive advantage from the quarterback preferring slightly underinflated balls. I guess the appropriate response to that is to look at their record in the four years now since Deflategate broke. [Ed. note: Deflategate went public in January 2015. Since the 2015 regular season began that September, the Patriots have gone 58–16 with three AFC championships and a Super Bowl win.] I did love the Patriots’ bonkers response website, which is still up. The underlying controversy was so ridiculous, and it just slayed me to think how much time went into creating this multi-thousand-word rebuttal that had no impact on anyone’s view anywhere.
On Spygate, it’s in the past, but I will grant that it’s a little bit odd that the league went to the trouble of destroying the evidence in the case and that apparently no one will ever be able to review it again.
Does it create ennui to win so much? Is it still fun to win when you’re always winning?
I wouldn’t say ennui, I wouldn’t even say that there’s fatigue. To be extremely obnoxious, the only games that we really care about now are Super Bowls, and every Super Bowl they’ve been in has been such an incredible viewing experience. If this week’s game is a blowout one way or the other, then I might say that’s a letdown just because we’ve been conditioned to expect every game to go down to the wire. But no, it doesn’t get old to keep winning.
Do you still think about the Eli Manning games, the Super Bowl losses, and think, “Man, if it wasn’t for the the one play here, the one play there, we could have had seven championships instead of five”? Do the losses still hurt?
The fact that it was Manning is really annoying. Even the 18–1 season, I think I and most fans have moved beyond that, but it would’ve been really cool if they had won, and there were some players on that team that it would’ve been really awesome if they got the ring with the Patriots. Like [Randy] Moss and [Wes] Welker, Junior Seau was on that team. I will say that probably the most meaningful win, other than the very first Super Bowl against the Rams, was the one against Seattle. Only because by the time that game rolled around, it had been, what, 10 years since the last Super Bowl title? [Ed. note: This is correct; the Pats won Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005 and Super Bowl XLIX in 2015.] And so you really felt like you were kind of approaching the end of the ride. And if Brady and Belichick had never won another Super Bowl after the one in ’05, you probably would’ve felt like they left something on the table. But the fact that they were able to do it again in ’15 and then again two years later is just, I don’t know—everything is just gravy now.
There was a lot more on the table, it turned out. The table was full.
At least until a couple of years ago, there was still broadly a perception that the first four or five years of the Belichick/Brady dynasty were sort of the salad days and then they were kind of posers after that, or paper tigers, however you want to describe it. Now they’re making the AFC title game every single year. There is a contingent [of fans] that say, well, it’s Super Bowl or bust, but I think the most reasonable people understand that their sustained level of success over the last 10 years is just incredible and really surpasses what they accomplished even winning three Super Bowls in four years [from 2002 to 2005].
Does the fact that Donald Trump has become a part of the storyline of the team take anything away as a fan—seeing Brady, Belichick, and Kraft popping into these unpleasant, heated national news stories?
[Pause for comic effect in the manner of Belichick glaring at a reporter who asked a question he doesn’t want to answer.] Yeah, we’re really just focused on the Rams game.
Not to get into my own personal beliefs, but it’s, I’d say, more annoying than anything because it becomes a sideshow to what you want the story to be, which is “our team is awesome.” And so anything that distracts from that, and I guess you could put something like Deflategate in that category too, anything that gives people a reason to talk about the team but not lavish praise on them for being incredible, is something that grates on you.
I will admit that his public persona can be tough to swallow. He gives the worst interviews of any professional athlete I can think of, in terms of saying absolutely nothing of any interest whatsoever, and his celebrity fashionisto stylings are excruciating. I also understand why fans of other NFL teams hate and root against him, in the same way that I have hated and rooted against Peyton Manning and LeBron and Jeter and others—there’s something almost as satisfying in seeing those guys get denied rings as there is seeing my teams win them. Our brains don’t want other people to have nice things.
Having said all that, I really do love Brady and hope he plays forever. I can think of two clips that maybe illustrate why I still find him fun to root for. There was one from this year’s post-AFC championship game locker room celebration, raw footage of him wandering around grinning and saying over and over again, “That was fuckin’ unbelievable!” [Ed. note: The clip is no longer online.] At one point, he and [Rob Gronkowski] are laughing about the slant Brady threw to him on the overtime drive, where Gronk came within an inch or two of breaking out of the tackle and scoring. The excitement in the way Brady talks about it—something like, “I thought you were gonna make it!”—and I know this is literally the most annoying cliché in all of sports, but he actually does sound like a kid who’s talking to a friend about an awesome play they just made in a backyard game. It’s fun and a nice counterbalance to the pomposity and pretension underneath every reference we hear to “THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE.”
The other is from a 2014 regular season game against Denver where [Julian] Edelman returned a punt for a long touchdown and Brady jumped off the bench and ran down to the end zone to celebrate with him. Edelman clearly didn’t realize what happened until a few minutes later, and when he brings it up, Brady’s hesitation and then explanation—he needed to “go see my guy!”—comes across as disarmingly sweet and genuine, especially for someone who is generally perceived, as you say, to be fundamentally shallow and a consummate company man.
In conclusion, I sincerely hope Tom Brady reads this and asks to be my friend.
Are there guys besides Brady who you wish got more recognition, who you as a diehard fan think of as key contributors to the dynasty?
There aren’t guys that I think about more than Brady just because he’s been the constant player throughout. But I will say that pretty much anyone who’s played on the defense for the last five years—I think [Darrelle] Revis was the last one who got a level of consideration nationally or beyond the Patriots fan base that matched up with his ability. And [multitalented running back] James White is one who still somehow seems to be unsung outside of New England, at least as compared to Brady, Gronk, and Edelman. [Safety] Devin McCourty—it’s really cool that [cornerback] Jason McCourty’s on the team this year [Ed. note: The McCourtys are identical twins; Devin has been on the Patriots for years and Jason just joined the team this season.] One of them has had all this incredible success in his career because he happened to end up with the Patriots, and the other one was perceived as a talented player who played for a bunch of mediocre to bad teams, and now finally at what is probably the tail end of his career he’s gonna get to go along for the ride at least once.
And [wide receiver] Matthew Slater is the other player who is just—he’s a special teams guy. He’s not really a wide receiver, and it’s a horrendous sign if he ever ends up playing offense. But he’s sort of like, not to be too trite, but the heart and soul of the team. He makes breathtaking plays on punt and kick coverage, and he leads the locker room breakdown after every win.
What is your pre-Belichick history with the Pats? Were you going to games back in the real gruesome era?
The first year that I was all in on the Patriots was the ’92 season. The quarterback was a guy named Hugh Millen, and the team went 2–14. Scott Zolak, the backup quarterback, who is now the color man for Pats radio broadcasts, started and won two games in the middle of that season, and I distinctly remember thinking, “This is the guy!!” That was the year that they got the first overall pick and used it to draft Drew Bledsoe. So I came in right at the tail end of the last really fallow period. I really came of age during the Bledsoe years, when they went to a Super Bowl and they were in the playoffs more often than not. So it obviously wasn’t like what it is to be a kid today rooting for the team, but I didn’t have the same sort of history with them that a lot of the older fans did.
Do you find yourself sympathetic to the dynasties in other sports, or are you sick of seeing the Warriors and Alabama win?
I’ve never thought of the Alabama fan base as being the college football equivalent of the Patriots fan base. I don’t like thinking about it. [Laughs] It puts into starker relief why people don’t especially like Patriots fans.
Is there anything else crucial about Patriots fandom that I’ve missed, as an outsider?
One of the really fun things about rooting for them especially the last decade has been the amount of awesome Patriots journalism and Patriots-related content that’s available for fans. I wanted to give a particular shoutout to a guy on Twitter whose handle is @patscap. I have no idea what his day job is, but he is a salary cap enthusiast and a huge Patriots fan, and he is an incredibly prolific tweeter about the team solely from a salary cap perspective. Their success has enabled me to learn more about things like the salary cap, which I probably wouldn’t care about if they were the Bengals. Similarly there are a bunch of people who write about football X’s and O’s but in a way that I think really wasn’t done in the pre-internet era, at least for a large audience. While I understand that the narrative aspects of the Pats’ run have broad appeal both to fans and to haters, it’s the esoteric nuts-and-bolts stuff, the how/why underpinning the team’s long-term success, that keeps me deeply engaged in their performance.
That said, I obviously still get wrapped up, happily, in a lot of the narrative stuff—the [Seth] Wickersham and [Don] Van Natta articles for ESPN, the interminable debate over whether Brady or Belichick deserves more credit for the team’s success, the Hall of Fame credentials of various players over the years, ranking the most satisfying wins and devastating losses, all that garbage. We are also lucky in that Boston has a lot of great beat reporters covering the team—off the top of my head I could name at least half a dozen who write really thoughtful articles multiple times a week. I do my best to avoid the sports radio chatter, which is toxic and drains the fun out of rooting for them, and out of life.
So how are you feeling about the game?
I feel fine about it. Last year when they lost to the Eagles I took it a lot better than I expected to. It had been a while since they’d lost a big game, and I was sort of fine with it in the end. It would be a little annoying to lose to the Rams just because they’re a new team and they don’t really have a fan base, etc. Also it would be one thing for Belichick to lose to an established coach who’s finally getting his ring, but it would cut a little bit deeper if he loses to the new kid on the block who’s the one that everyone thinks is gonna be the next Belichick.
But that said, I’m feeling fine about the game. I think it’ll be a good game. I think the teams match up pretty well. I think the most interesting matchup is gonna be Aaron Donald against the Patriots’ offensive line. So for people who are kind of into the nerdier side of football, I think it should be a lot of fun. And I do not make predictions until game day so I’m not gonna give you my final score.