Measure of success isn’t victory
When you folks settle down in front of the TV for today’s 4:15 p.m. kickoff at Heinz Field, it will be with the expectation that the winning team will be the New England Patriots.
And why not? Winning has been the norm since Bill Belichck and Tom Brady have been in partnership.
Try explaining to your resident teenager that there was a five-season period (1989-93) in what you and I would consider the not-too-distant past when the Patriots went 19-61, including seasons of 1-15 (1990) and 2-14 (1992). It would be the equivalent of explaining to your offspring how not all that long ago if someone wished to communicate with you right here and now from outside your home, the only way, short of knocking on your door, was for you to be physically present when the phone rang. No answering service. No answering machine. No cell phone. No BlackBerry. No iPhone. No nuthin.’
Of course, you could always send a telegram. Now go explain that one.
The Patriots win; it’s what they do. Did you realize they actually hold the record for most wins for any 10-year period in the history of the NFL with 121 from 2001-10? Second place goes to the 49ers of 1984-93 with 120.
They had more wins than the Walsh-Seifert-Montana-Young-Rice-Lott 49ers, so proclaimed in song and story?
All this winning means the Kraft family has made a nice investment for itself. Forbes Magazine currently ranks the Patriots as the third-most valuable franchise, pegging their worth at $1.37 billion, trailing only the Cowboys ($1.8 billion) and Redskins ($1.5 billion).
Four people are more directly responsible for this state of affairs than anyone else. They are Bill Parcells, Drew Bledsoe, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady. Let us hope Bob Kraft has provisions for them in his will. He can also thank the late James Busch Orthwein, his immediate predecessor, for hiring Parcells. Perhaps a donation to a charity recommended by Mr. Orthwein’s estate would be in order.
So where were we? Oh, right, it’s about how the Patriots have accustomed the fans to happy outcomes - in the first four months of the season.
It may be haughty. It may be arrogant. It may be greedy. It may be all those things and many more, but the undeniable fact is that the more the Patriots win in September, October, November, and December, and the more they don’t win in January (and, by extension, February), the more restless the fan base will become. Is there any doubt the Patriots have reached the what-have-you-done-for-me lately stage with regard to playoff advancement?
I’m one who has always valued regular-season success in any sport. There is something noble about competing over the long haul, trying to win games, just because, without worrying about the Big Picture.
I had the privilege, for example, of covering the 1972-73 Celtics, a team that was undersized even for the times, but which, inspired by MVP Dave Cowens, hustled and scrapped and ran its way to 68 wins. They lost a seven-game series to the Knicks, a romantically wonderful team themselves, and so there is no 1973 championship banner flying from the TD Garden rafters. But I would gladly relive every second of that season, far more than I would either the 1973-74 or 1975-76 campaigns, each of which ended with a championship.
But I recognize that most people do not think that way. As we move deeper into sports history, playoff success automatically trumps anything that took place in any regular season.
Thus the relevance of the fact that the last Patriots playoff win came on Jan. 20, 2008, when they defeated the San Diego Chargers by a 21-12 score to advance into Super Bowl XLII.
The Patriots are 5-1. They are in first place in the AFC East. It is assumed they are going to win 12, 13, or maybe even 14 regular-season games, as they did last year. But today’s game is the latest in what is a long run of games in which the fact of winning will not strike fans as much as how they win.
What I’m suggesting is that if the Patriots win today but Ben Roethlisberger throws for 400-plus yards and the final score is a wild-and-woolly 39-35 or so, the emphasis will be on the 400 yards and the 35 points, even more than it will be on the 39 points and the latest W.
The issue each week isn’t whether the Patriots are any good. The issue is whether they’re playoff-good. It is difficult to get beyond the fact that in the last three playoff games, all losses, the defense has not been able to make big stops and the offense has been held in check.
The inescapable fact is that the Patriots have not been playoff-good, just regular-season-good.
W’s are no longer taken at face value. The Jets clearly had a ridiculous offensive game plan. Dallas mentor Jason Garrett played a fraidy-cat, trying-not-to-lose game and was properly chastised by his own media and fans. The defense was incrementally better, but discerning Patriots fans were not fooled by either win.
Granted, the AFC isn’t very scary. Baltimore was exposed by that wretched loss to Jacksonville last Monday night. The Steelers blow hot and cold. The Chargers? Get serious. The Jets are still trying to get an act together. The Patriots really have been the best AFC team thus far.
Perhaps they’ll get through the AFC and find themselves in Super Bowl XLVI. Will they be up for the challenge of the Packers or Saints? (What? You think there’s anybody else?)
Starting today, the Patriots have 10 regular-season games in which to work themselves into being playoff-good. Fans might find themselves happier after some of their losses than they will after some of their wins.