Many still view them through lens of scorn
Once upon a time, the New England Patriots were beloved.
Running onto the Superdome field en masse prior to Super Bowl XXXVI thrilled the masses. “Look at that!’’ people said. “They’re a T-E-A-M, team, not a bunch of me-first guys!’’
And when they outfought and outthought the mighty St. Louis Rams, they came away from that game with the designation of being America’s Favorite Team.
It far transcended football. Coaches in every sport, at every level, held up the Patriots as the ultimate example of what it means to be a committed, selfless athletic aggregation.
That was then. Next Sunday evening, the Patriots will take the field at Lucas Oil Stadium against the New York Giants with the distinction of being the most reviled team in all of American sport. For most of America, the Patriots can’t lose by enough.
Patriots fans should face the facts. It is very definitely a matter of Us against Them, and there are a whole lot more Thems.
In a football sense, nothing has changed. The Patriots have won two more Super Bowls and come within 35 seconds of winning a third by sticking to the same T-E-A-M principles that earned them the first triumph 10 years ago.
Tom Brady has advanced from being a second-year curiosity to earning a spot in the inner sanctum of all-time great quarterbacks. The owner carries none of the baggage of celebrity CEOs such as the late Al Davis or Jerry Jones. Indeed, he has been hailed as the Great Conciliator who calmed the hotheads and brought people together to ensure that there would be a 2011 season. Bob Kraft’s individual stature has never been greater in the eyes of the league office, his peers, the players, and the fans.
Could Brady be a problem? Perhaps. We see a guy who is always humble and always in a team-first mode. We’ve become accustomed to the amazing way he compartmentalizes his life, somehow balancing being One Of The Guys with being the husband of the world’s foremost supermodel, who, during the offseason, is seen in Paris and Milan, hobnobbing with an entirely different class of people.
The Outside World may now regard him as a certified Pretty Boy, someone they love to see get hit. That may have a little bit to do with the way America loathes the Patriots.
But I think I’ve buried the lead long enough. The No. 1 reason America has come to loathe the otherwise exemplary Patriots is the coach, and, specifically, his involvement with the word so many people around here refuse to acknowledge: Spygate.
Around here, Spygate is dead, buried, stupid, irrelevant, and just plain annoying. But to the rest of America, Spygate defines Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots, not so much because whatever happened actually gained his team a competitive advantage but because he seemed to feel the need to do whatever it is he did in the first place. It was all so, well, Nixonian.
Need I remind everyone that there are innumerable places in America where the head coach of the Patriots is always referred to as “Bill Belicheat’’?
Now then, something definitely happened, or at least the commissioner certainly thinks it did. Roger Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 personally, the Patriots $250,000, and took away a first-round draft pick as punishment for illegally videotaping defensive signals of rival teams, and for doing so more than once. The punishment was unprecedented, and it was harsh.
America took note, even if many Patriots fans pooh-poohed the whole thing.
Already being the best coach in the league, he didn’t have to do it. Nixon wasn’t going to lose the 1972 election, either, but some people cannot restrain the urge to indulge in overkill. I guess.
Belichick’s explanation, essentially saying he wasn’t sure of the rules, was highly disingenuous. Nobody knows the rules better than Bill Belichick.
So while life has resumed its normal pace and feel locally, with people forgiving but mostly forgetting, the rest of America’s sporting fans have placed a giant bull’s-eye on the Patriots. America can’t agree on much these days, but one area of consensus is that the only thing better than the Patriots losing, 50-0, would be them losing, 51-0.
What’s amusing about this Super Bowl matchup is that in ordinary circumstances the common enemy of most Americans is New York City. It is far from a natural thing for the Flyover Folks to back a team with “NY’’ on its uniform. But that deep-seated hatred has been superseded by an even deeper loathing of the Patriots.
The fact is, the Patriots are a highly rootable team. They go about their business in a professional manner. They play hard. They don’t trash talk. They have noble veterans such as Brady and Vince Wilfork. They have one of the brightest young stars in the league in Rob Gronkowski, who happens to be an old-fashioned, lovable goofball.
We know for a fact that they are as coachable as that first championship team of a decade ago. I am certain that when Bill Belichick writes his memoirs - and his ego will need to be satisfied with one, don’t doubt that - he will identify this particular team as one of his two or three favorites to coach.
America, you should love this team. But you can’t get beyond Mr. Hoodie on the sidelines, can you? Come on, think about it. Do you really want to root for . . . New York?