The best-ever-to-do-it tandem of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady has delivered five Lombardi Trophies to New England. Try to ignore the lingering four-day-old knot in your stomach telling you the Lombardi count ought to be six, and instead, remember this:
En route to building the longest sustained dynasty in NFL history, Belichick, and Brady, also rescued the franchise from its tragicomic history of hard luck, spectacular incompetence, and self-inflicted undermining of whatever temporary successes came their way.
The old days in Foxborough were often entertaining, but they weren’t all that good. Sporadic huge victories were inevitably followed by an embarrassing or enraging setback.
The 1985 Patriots won three straight road playoff games to reach the Super Bowl, scored the first 3 points on the Bears, then allowed 46 straight. Two days after the game, the Globe broke the story that several prominent players on the roster had been using drugs during the season.
The 1996 Patriots reached the Super Bowl to face Brett Favre and the favored Packers, giving them a game before Desmond Howard broke it open with a kick return for a touchdown. All the while during Super Bowl week, coach Bill Parcells was plotting his eventual escape to the rival Jets.
The Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb. 3, 2002. The next 16 years became the good old days in real time, and they succeeded at a rate beyond what anyone raised on the franchise’s chaos could have dared to dream.
But these days and hours since the loss to the Eagles have felt like a flashback to the pre-dynasty seasons, when the aftermath was more compelling than the agonizing losses. It’s like the entire Patriots organization watched the NFL Films’ “30 for 30’’ on Belichick and Parcells and said, “Hey, maybe being dysfunctional isn’t so bad after all. It worked for them.’’
The Super Bowl ended three days ago, as I write this, and multiple strange plot twists have emerged: Josh McDaniels jilting the Indianapolis Colts — who had announced early Tuesday that he would be their next head coach — to remain as the Patriots offensive coordinator, Brady praising Malcolm Butler on the enigmatic cornerback’s post shooting down rumors surrounding his Super Bowl benching, and Rob Gronkowski reportedly considering retirement to go to Hollywood and become Dolph Gronkgren, Action Hero.
The Gronkowski thing is mostly amusing, at least right up until the greatest tight end I’ve ever witnessed actually does quit to go Hollywood on us. I suspect he likes football too much — even with the brutal injuries and occasional disappointments — to quit now.
And I have no inclination to join the pearl-clutchers to condemn McDaniels, who never signed a contract with Indy, for changing his mind. Everyone reserves that right, to paraphrase Parcells. Multiple reports suggest the Krafts put the hard sell on McDaniels to stay, with financial incentive included.
Perhaps his family was comfortable here and he had second thoughts. Perhaps he knows where he stands as an heir to the Belichick throne. Perhaps after the loss to the Eagles he could not leave Brady with unfinished business. But those saying his decision, which unfairly left a couple of assistant coaches in the lurch who had signed on to join him, will prevent him from getting future coaching gigs are projecting a scarlet letter onto him that shouldn’t exist.
McDaniels is a terrific coach; that creative, flexible offensive scheme is impressive beyond Brady’s execution. He has ex-Patriot allies around the league, and he’ll get other opportunities if he’s not the heir here. My only disappointment with how he handled this is that he didn’t go to the introductory press conference just to resign as HC of the IC. Nothing would prove Belichick’s mentorship better than that.
What still bewilders me about the last several days in Patriot land is the Butler situation. Nothing makes sense in terms of how the Patriots handled his game-day banishment to irrelevance. Not. A. Thing.
Why would Belichick not tell the team he was sitting until right before the game, then dress him and allow him to play on the punt team, but never put the team’s defensive leader in at cornerback after it became clear that the Eagles were going to exploit any mismatch that presented itself among his replacements?
I thought Belichick looked at offense, defense, and special teams as three nearly equal phases. Yet Butler is allowed to play one, but not another? What kind of self-defeating quasi-punishment is that?
And even if there’s a kernel of truth to Matt Patricia’s postgame comment about how it was about matchups . . . I mean, c’mon, that kernel popped in the first half when Nick Foles did whatever he wanted. I’ll take Butler in his worst mental state over Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards at their very best. Even when he gives up a play, he almost always makes the tackle.
Maybe Butler’s transgression was worse than we know, but I doubt it, and it stinks that this stains the memory of one of the best stories in Patriots history. This wasn’t about matchups. This was about proving a point. It backfired, and no one can even figure out what the point was supposed to be in the first place.
At least there have been small moments of amusement in the post-Super Bowl hangover. Belichick and Kraft were spotting dining at a local restaurant Tuesday, which tells you one thing: They wanted to be spotted dining at a local restaurant, probably to cool any talk of “tension’’ after the loss.
Just confirmed that Robert Kraft had dinner with Bill Belichick tonight here at Davio's at Patriot Place. They left about 45 mins ago pic.twitter.com/mjRoBgOyuF
— Jim Smith (@JimSmith_WBZ) February 7, 2018
I can’t remember Belichick being seen dining in public with another football figure since he went out in the North End with football-toting Tim Tebow before the 2010 NFL Draft. Tebow was of course picked by McDaniels and the Broncos in the first round. Maybe Belichick was delivering a lesson there, too.
The other amusement? That Colts general manager Chris Ballard, in a press conference explaining his end of the McDaniels abandonment, punctuated the scene by saying, “The rivalry is back on,’’ before leaving the podium.
Someone should tell him that the Patriots have beaten the Colts by an average of 26.6 points over their last five meetings. The Colts are a rival to the Patriots the way a speed bump is a rival to a Hummer.
The chuckle was appreciated in New England, though. It was a welcome reminder that there are franchises like the Colts that have never escaped their penchant for weird drama. The Patriots’ rivals, even in rough and odd weeks such as this one, are teams they play for championships, not teams they play for chumps.