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Monday, February 07, 2005

Patriot Games (Part II)

For three quarters and change, the Philadelphia Eagles proved that they were perfectly capable of winning the Super Bowl. They may yet have a Super Bowl win in them. But not this year.

For us in New England, it's another year, another title. What was a long drought has given way to abundance of nourishing rain. This is without a doubt the first dynasty of the new century; neither those who hate these Patriots nor those who would refuse them that label in hopes that would stay hungry for still more glory can deny it. All that is left to do during the long offseason is speculate how they match up against the other great multiple title winners in NFL history. Though other teams may have indeed been more dominant in their day, but this bunch, considering that we are in the age of the salary cap, might reflect the most impressive achievement in team construction the league has ever seen.

And with each season it's getting harder to relate to outsiders just how weird all of this is.

Growing up in Massachusetts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I can recall that the Patriots didn't hold the lockstep loyalty of the populace the way the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins did. They were an afterthought, clearly the low man on the totem pole. During the Parcells years, they passed the Bruins, who had by then fallen on hard times, and then passed the Celtics, whose legendary 1980s run was but a distant memory. Somewhere during the run-up to their first ever Super Bowl victory, they eclipsed the Celtics in the hearts and minds of Bostonians. (It didn't help that both teams left revered, if flawed, Boston Garden for the dull, if comfortable, confines of the Fleet Center.) They can't match the mixture of tragedy and mystique the Red Sox offered even before they rewarded their fans with a World Series, but what team anywhere could?

Some of this relative (we are talking about sports-crazy Boston here) indifference was due to the inherent "national" scope of the NFL and its television deal; in those days before the World Wide Web and dozens of sports-oriented cable channels it was far easier to follow a non-local NFL franchise than it was for any other sport of the time. And almost every game was on Sunday afternoon, so even if your favorite team wasn't being shown, there would be highlights at halftime. In the other sports, there would be a lot more hunting in the local newspaper on random days to see how your team did.

It didn't help that they played not in Boston but in the relative backwater of Foxoborough, and a long, slow traffic jam on Route One awaited every visitor to the Patriots' home stadium. And when they got there, travellers were greeted with one of the ugliest and most uncomfortable venues the NFL has ever seen. Most spectators had to make do with aluminum benches that were often caked with ice and/or snow for late season games. It was home to exactly one historically memorable game, which also happened to be very last game played there.

The Patriots at the time were a young team, especially compared with the other three franchises, with far less historical support. There were many in the area old enough to remember a time in NFL history when New England lacked their own team, and many of them adopted the nearest team, the New York Giants, and some didn't let go of Big Blue just because Boston got an AFL (later AFC) franchise. Some of these Giants holdouts, particularly in Connecticut, passed on those leanings to their offspring.

And, of course, the Patriots were medicore at best during most of their history, right up until just before this improbable run at atop the NFL. Their best regarded player until a few years ago was John Hannah - an offensive lineman. Now he was a damn good offensive lineman, but the fact that no quarterback, running back, wide receiver, or even tight end, linebacker or defensive back was more revered in team history tells you everything you need to know about the decided lack of star power - and of success - that the franchise historically could lay claim to. If, back then, you were to start naming all-time great Boston sports figures, you'd have mentioned at least a score and change each of Celtics and Red Sox, plus a dozen or so Bruins - not to mention some boxers and long-distance runners - before you'd even consider naming a single Patriot.
Some could've-been great players passed through but had more success elsewhere - Jim Plunkett, with the hated Raiders; Irving Fryar, first with the hated Dolphins and later with the Eagles; local hero Doug Flutie became a star in Canada and later was a much better player for Buffalo than he had ever been in a Patriots uniform. Prior to the no-brainer selection of Drew Bledsoe, there wasn't a high draft pick they couldn't botch.

Prior to the Bill Parcells Era, the coaches were of even less note than the players. Most of them never coached anywhere else, not even Raymond Berry, who shephered the Pats through one of their few periods of relative prosperity. Ron Erhardt. Ron Meyer. Rod Rust. Dick McPherson. Ugh.

Though they couldn't quite match the New Orleans Saints or the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals, among others, for sheer incompetence, the Pats made up for it in embarassing themselves on and off the field. They had quite the penchant for leading the league in Unintentional Comedy. In the late 1970's, Chuck Fairbanks, after his final game as head coach, was escorted out of the stadium by security after his final game. Right after the debacle that was Super Bowl XX (a 46-10 loss to the Bears), it was discovered that some Patriot players had been using cocaine just before the big game. During the particularly ugly 1991 season, a female reporter named Lisa Olsen became more famous than any playing for the team at the time by her allegations that Patriots players sexually harassed her in the locker room. The money quote, "Step up to the mic," came from Zeke Mowatt. As if that wasn't embarassing enough, team owner Victor Kiam made the following tasteless joke.
Q: What do Saddam Hussein and Lisa Olsen have in common?
A: They both got to see Patriot Missles up close.


Given all this, it's not surprising that a lot of local kids decided to place their allegiances elsewhere. There were the Steelers, they of the Steel Curtain and 4 Super Bowl wins during the 1970s; Dan Marino's high-scoring Dolphins, who ensnared, among others, my younger sibling; the Silver and Black Raiders, the team seemingly everyone else loved to hate; the Cowboys, who billed themselves as America's Team; John Elway's Broncos; the Redskins, known for John Riggins, the Hogs, and Coach Gibbs; the 49ers and their high-flying West Coast offense; and the New York Giants, who never lost the loyalty of many in the Bay State. Every one of those teams had a sizable cheering section where I grew up, in the very heart of New England.

Eventually, those of us that stuck with the local team, through the days they were nearly exported to St. Louis, through the years when they were the laughing stock of the NFL, through the alternation between near-misses and spectacular flops, were rewarded. Everyone who stayed in the area eventually claimed the Pats as their own, but some of us remember the bandwagons many fair-weather fans were on when we parked our cold asses on those aluminum benches. In that sense it was nothing like the region-wide love-fest that took place following the Red Sox October 2004 Miracle.

Those of you (whether you love or hate the Patriots) with short memories would be advised to check out this old Bill Simmons column, from just before their first Super Bowl win, which gives the reader a decent summary of the history of this team, and just why what has transpired in the last four years is so improbable, so mind-blowing. (Although he says not a word about the Lisa Olsen mess, a conspicuous absence given the otherwise expansive nature of the account of the Patriots' many shortcomings over the years.) Anyone outside the Boston Sports fan circle (or even inside it) who has grown tired of Simmons' relentless Patriots woofing would barely recognize the tone.

We will try to insist that this team, unusual among teams deemed to be NFL dynasties, is relatively light on instantly recognizable names, Pro-Bowl caliber superstars, and flashiness. The post-scoring revelries on the field during the most recent Super Bowl they performed showed the limitations of the media's portrayal of the Patriots as "quiet," workmanlike," and "selfless," but we'd like to think they don't generate the same animosity that, say, the early 1990s Cowboys did. But maybe they do, as evidenced by numerous complaints about the play of the New England defense in general and the secondary in particular. As hard as I tried to not sound like a Yankee, Laker, or Cowboy fan with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement during my series of exchanges with Eagle fan Rick, I just know that some arrogance slipped through. What can I say? This team inspires the kind of confidence I never thought I would ever see again in Boston after the close of the Bird Era.

For Boston Sports Nation, this is a strange position to be in. Three Super Bowls in four years to go with the breaking of the legendary Curse of the Bambino. After years of playing the long suffering gluttons for punishment, we find ourselves having to redefine our identity. But I will gladly take this new confusion without so much as a second thought.

Nothing is forever in the NFL,especially in a time of salary caps and widespread free agency, and the time will come, possibly sooner than most would guess, that the New England Patriots will find themselves in the lower reaches in the standings once again. We'll have these times, the best of times, to look back upon.

This is where Patriots Nation comes from. If this kind of reversal of fortune can happen to this franchise, it can happen to the one that makes you cry too.


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