By Jason Keidel
» More Columns
Are the Patriots good for football?
But is it despite of or because of their crimes?
Since we’ve watched sports we’ve made myriad attachments to our favorite teams. As kids we made the myopic assumption that wearing the Yankees cap or donning the Notre Dame helmet not only symbolized your athletic splendor, but also imbued you with biblical virtue.
As adults, most of us shrug off the campy notions of white and black hats, that good players are good guys. It would be nice if his stat sheet trumped his rap sheet. But between steroids and the TMZ-style documentation of athletes gone bad, it’s impossible to assert with any certainty that one team has better, more law-abiding dudes than the next.
Having said that, there is some fun in moral relativism. And the New England Patriots are Exhibit A.
Let’s be honest. “Deflate-gate” has given us gratuitous joy. And it’s only because it was spawned by the Patriots. Had Matt Stafford been busted with a few soft balls, it barely would have survived the cutting-room floor.
But it happened to the most regal group in football. It happened to the ornery patriarch of the Patriots — always wrapped in his hobo-chic hoodie, who hasn’t smiled since 1976 — and Tom Brady, his movie-star quarterback who always smiles and has every reason to. Brady dumped a gorgeous actress for a gorgeous supermodel. He can walk into a Boston bar or brothel, pick any woman he wants and not pay a dime for her company.
So sure, were gonna hate on him or his boss, or both. Add to that the very real history of malfeasance, the Patriots’ repeated flouting of the rules, and you’ve got soap-operatic drama around every corner.
And history has shown us that we love and loathe dynasties. While the Patriots haven’t won a world title in a decade — or since “Spygate,” if you prefer — they are the closest thing we have to an empire in the salary-capped, free-agent anarchy the NFL has created since the last real dynasty (the Cowboys in the ’90s).
And we loved to loathe the Cowboys, the self-styled “America’s Team,” despite the fact that my beloved black & gold have more rings. They even go so far as to declare that the old stadium had a hole up top so that the deity could watch his favorite club. Going back to “Hollywood” Henderson, the Cowboys have been as vocal as victorious. And the Jimmy Johnson juggernaut was hardly muted. Michael Irvin was the perfect mouthpiece to make the Dallas Cowboys “The U” of the NFL.
The Patriots are far more corporate in countenance. They are a bit like the old Yankees: iconic yet laconic, doing almost all their boasting on the field. But Joe Torre, the avuncular leader of the last baseball dynasty, was exponentially more likable and accessible than the grumpy Bill Belichick. Neither team gave the opponent much bulletin-board fodder. And Derek Jeter, like Brady, had the complete catalogue of heroic contours — rich, famous, facile, handsome and wholly humble in public.
And the Yankees, like the Patriots, were not pristine. What with so few clean veins in the game, you could toss a dart at the Yankees’ lineup and hit someone on steroids, or at least someone under supreme suspicion.
But what the Cowboys, Pats and Yanks have in common is winning. Lots of it. And with rampant success comes a nation that can’t wait to watch it crumble.
And then we have the paradox of watching them wilt and then wishing they’d be great again. How many times have you heard even the most rabid Raiders detractors long for the silver & black to bounce back? We abhorred Oakland, where Al Davis gleefully hosted the cradle of criminals, cheap-shot artists and pirates swathed in Stickum. Now we miss them, and him.
If we’re candid, we concede that despising a team is almost as fun as worshiping one. For this Bronx Bombers devotee, the joy of the Red Sox rivalry is the rampant hatred of all things Boston, from the team to the beards to the nauseating Neil Diamond renditions to the accents to Ben Affleck. Add to that the sad fact that the Sox are simply better than we are and it makes for beautiful, brooding theater.
So, yes, we may hate the Patriots and shake our heads at the nauseating naïveté and ignorance their fans have shown during Deflate-gate, trying to trivialize it as a random act of nature when it’s obvious that someone doctored their footballs. (Why else were 11 of their dirty dozen deflated while not one Colts ball was altered?) But it’s just so darn delicious, too.
Now this adds more layers than “The Matrix” to this Super Bowl. The black hat nestles nicely over Belichick’s headset. And we’ve got the spritely Pete Carroll bearing the white hat. Carroll — who’s over 60 but looks and acts like a postgrad scout — and his infectiously cheerful quarterback, Russell Wilson, who seems to have been born with an eternal reserve of college spirit, are 60 minutes from being America’s darling and defending Super Bowl champions for a second straight season.
Richard Sherman, the supremely intelligent and loquacious cornerback who sometimes says too much, and RB Marshawn Lynch — who always says too little — give the Seahawks a perfect contrast of character, a divine blend of guile and style. Lynch has provided ample reason to root against Seattle. With his “Beast Mode” cap and regurgitated mantra in response to every question, Lynch is as impossible to like as Sherman is to dislike. If anyone will provide blackboard gristle, it will come from some nook inside the “Legion of Boom,” which has backed up its bravado with bone-crunching hits and a transcendent performance at last year’s Super Bowl, when they muzzled Peyton Manning and his historically pyrotechnic offense.
Sprinkle in some scandal and some old-school gamesmanship from the Patriots — who clearly tampered with their bag of balls — and you needn’t be from Foxborough or Seattle to have a rooting interest in the big game.
One day Brady will lose his fastball, his white smile and his perch as the preeminent matinee idol of football. Many of you will cheer the fall of the Patriots, much the way you danced on the graves of the Cowboys, Raiders and Yankees.
But to a man, woman and child, you will miss them. We need New England, or someone like them, even if we don’t like them. Football has always been equal parts glory, gory and story, spawned by the baritone of John Facenda and the philharmonic mythology of NFL Films.
How fitting that this is the first pick ’em Super Bowl in history. We can’t decide whom we pick to win, or want to win. But the sport wins when its best, most hated teams play. While we dive into QB ratings, the NFL is enjoying its highest Q ratings. Everyone wins, even if we want both teams to lose.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.