Friday, February 10, 2012

On legacies and such ...

The Super Bowl is over, the Patriots lost, and now the debate begins over whether they, along with Tom Brady, truly belong in that Pantheon of great franchises and quarterbacks.

Who cares?

Why is this so important? Don't their accomplishments speak for themselves? Is there any need to thumb-suck over just exactly where they fall?

I don't get it. They've been to five Super Bowls in 10 years, and won three of them. In that 10-year span, they've only missed the playoffs twice, and won the AFC East the other eight times.

They had a spell between their last Super Bowl and this past January without a playoff victory (0-3, if you include XLII). Somehow, that was supposed to have tarnished their legacy.

This year, they won the two games they had to win to get to the Super Bowl, but lost to a team that -- I think, anyway -- was better than they were. In fact, I'd submit the Baltimore Ravens were probably better too.

And that brings us right back to where we were before that Denver victory. The loss somehow tarnishes their legacy.

Can we agree on one thing? That half the reason why the "experts" are so gleefully pillorying the Patriots has more to do with their perceived institutional arrogance (Bill Belichick's reputation as a cheater a big part of that) than anything else?

I think that's a fair statement. People tend to get bored when the same teams win again and again. I can remember hating the Dallas Cowboys when I was a kid for that exact reason. They won so often, and there was such an institutional quality about them, that winning was often a given. If there was any question about a call, for example, it would go their way.

Call it the Duke syndrome. There's no reason to despise Duke's basketball team. They have a coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who appears to play by the rules and win the right way. There are no recruiting scandals. You never see Coach K on the sidelines browbeating players, the way his mentor (Bobby Knight) did. When he loses, he conducts himself with class. His players, if they don't come out early, graduate.

Yet I never root for the Blue Devils unless they're playing North Carolina, and even then, it's with great reluctance. Why? Because every blasted time a call could go either way, it goes to Duke. Every time. Seriously. I can remember once listening to a coach harp on an umpire who had an unusually generous strike zone against a pitcher who really didn't need his largesse.

"He's good enough as it is," the coach barked. "He doesn't need YOUR help."

That's how I feel about Duke. Year in and year out, the Blue Devils are more than capable of sinking or swimming on their own. Do they need to get every close call too?

This happens more often than not with teams who have winning legacies. I've seen it happen so often. An upstart team (or better, a team that has no business even being in the game) finds itself in a position to win against the established order. Next thing you know, the underdog team is called for holding at a critical time, or one of its players brushes up against Shaquille O'Neal and is called for a foul. Or, in the case of baseball, Derek Jeter comes to the plate in a critical situation and gets every stinking borderline pitch until he gets a good fat one and drills it.

The Patriots have finally reached that point ... but believe me, they had their moments of being absolutely jobbed out of victories too in the days before Bill Parcells finally changed the culture of the franchise for good.

I guess you could call it a case of "to the victor goes the spoils." The more you win, and more it gets to be almost institutional, the more breaks you get. And the Patriots caught a ton of them this year. I can remember wanting to throw things at Don Shula when I watched him on TV. Shula's Dolphins, in the 1970s and 80s, were like the Patriots are now. It was never a question of whether the Dolphins would make the playoffs, it was "who do they play, and can Griese/Marino/whomever win playoff games by themselves?"

But they rode that wave of reputation for years before it all finally caught up to them. And Shula had his bouts of arrogance too. The biggest thing with him was that all while the Dolphins were winning, he was on the NFL Rules Committee, and always managed to influence the rules changes to benefit whatever situation he was in. If you wonder why it is that offensive linemen can practically pull defenders' arms off in efforts to protect the quarterback, look no further than Shula, because you know that rules regarding holding have been relaxed (which also begs the question as to what criteria referees DO use when the actually make the call).

Similarly when Indy's Bill Polian was on the rules committee, Peyton Manning's receivers were mugged by the Patriots in the 2004 AFC championship game. Manning was picked off four times, and the Patriots beat the Colts to make the Super Bowl.

The next year? New rules ... favoring receivers. Hey, you have to use your influence any way you can.

The Patriots have their share of arrogance within their organization. Some would say more than their share. You can start with Bill Belichick himself. Now, it isn't possible for anyone to be as intrinsically evil as The Hoodie tries to make himself out to be. It's almost as if he asks himself, "how can I look like more of a jerk here? Am I doing all that's humanly possible to be as big a churl as I can be?"

If you look at the whole man, he's probably not so bad. But his football face, and his football persona, are deplorable. They violate everything your mother ever taught you about being polite and pleasant. The Football Hoodie wouldn't tell you if you were on fire. He'd tell you to wait until Wednesday when the first injury report comes out.

He's a big reason why, today, everyone's pig-piling on the Patriots about their legacy. Which is fine with me. And it wouldn't matter if he were Rex Ryan, who is his polar opposite in every way possible. Rex is getting his share for being the braggart who can't back it up. And that's after making the AFC championship game two straight years!

Tom Brady tries to project himself as something a little different. He doesn't try to be a churl. But, methinks there's more than a little Eddie Haskell in him. He's as cooperative and cordial as he has to be in the required settings, but something tells me he's not like that all the time. He doesn't always come across as being all that genuine in candid moments, like when he points to the referee and starts to beg for calls ... or when you see him getting into dustups on the sidelines, trying to blame receivers when plays don't work.

Manning used to do that too, in his early days, and he took a lot of heat for it as well.

I know it's a competitive game. Tempers get the best of you. And it may be unfair, but when the spotlight falls on you, it reflects that moment and no other. If you've picked that particular time to go off on your receiver who has just missed a ball that was a hair beyond his fingertips, or who couldn't come up with a pass that you threw behind him, you don't look very good. And Brady's done that a couple of times.

Once again, I have to draw an analogy. Call it the Jim Rice syndrome. Rice, who is now in the Hall of Fame, was one of the more menacing Red Sox clubhouse figures to deal with. He once ripped the shirt off a reporter. He gave arrogance a new meaning, his incredibly condescending and uncooperative nature rubbed off on the rest of the team, and he was universally despised for just about his entire career. And I honestly think that had a lot to do with the fact it took him until almost his last year of eligibility to make the Hall of Fame. He was borderline at best, and his churlishness didn't help his cause.

However, he was one of baseball's most feared power hitters, too -- at least for about eight or nine years. But he also led the league, in just about every one of those years, in hitting into double plays. This is where the Rice Syndrome comes into play. I submit that had he been a Cal Ripken Jr. type of guy (look it up; Ripken hit into his share of double plays too), nobody would have cared. They'd have all realized that in order to hit into that many DPs, you often have to hit the ball on the screws ... right at an infielder.

You never heard people complain about Ripken's double plays. But that's all you heard about with Rice. Never mind the homers are RBI. People focused on the double plays. And ... Rice, if you listened to his critics, was the absolute kind of knocking in meaningless runs.

This was the media's way of paying him back for the bad Karma he spread around.

This is now what I think is going on with the Patriots. By any measurable standard you choose to use, five Super Bowls in 10 years is pretty damn good. The only franchise that compares with the Patriots since the New England began its run is the Pittsburgh Steelers (three). Since 2000, the Giants have also been in three Super Bowls, winning twice.

The Colts, for all their glittering statistics, have been in only two, winning one.

Since the year 2000, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls, as have the Giants ... both one less than the Patriots.

In a league whose system and salary cap almost invites mercurial season-to-season performances, the Patriots have been remarkably consistent, winning eight divisional championships in 10 years. In that span, they have had double-digit regular-season winning records every years except for 2002, when they won nine games. Three times over that span they've been 14-2, once 13-3, once 12-4, twice 11-5 and twice 10-6.

This year, with a defense that all but the most rabid pom-pom wavers could easily see was not of championship caliber, they found ways to win, and make it all the way to the Super Bowl. Sometimes it was luck. No question. Sometimes, like in that first Denver game, teams handed it to them. Sometimes, they just came out and beat the other team silly with their offense. And sometimes (like the Washington and Miami games) they had to hang on by the skin of their teeth.

And we all know what happened in the AFC championship game when Billy Cundiff missed the field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.

But they won. There are 32 teams that begin this quest each September, and only two standing the first weekend of the February. One of them was the Patriots, despite all their shortcomings.

So if you want to vent your frustrations over the team's institutional arrogance, be my guest. There's enough to complain about. Watching a Belichick news conference after the Patriots lose is like grilling someone about an embarrassing family secret. Listening to him in the middle of the week berating reporters for asking questions he doesn't deem worthy of answering, your jaw drops at how someone who's that accomplished could also be so rude. It just doesn't compute.

You hear things about how generous he is with his friends, and how gregarious he can be in relaxed settings, and that's nice. But his job also includes dealing with the media too, and however much he doesn't like them, it still goes with the package. We don't necessarily like him all that much, either. I know, personally, that as much as I might be inclined to call Rex Ryan a blowhard (and I am!!), I'd also prefer dealing with a blowhard who gave you something you could use than a guy who, when he has a chance to connect with fans after a tough loss, says "we just got off the field. I don't know."

So yes. Hate him as much as you want. But as far as their legacy goes, the Patriots don't have to justify themselves to anybody. In every conceivable, measurable category of the 21st century, they come out ahead. That may change in the near future as other teams rise up to assume their dominance. But for now, even with this loss, the Patriots are still the current NFL standard. And any suggestion to the contrary is just ludicrous.

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