Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Why I Don't Hate the Patriots

Super Bowl LI Champions

New England Patriots

When sports is at it's best, it takes you away from the problems and stress of the so-called "real world" for at least a few hours, and allows you to get together with friends and/or family, and to be absorbed with all of the drama of a sports contest for a few hours.

So it was that a little more than two weeks into the new Trump presidency, the Super Bowl provided a much welcome bit of relief and distraction from the headlines that have been dominating the news just lately. 

Say what you will about Super Bowl LI, it did at least that much. All day today, I heard people talking about it, in both jobs that I work at. And usually, after a unique sporting event like this, I allow myself the indulgence of listening to sports radio, to hear what people are talking about. And again, clearly, this one game had the power to allow people to be entirely absorbed with the drama and the decision making and the execution (or lack thereof) taking place on the field in Houston in the big game on Sunday. There were tons of angry reactions, mostly from Patriots haters, and there were a few delighted reactions.

I am a fan of the New York Giants, one of the many teams who were nowhere to be found in the big game this year, but also of the NFL as well. That allowed me to really get into this particular game, because when it comes to the Super Bowl, I am a bit of a history buff. That allowed me to view what happened yesterday in a slightly different light than many other people, most of whom seemed blinded by their hatred of the New England Patriots, and particularly of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. 

Now, don't get me wrong: there is nothing there to suggest that I am somehow above "hating" teams. Back in the 1981 season, that first season that I followed the NFL, the team of choice for me to hate wound up being the San Francisco 49ers. Why? Because they beat the Giants - twice. Beat them in the regular season, and then knocked them out in the playoffs. And as it turns out, the 49ers were the wrong team to choose to hate right around then. Despite pulling for the Dallas Cowboys and then the Cincinnati Bengals to beat the 49ers, both of those teams also went down to defeat, as San Francisco won their first of what wound up being four Super Bowl titles in the eighties, and they were crowned the "Team of the Decade" at the end. Their success went well into the 1990's as well, and they even took a fifth Super Bowl title following the 1994 season.

The same thing happened in basketball. The team that I really never liked were the Los Angeles Lakers. Hated their ugly uniforms, hated that sunny California image and success, and hated the way they always seemed to get the best players, usually for nothing. Anyone even remotely familiar with basketball will at once recognize that, just like the 49ers in the 1980's and 1990's, the Lakers are also probably the wrong team to hate. They won five titles in the 1980's, and another five titles in the 2000's. Plus, they made the NBA Finals numerous others times, and had other successful seasons.

Now, against my better judgement, I started to tire of the Yankees success in baseball, back around the late 1990's, when they were winning, winning, winning. It started to feel necessary to see another team - any other team - win. And despite the fact that the Yanks have lost some of their luster since then, they again have been far and away the most successful team in baseball during my lifetime, and I still basically pull for ABY (Anyone But the Yankees) when it comes to baseball, even though I am not exactly a fan of baseball. 

Add to that my dislike of Mike Tyson at the time when he was at his peak, as well as my dislike of Pete Sampras when he was at his peak, as well as some other examples that are not immediately coming to mind, and you will get the idea. 

So believe me, I am very familiar with the frustration of going against the team that you know is the best in the league at the moment. That is probably why I tried not to hate anyone else in sports, if I could help it. That allowed me to remain detached from other dynasties, including the Chicago Bulls and the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990's. It was true of the San Antonio Spurs in the 21st century.

And it is also true of the New England Patriots, who certainly at least appear to be the most successful franchise so far in professional North American sports so far in the 21st century.

The first title back in 2001 was almost a shock, because it had not been all that long before that the New England Patriots had been a largely forgettable team. True, they had made the Super Bowl twice, but these were unique and separate from one another. The 1985 Patriots were the first Wildcard team to win three games on the road to reach the Super Bowl, but they got absolutely crushed by that famous Chicago Bears team, known best for the "Super Bowl Shuffle". They had not made the playoffs for years before, and even though they did qualify the following season, they did not win a postseason game. And in 1996, they also made the Super Bowl, not long after Bill Parcells arrived and seemed to reorganize everything. However, they were not considered one of the powerhouse teams that year, and their appearance was a surprise to many, much like it had been 11 years earlier. And again, they lost, this time to the Green Bay Packers.

Indeed, I still believe that it was Bill Parcells, and not Brady or Belichick, who really turned the Patriots from what they were in the very early 1990's - namely, a cruel joke for their fans - to not only respectability, but to being serious contenders. Two years after finishing the 1992 season at 2-14 and "earning" the first pick in the draft, the Patriots qualified for the playoffs in the second season under the tutelage of Parcells. Two years after that, they were in the Super Bowl. In fact, since that Super Bowl appearance, the Pats have only suffered through one losing season, back in 2000, and they would bounce back with the first of many championships in the following season, when 2001 proved to be the ultimate turning point, when New England started the process of being simply just another decent team, to the elite team of the league, and indeed of professional sports in North America.

All of that success began with the turnaround from being a perennial doormat, to being respectable. And the first move that Parcells made, other than giving the Patriots the new logo that they have been known for ever since, was the drafting and signing of that year's top quarterback prospect, Drew Bledsoe. 

Frankly, remembering when the Patriots were pathetic makes it hard for me to hate them. Back in the 1980's, I had heard that the 49ers had been a bad team just a couple of years before they won Super Bowl XVI. But it did not seem real to me, because all that I remembered from them was success, success, success. When they finally suffered through a losing season (and the strike shortened season of 1982 does not count), it would be 1999, and the 49ers would have already enjoyed one of the longest and most impressive periods of success of any team in North American sports. In the meantime, I remembered all too well how the New England Patriots won a total of nine games during a span of three season, and won a total of 19 games during a five season span. That's half a decade where they won only two more games total than they did in this past season alone, if you include the playoffs and the Super Bowl!

How bad were they? Well, in 1990, after winning in Week 2 to lift their record to 1-1, they bottomed out completely, failing to win another game the entire rest of the season. They had a controversy, too, involving a woman who apparently was harassed by former Giants tight end Zeke Mowatt. New England had the worst rated offense and the second worst defense that year. You do not have to be familiar with the sport, or with statistics in general, to know that that particular combination will not bode well for your team. The Patriots scored 181 points, and allowed 446, and those fourteen straight losses constituted the longest losing streak of any team in a single season since the old, winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers back when they were an expansion team. They lost some games really badly. Cincinnati beat them, 41-7. Kansas City beat up on them, 37-7. Even the Jets humiliated them, 42-7. And the Jets were pretty bad in their own right that season! They allowed 33 points or more seven times, one shy of half of the games that they played that year! The 1990 New England Patriots are still remembered as one of the worst teams in modern NFL history.

The 1992 Patriots were hardly any better, starting off 0-9 before pulling off two straight wins, and then losing their last five to finish the season 2-14, and receiving the first pick in the draft for the second time in three seasons. Their offense was very close to being the worst in the league. They scored 37 points in one victory against the Colts, and they managed to reach 20 points or more three times. Otherwise, they only managed 17 points twice, and were held to 10 points or less seven times, which included three times when they were shut out. Their defense was one of the worst units in the league, too. Some of the scores that they lost by were 41-7 to the Bills and 34-0 to Atlanta - and the Falcons were not even that good that season!

Those two seasons, which came in a span of three years, were only the very worst seasons that New England suffered through. Those were the seasons when they absolutely bottomed out. But there were plenty of other long seasons, when this team was just bad, but not historically so. They were 5-11 in 1989, 6-10 in 1991, and 5-11 in 1993, after starting the season 1-11. That was the first season with Bill Parcells in charge, and Drew Bledsoe at the helm as the young quarterback of the future. In 1995, one year after making their first playoff appearance (and losing right away to Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns), the Patriots sank back to mediocrity at 6-10. And the first season that I followed the NFL, New England sported a measly 2-14 record.

Yes, if they were defined by anything, it was their utter and complete mediocrity. At some point in his novel, "Needful Things", Stephen King mentioned how one of his characters, who lived in New England (in Maine, of course) thought about tuning in because the Patriots were bound to win at least one game one of these Sundays. Indeed, that was how bad it had gotten for them, that it was hard to believe that they actually would win a game on occasion. Even the exceptions, like when they qualified for their first Super Bowl, proved to be sobering reminders of their mediocrity, as New England was crushed by Chicago by what was then the most lopsided score ever. But mostly, they were that team that seemed to be involved with a revolving door policy with two other poor teams in the AFC East, the Jets and the Colts, as each took turns at being the cellar dwellers in the division, and even jokes of the league. Obviously, these were long before the days when the Colts and the Patriots rivalry was the hottest one in sports. 

Somehow, that early memory of the Pats being literally the joke of the league, and of being a pushover year after year, allowed me to be happy for them when they enjoyed success. I never hated them and, quite frankly, I am glad of it. And not just because of their almost unprecedented success, either, although that would likely have made me at least as miserable as I felt when the 49ers were winning all of those Super Bowls and enjoying all of that success back in the 1980's and 1990's. I am glad that I do not hate them also because of how rabid some people are in their hatred of this team!

Listen - on Monday, a little more than 12 hours after the Patriots had clinched their fifth Super Bowl title, I heard a coworker going on and on about how she absolutely hated the Patriots, how they really were not that good, how Brady was a crybaby and had not earned his success, and how Bill Belichick was an evil man. Literally, these are some of the things that she said. 

Oh, and she said something else, too. This one is a much more familiar argument that detractors make, that the Patriots are cheaters.

Frankly, I do not believe that the Spygate and Deflategate controversies should seriously detract from this team's accomplishments. From what I understand, that whole spying thing is something that pretty much all teams at the time did. The Patriots were the ones who got caught, and probably, that was because they were specifically targeted due to their success. Secondly, the Patriots certainly were not playing with deflated footballs in that Super Bowl two years ago, when Brady threw four touchdown passes against Seattle's "Legion of Boom" defense, overcoming a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win. And the it most certainly was not a factor in New England's unbelievable, breathtaking comeback from being down, 28-3, to forcing overtime, and then scoring the winning touchdown against a beaten and exhausted defense.

Love them or hate them, the Patriots are for real. Yes, they really are that good.

Think about their still growing list of accomplishments during the Belichick/Brady era:

- Five Super Bowl victories (so far), more than any other coach/quarterback combination, and individually, Belichick and Brady own more Super Bowl championship rings than any other coach or quarterback, period.

- Seven Super Bowl appearances, also significantly more than any other coach/quarterback combination, and Belichick and Brady have more Super Bowl appearances than any other coaches or quarterbacks.

- Eleven AFC Championship Game appearances, with a total record of 7-4 in those games.

- Six straight appearances in the AFC Championship Game in the last six seasons, which is a record. They have won three and lost three of those games. 

- From 2010 to 2016, the Patriots not only won their division title, but earned a playoff bye for each of those seasons, which I also believe to be a record that no other team can approach. During that time, the Patriots matched the Colts record of having records of 12-4 or better for each season. The Colts did it from 2003-2009. New England went 14-2 in 2010, 13-3 in 2011, 12-4 in 2012, 12-4 in 2013, 12-4 in 2014, 12-4 in 2015, and 14-2 in 2016. 

- New England scored 500 points or more four times since that historic 2007 season, and their lowest total offensive production since then came in the 2008 season, when Brady was knocked out for the season in the very first game. They still managed to score 410 points that season, scoring more than all but six other teams that year. 

- The Patriots have won the AFC East in 13 of the last 14 seasons, the one exception being, again, that 2008 season, when Brady was knocked out in week one. They still managed a rather impressive 11-5 mark for the year, but became only the second team in league history to not qualify for the playoffs with a record as good as 11-5. 

Just incredible! And all of that came during this era of salary caps and free agency and parity!

Say what you will, think what you will. But there is a reason that these New England Patriots are the role model for every other franchise in this new era. Many people believed that salary caps and free agency would indeed bring about parity, and that the age of dynasties was over. Clearly, the Belichick and Brady Patriots beg to differ!

And if you still doubted just how strong their will to win is prior to this last Super Bowl, their historic come from behind victory, then they surely have answered that now. The Buffalo Bills overcame a 32 point deficit against the Houston Oilers in a Wildcard Game back in January of 1993, and that stands as the greatest comeback victory of all time. Buffalo had another incredible comeback in 1997, overcoming a 26 point deficit to beat the Colts. The Colts came back from 28 points down to beat Kansas City in the Wildcard Game to win. The 49ers came back from 28 down to beat the Saints in 1980. All of those games had the comeback team as hosts. And there were a couple of other games with teams that overcame 25 point deficits to win, including the St. Louis Cardinals doing it to Tampa Bay in 1987, and the Cleveland Browns doing it in Tennessee in 2014, which proved to be the biggest comeback win by an away team in league history.

Now, look at that list again. That is six games, which might seem like a long list. But those are the games where teams have been trailing by as much as New England was in this Super Bowl and came back to win. That means that over the years, over the thousands of games that have been played in NFL history, there have only been six games where a team was losing by as much as the Patriots were losing on Sunday, and came back to win!

Frankly, I think that this was the most impressive of them, because this one was on the biggest stage of all - the Super Bowl!

To me, that makes it in many ways more significant than the other games where teams overcame even bigger deficits. Yet, even that historical Buffalo win over Houston does not quite reach the level of what the Patriots managed to do this past Sunday! And now, it becomes part of the legacy of this franchise.

Apparently, their legacy is still growing, and knowing that relentless drive to win that Brady and Belichick have been known for, you might not want to bet against them possibly doing it again sometime in the future, either! I would not bet against it at this point.

Here are some videos from Youtube showing a very different time, when the New England Patriots, far from being the dominant team in the league, were actually rather a bit of a joke:

Here is an old video clip of a football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots, long before either of those teams were anywhere near the level that those two teams reached many years later, when they met in Super Bowl IL. In fact, back in 1992, when this game took place, these were literally the two worst teams in the league. The Seahawks won this game, by the way, although both teams finished the season with identical 2-14 records:

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