By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
January 19, 2002. I was at Fager’s Island bar in Ocean City, Maryland when it happened. I didn’t understand it then; I still don’t completely understand it now.
Where were you? More specifically, where were you the day Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots beat the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game and America’s football fans were introduced to the obscure and baffling “tuck rule”???
Time has provided considerable context to that moment. Entering that now famous/infamous game, Brady was an unheralded and, it seemed, moderately-talented second year quarterback. He appeared more “game manager” than “game breaker”. Belichick, in just his second year as New England’s head coach, was trying to establish himself after five failed years in Cleveland and an awkward one-day stint as New York Jets head coach that he ended with a one-line, hand-written faxed resignation.
Fourteen seasons with at least 11 wins and five Super Bowl championships later that bumbling, unaccomplished coach and that inconsequential quarterback are now the best quarterback and head coach, respectively, in NFL history and the constants for the greatest dynasty in modern professional sports.
It all began on that January day in 2002. The end may be near.
If you buy a recent piece by ESPN Senior Writer Seth Wickersham, the Patriots are disintegrating from within. Wickersham presents a compelling case: Brady’s sick of Belichick’s tongue lashings and lack of public praise, Belichick is torqued over being forced to trade Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady’s heir apparent, and both are at odds over Alex Guerrero’s – Brady’s trainer/business partner – access to the team.
Wickersham’s piece casts Guerrero as a football version of Yoko Ono; but this seems more the generic work of two powerful entities tiring of coexistence. Regardless, the end was near even before Wickersham’s agitation; it will just accelerate in earnest if he’s right.
Brady is 40; Belichick is 65. Neither man has anything left to prove. Disgusting riches and irreproachable legacies are secure. They weren’t going to be doing this in five years anyway, Guerrero or no Guerrero. The difference now is the Belichick-Brady, Patriots-forever-Super-Bowl-contenders thing might end this year.
The suggestion is sweet music to 31 other NFL fanbases. Understandable. The Patriots are easy to hate: Belichick’s curmudgeon-shtick, golden boy Brady and his supermodel wife, the tuck rule, Spygate, Deflategate and all…that…winning. But even as a salty Washington fan, this isn’t a funeral I eagerly anticipate or will celebrate.
Through scandal, personnel changes and a league financial system that’s supposed to subvert sustained success, the Patriots have consistently quieted the noise, never made excuses and resisted the urge to look beyond the next week’s opponent. They have overcome injuries (Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, etc.), rejuvenated veteran players (Corey Dillon, Randy Moss), routinely identified and developed talents in obscure or under-valued players (Edelman, Dion Lewis, Troy Brown, Malcolm Butler, Wes Welker), and won at an historic pace.
And that’s just the football side of the story.
The world has changed significantly since the Patriots beat the Raiders on January 19, 2002. The information age has exploded with smart “phones” and social media – Jetson’s-like technology. But the advancements, and 24/7 connectivity, have created enormous distractions, an unlimited ability to self-promote and the insatiable need for self-validation through frivolous external indicators - “likes”, “friends” and retweets. The challenge this presents in building and maintaining a focused, united locker room is difficult to imagine.
Yet one NFL team has developed the formula.
The Patriots are an island where how things used to be (or at least should be), still stubbornly are and the trappings of the modern, social world are suppressed. In this way, they’ve never been more relevant or more important – an example that a group of people, committed to a cause and to each other can accomplish truly amazing things. That ego, the one thing the Patriots have always stood against, might be what destroys modern sports’ greatest dynasty just adds a salacious final twist to this respected, if not universally beloved, team.
However this ends, the inevitable documentary on these Patriots will be must-see television; I just won’t be celebrating the final apocalyptic scene.
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