Times are tough in Titletown.
To be fair, playing sports in the time of pandemic is universally tough. Familiar statistics in box scores have been usurped by different numbers” The latest COVID-19 testing numbers, or a count of how many athletes are or are not kneeling during the national anthem. And while those statistics are certainly important, they make it easy to forget there are actual games going on with scores and standings.
But maybe that’s not so bad around here, where the reentry process has been pretty tough for New England’s four major professional teams. For an area accustomed to winning championships, one that not so long ago dreamed of holding the MLB, NFL, NHL, and NBA titles all at once, the landscape is pretty bleak.
The Red Sox barely resemble the team that won the World Series just two years ago. This group is barely watchable. A couple more blown leads Sunday night in the Bronx led to an ugly sweep at the hands (and bats) of the Yankees, three straight losses that dropped the Sox to 3-7, tied for worst record in the American League.
Making it worse is the Yankees’ MLB-best 7-1 mark, a quick start that might not seem insurmountable in normal times but looms like Everest in a truncated 60-game season. Who knows if we even get to the finish line, but a sixth of the way in, it’s clear the Red Sox are overmatched.
The Bruins officially returned to action Sunday against the Flyers, only to start their bubble life looking sluggish and flat, far from a winning combination. They sure didn’t look like the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy in the abbreviated regular season, never mind the one that went all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final a year ago.
After tying the game at a goal apiece in the second period, the Bruins all but disappeared, losing, 4-1, in front of backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak. With playoff positions at stake in this round-robin tournament, the Bruins could cost themselves a top seed and a matchup with No. 8, perhaps drawing the fifth seed instead.
Down in Orlando, the Celtics had to hang on for dear life in Sunday’s win over Portland, blowing the entirety of a 24-point lead late in the second half before Jaylen Brown saved them with a 6-for-6 fourth quarter and 22 second-half points.
No lead is ever safe in the NBA, but again, with everything so compressed and so much on the line, a second loss to start their bubble life could easily dent confidence in a potential championship run. An opening loss to the reigning-MVP-led Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks was a reminder of how fierce the competition is going to be.
The Celtics represent the best hope for a 2020 Boston title, but the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, or Raptors aren’t going to make it easy.
And then we have the Patriots, those NFL-dominant Patriots, winners of the Super Bowl just two seasons ago, their sixth in nine championship appearances across an amazing 20-year run. No franchise has been close to them, not in consistency, not in results, not in driving the rest of the league batty with the combination of both. But suddenly the Patriots are leading the NFL in a statistic none of us saw coming, and one other franchises would prefer not to emulate.
With two more players opting out over the weekend, bringing the total to eight, highest in the NFL, the Patriots suddenly have far more replacement needs than just departed quarterback Tom Brady. Marqise Lee and tight end Matt LaCosse were the latest to join a list that already included linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, tackle Marcus Cannon, running back Brandon Bolden, guard Najee Toran, and fullback Dan Vitale. And with players reportedly being pressured by the NFL to make their decisions by Tuesday or Wednesday of this week, there could be more.
Put it all together and you have a jumble of uncertainty for a market that has been the envy (or drawn the ire) of cities across the country. Who can forget the heady times just two seasons ago, when the Sox and Patriots held simultaneous titles and the Celtics and Bruins were heading into playoff runs that seemed to promise more? Even when the Celtics bowed out early, the Bruins pushed it all the way to final game of the championship series before Brad Marchand skated off the ice too early and the Blues stole a title at TD Garden.
It sure felt like the air went out of the building that night, and it sure feels like it hasn’t been refilled since. So much has changed, and not for the better.
The Red Sox traded away Mookie Betts and David Price. They put Chris Sale back under a surgeon’s knife. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic took Eduardo Rodriguez away for the season or altered the habits of players so much that J.D. Martinez doesn’t want to pinch-hit against the Yankees.
The St. Patrick’s Day departure of Brady changed the face of the Patriots, with either Cam Newton or Jarrett Stidham set to take over at QB, just as the exit strategy of Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins forced a similar overhaul to the linebacking corps. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic took at least eight more players away.
All of it makes for some tough times in Titletown, where the rest of the country might think “it’s about time,” but the locals just watch and hope the good times aren’t over just yet.