GLOBE MAGAZINE | CHARLES P. PIERCE
For almost two decades, the Patriots have torched opponents and fired up New England’s sports fans. Now the clock is ticking down.
HISTORY TELLS US that dynasties end. They don’t have to end with heads in a basket, like the first go-round for the Stuarts in Great Britain or the Bourbons in France. When Queen Victoria died, Britain’s current House of Windsor took over from her House of Hanover with little more than some messy business around their German royal titles (it was, after all, World War I). The last emperor of China even had a rather vibrant life after royalty. But no matter how things end, the longer a dynasty lasts, the more fragile it becomes.
There’s something similar in sports. If a team has a sustained run of success — like the New England Patriots have had since the dawn of the 21st century — the best it can hope for at the end is a brief slide into mediocrity. The worst that can happen is a complete collapse. New Englanders know this. We got to revel, if only for a few years, when it finally happened to the New York Yankees in the mid-1960s. We suffered through it three times with the Boston Celtics, first after Bill Russell retired after winning NBA championship number 11 in 1969; the next year, the team fell to sixth place in its conference. The Dave Cowens-John Havlicek champions of the mid-1970s won their second championship in 1976; within two seasons, they were in 10th place, having won only 29 games. And their great dynasty in the 1980s, led by Larry Bird, slid inexorably toward the petrified forest of the 1990s that saw them win 15 games in 1997 and 19 games in 1999, a tailspin the franchise didn’t truly shake off until it won another championship in 2008.
All dynasties get fragile and then fall. The only question is how hard the landing is going to be.
We are seeing this fragility emerge now with the Patriots. The remarkable run that began in the 2001 season, when Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe and Bill Belichick caught the beam he’s still riding, is probably not over, despite the unfortunate happenings in Minneapolis in February. I’d say, all things being equal, there is at least one more Super Bowl appearance in this crew, perhaps even two. The American Football Conference Eastern Division, in which the Patriots play, is still awful. Brady is still the best quarterback in football. And it’s unlikely that Bill Belichick will have a revelation and run off to join the Carthusians. Most of the team’s pieces are still in place, although if Rob Gronkowski goes off to be an action movie hero — and I will buy a ticket for his first film — that changes the dynamic a bit.
There is also an important draft coming up in which the team can fill holes on both the offensive and defensive lines, especially the former, which is the key to keeping Brady upright and alive. True, no franchise should ever stake its future on a quarterback, so the problem of Brady’s backup remains. But Brady himself remains, too.
Nevertheless, there was a serious fin de siecle feel to the season that ended with the loss of the Super Bowl. The gleaming, edgeless institution that the Patriots had labored so hard to build began to crack just a bit. Stories began to emerge that all was not well between Belichick and the Kraft family, and between Brady and his departed backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, shuffled off to San Francisco in a deal that produced a negligible return and confounded observers all over the league. (Usually, Belichick’s blockbusters involve trading a talented player who he believed had reached his peak. Think Richard Seymour or Lawyer Milloy.) Brady’s emergence as a pitchman for New Age-y life coaching in partnership with Alex Guerrero, his fitness guru whose past is more than a little shadowy, took a bit of the Everyman off his carefully cultivated public image. Throughout the season, in which the Patriots still won 15 games and in which Brady was the NFL’s most valuable player, there was something a little . . . off about the franchise — and the unmistakable sound of a window closing.
WHEN IT’S FINALLY OVER, and all the world is sleeping soundly in genuine TB12 recovery sleepwear, the year I will remember best is the 2008 season. It began with a record-setting, undefeated New England team losing Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants in what was reckoned to be one of the biggest upsets of all time. (To this day, I don’t know how lumbering Eli Manning got loose from the entire New England defensive line to throw that pass to David Tyree.) The following year, the team was bristling with optimism. It was the same juggernaut and now it had something for which to play: redemption for what had happened in February. This optimism lasted until midway through the first quarter of the opening game against Kansas City, when a Chiefs safety named Bernard Pollard rolled up on Tom Brady’s left knee, tearing loose both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, which is like hitting some kind of grim orthopedic lottery.
That was going to be the year for everyone else. The popular opinion around the league was that Belichick was nothing without Brady. The second-most popular opinion: Brady was nothing without Belichick. The latter contention didn’t matter; for that season, Brady would be coached largely by orthopedic surgeons. In his place Belichick had a largely untried backup named Matt Cassel. There was barely concealed gloating all over the NFL.
Behind Cassel, Belichick and the Patriots won 11 of their 16 games, including the last four. They missed the playoffs, but only through the NFL’s complex postseason tiebreaker procedures. Cassel’s stock rose so fast that New England slapped the “franchise” tag on him and then promptly traded him to Kansas City. In his second year with the Chiefs he went 10-5 as a starter and made the Pro Bowl. But Cassel has since bounced around to four more NFL teams, developing a career out of being the guy who steps in when starting quarterbacks get injured. He is currently with the Tennessee Titans, a backup once again. At 35, his record as a starter is 36 wins and 45 losses.
What Belichick did in the season he was forced into starting Cassel was nothing short of coaching genius. Usually, when a team loses its starting quarterback, let alone a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer like Brady, it goes into a tailspin that can last the rest of the season. In 2008, New England didn’t even have Brady for a full quarter. Relying largely on Belichick’s creative gift for defense, the team still won 11 games, including the game in which Brady was injured. Anybody who watched that season could be excused for thinking the Patriots simply could do anything they wanted, despite whatever happened to any of their players, including the star quarterback. Belichick’s stature as the game’s best coach was even more firmly established.
WE’RE COMING UP ON A DECADE since that season. The Patriots have played in four more Super Bowls, winning two of them (only three other teams have even played in two Super Bowls in that time). Both wins were marked by spectacular finishes. In 2015, they beat Seattle when rookie defensive back Malcolm Butler — more on him later — intercepted a pass at the goal line. Two years later, they came back from trailing 28-3 to beat Atlanta in overtime. That latter victory cemented the notion that nothing could baffle or fluster the machine that had been built in Foxborough, a feeling that persisted at the beginning of last season, when the Patriots were the consensus favorite to win yet another Super Bowl.
The year had something just a little bit strange about its aspect from the very start. In the NFL’s marquee opening night extravaganza, New England was roasted by the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that at this point has to share with the New York Giants the title of primary poltergeist of the Brady-Belichick Era. Injuries piled up; both receiver Julian Edelman and star linebacker Dont’a Hightower were lost for the season. Brady turned 40 and took a fearful beating behind a patchwork offensive line. They won their way into the Super Bowl anyway, although they played an AFC Championship game against Jacksonville that was much closer than it should’ve been. By then, odd things were happening of a kind not experienced by this franchise since the days in which it was playing home games in places like Birmingham, Alabama.
At the end of October, ESPN Magazine ran a story in which friends of Belichick were quoted as saying that Belichick, who is 65, planned to coach only another two or three seasons, and that he wanted to coach the Patriots with Jimmy Garoppolo as his starting quarterback. (The piece went to press just before Garoppolo was traded.) That lit up the radar, as did the magazine’s contention that Brady’s commitment to Guerrero and the TB12 Method had ruffled Belichick, and that the relationship of the two had been rocky on the issue of when (or if) Garoppolo would be taking over the job for which he was being groomed. This, of course, collided with Brady’s desire to prove he could play well into his 40s, a testament to Guerrero and the TB12 Method. On October 30, Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers. New England got only a second-round pick, a paltry return for a starting NFL quarterback. (Garoppolo started the last five games of the year for San Francisco, which won them all. In February, the 49ers made him the highest-paid player in the NFL.) The trade really made sense only if it eliminated an internal problem that was roiling the franchise in New England. Then, during the week prior to New England’s first playoff game, ESPN Magazine checked back in.
This time, the story fleshed out the Belichick-Brady rift, dragging team owner Bob Kraft into the bargain. Most tantalizingly, the story asserted that numerous team and league sources said Belichick, Brady, and Kraft “have had serious disagreements,” and that 2018 “might be the last year together for this group.” The story’s anonymous sources intimated that, due to his age, Brady had become conscious of his own fragility, Guerrero’s nostrums notwithstanding. Trading Garoppolo was seen in the story as a victory for Brady and Kraft over the coach in an ongoing power struggle. It felt a bit like Ivan the Terrible or Iago had infiltrated the locker room.
The Patriots made the Super Bowl again, and the controversy faded from public view, but it seemed that there was a collective internal tension that made this particular run peculiarly joyless. In the Super Bowl, Belichick benched Malcolm Butler, the hero of the Super Bowl against Seattle, for all but the game’s only punt, even as Philadelphia shredded the New England secondary behind journeyman quarterback Nick Foles. Subsequently, Belichick has offered terse semi-comments by way of explanation. The ineffable twilight of the dynasty deepened.
IT’S IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER that football was not historically anchored in this part of the country the way it is almost everywhere else in America. We do not have a $72 million high school stadium, the way they do in one Texas town. You will never see a 100,000-seat stadium shrine at Boston College similar to the one at the University of Michigan, and BC is the region’s only truly big-time college football program. For most of their history, the Patriots were the NFL’s comic relief. There was a really good team in 1976 that should’ve made the Super Bowl and didn’t. There were two Super Bowl teams before Belichick and Brady got here, and both of them lost. Then, this football-benighted region was gifted with the greatest sustained run of excellence in the history of the NFL. It promptly lost its mind.
The bandwagon had no real driver. Every good thing that happened to the Patriots was the product of the superior brainpower within the organization. Every bad thing was due to the nefarious work of hidden enemies. Roger Goodell! Jealous opponents! Referees! Everyone except the Bavarian Illuminati. This was fed by the franchise’s notoriously shell-mouthed media policies, best represented by the phrase, “We’re on to Cincinnati,” which Belichick robotically mouthed after one loss instead of answering questions as to why the team had lost that day. Around here, fans know how to react to championships won by the Celtics, the Bruins, and even, by now, the Red Sox. But the success of the football team unleashed some forces from the sports fan id that ran fairly amok.
After the loss to the Eagles, Gisele Bundchen, Tom Brady’s wife, took a lot of heat when she revealed she’d told their young children that, sometimes, you have to let the other people win. This is a perfectly reasonable way to explain a loss to young children. Sometimes the other guy is going to win anyway, and what you can control is your reaction to that. Patriots fans proceeded to give an unfortunate lesson in what Bundchen was talking about.
Already notably paranoid due to the franchise’s two huge collisions with the NFL, including the extended opera bouffe called Deflategate, in which everyone came out looking like as much of a fool as everyone else, the Patriots fan base’s paranoia is now stuck permanently at high volume. It’s also utterly nondiscriminating in applying that paranoia, which is why the fans roasted Brady’s wife.
Local sports radio is also turning on the team. One of the renegade geniuses on WEEI, Alex Reimer, called Brady’s 5-year-old daughter an “annoying little pissant” after her appearance in a Facebook Watch documentary about her father. The station suspended Reimer, but an angry Brady cut short an interview on “The Kirk & Callahan Show,” saying he was considering no longer appearing on it. And that was before WEEI’s Christian Fauria used racist stereotypes about Brady’s agent. Fauria was also suspended, but there is ample evidence that the Patriots faithful will not take any precipitous decline well at all.
As always, there will be players leaving. Malcolm Butler is likely gone, and so perhaps are Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola. Nate Solder may finally discover there are injuries even his remarkable constitution can’t weather. The interesting question, which once again comes back to the Garoppolo trade, is whether Belichick’s pride of place in personnel decisions has been diminished. He built his rep on a sixth-round draft pick. A third of the players on this year’s Super Bowl team weren’t drafted at all. If the Garoppolo episode is an outlier, the team should be fine as long as Brady is.
Meanwhile, football fans around the country, for whom New England has come to represent something between The Borg and the Klingon Empire, can’t wait for the worst to come. They will probably get to drink their fill of schadenfreude. But not yet.
The odds-on favorites to win next year’s Super Bowl are . . . the New England Patriots. The twilight is going to be one worth watching.
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