It’s never fun seeing players get carted off the football field in the middle of a game. It’s part of the violent game we love so much, but it’s one of the least enjoyable parts. In their Friday night preseason game in Detroit, the New England Patriots saw one of their franchise stars, wide receiver Julian Edelman, carted off the field with a potentially season ending injury. Mike Reiss of ESPN reported the Patriots suspect Edelman tore his ACL, which is certainly the worst case scenario for this situation.
In a night where the Red Sox lost 16-3 to the Orioles, and Eduardo Nunez got hurt in the process, and the president decided to pardon a racist sheriff, and this same president decided to ban transgender troops, and all this happened as a hurricane was about to hit Texas, Edelman’s injury was just one of many terrible things that made me forgo my initial plans to watch a movie and half-watch episodes of That 70’s Show I’ve already seen to follow the news on Twitter. Apparently Friday nights aren’t allowed to be fun anymore unless you go out, and keep your phone in your pocket the whole time.
Normally, I would write today to complain that the NFL preseason is too long, and how the injuries are the hardest thing to reconcile as a football fan who also possesses empathy for other human beings. Normally, I would write today to point out that the NFL does not have guaranteed contracts for it’s players, and even though the National Hockey League does many things wrong as a business model, at least their players are guaranteed to get their money when their careers in their violent sport are cut short. Normally, I would write today about how Roger Goodell and the NFL owners are running their league and the game of football into the ground, because parents are seeing how players are treated, and America’s best young athletes will be steered more and more towards soccer, basketball, and baseball, and a four game preseason is just one of the many greedy flaws that will be the league’s undoing if things don’t change. Normally, I would write today about how ridiculous it is that the Patriots chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions are seriously compromised by the loss of their star wide receiver, but I have also watched enough Patriots football over the years not to overreact to one injury.
As unfortunate as it is, the Pats are built to survive the loss of Edelman, and they have proven it time and again. Tom Brady tore his ACL in 2008, and they still went 11-5. Last year, Rob Gronkowski was taken out in the middle of the season, and they went undefeated without him, including the Super Bowl. Edelman is a great player, and has been such a great Patriot that #11 is now “his number” and not Drew Bledsoe’s number in my mind. But they still have Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, and they traded for Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints in the offseason. They bolstered the backfield by adding Mike Gillislee from the Buffalo Bills, a move that both weakened a divisional opponent and made it so Brady would not have to lean as heavily on the passing game as he had to in the playoffs.
Bill Belichick values depth and versatility when building their roster, and that philosophy is abundantly clear with the collection of offensive skill players they have. The defensive unit is a different story, and I would be writing a much different post if Alan Branch suffered a season ending injury last night, but I’ll cross that bridge when depth in the defensive front-seven becomes an issue during the season. For now, the Patriots and their fans can wait for the MRI and hope for the best, but even if their worst fears are confirmed, the offense is in a good position to make the best of a bad situation.
The whole evening put things in perspective. I would normally be more upset about this injury, but it was the fourth worst thing to happen that night and only impacts the Patriots and their fans. I don’t like getting political in my writing or in my social interactions but these last several months have made it tough to compartmentalize. Why am I spending time writing and worrying about things that ultimately do not matter? What’s even the point? I have been wrestling with this question since the election, and I still don’t know the answer. At least football season is around the corner to provide the escape I need from the weekly weekend madness of reality.
A year ago, I wrote about how weird it was to have the New York Yankees, the historical power and biggest spender in Major League Baseball, playing the role of seller at the trade deadline. They seemed poised for a rebuild, and I was confident Brian Cashman was smart enough to see that through, but it did not feel right. 2016 was a weird year, and the Yankees bracing to rebuild does not even come close to the top fifty strangest things that happened last year, but 2017 appears to be reverting to what we know as normal, at least in a baseball sense. The Yankees are back, and for some reason, I’m okay with it.
After dealing Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians and Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs, setting up the crucial late inning match-ups the World Series, there was the rise of Gary Sanchez. Sanchez, a catcher, batted .299 and hit 20 home runs in just 53 games, and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Two great months from a rookie catcher do not immediately make a team a contender, and the expectations for New York were still that of a team building through the farm system to be great in a couple years heading into 2017. Then Aaron Judge happened.
If you told me the next great Yankee was an outfielder as big as Rob Gronkowski, who hits the ball harder than Giancarlo Stanton, and who is so humble he’s more likable than Derek Jeter and Mariano River combined, I would have thought you were crazy. There could not be a human like that. Aaron Judge is such human. Last year, he was a strikeout machine, and this year he has transformed himself into a baseball crushing machine who is quickly becoming one of the faces of baseball. It was only a matter of time before the Yankees had another transcendent icon of the game. They always land on their feet in that regard, but who would have thought it would be one like this? Baseball players aren’t supposed to be that big, and if they are, they become pitchers. All I can do is sit back and be amazed.
With their rebuild fast-tracked by a baseball unicorn, the Yankees resumed their normal role of buyers at the trade deadline, and they bought, and bought, and bought. They acquired third baseman Todd Frazier, starting pitcher Tommy Kahnle, and relief pitcher David Robertson from the Chicago White Sox, relief pitcher Jaime Garcia from the Minnesota Twins, and capped it all off by acquiring right handed ace Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees did not get the biggest names that moved this trade season, as the Texas Rangers sent Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the White Sox sent Jose Quintana across town to the Cubs, but they acquired quality in volume and filled the most needs of any postseason contender. It also helped their cause that they made trades to bolster third base and the bullpen, taking players off the market in the most glaring places of need for their forever rival Boston Red Sox.
These are the Yankees I remember.
As much as I hate to admit, the Yankees being good is good for baseball. They are the lightning rod for the hate of the other 29 fan bases. The villain role in sports is something that should be embraced. As a Patriots fan, I embrace it. The Yankees are better at being the bad guy than anyone else in Major League Baseball. In the years since they last won the World Series in 2009, several teams have had the chance to take the Iron Throne of Evil from the Yankees, but the fit has never been quite right. The Red Sox, in spite of their three World Series titles since they last met the Yankees in the postseason, cannot get out of their own way year to year. The San Francisco Giants won three World Series titles in five years, but were irrelevant in the off years. The Dodgers, for all their regular season success and high payroll, have not won the National League Pennant since 1988. The Cubs only got good in the last two years and before 2016, the last president to be alive for a Cubs championship team was Lyndon Johnson, who was born two months earlier in 1908. They are not ready for that kind of role. The Red Sox are 13 years removed from becoming winners, and they aren’t even ready for it.
The team that came the closest was the St. Louis Cardinals. They have won the most titles of any team in the National League, they rub other fan bases the wrong way with their “best fans in baseball” mentality, and their was an actual FBI investigation into front office members hacking the Houston Astros (and somehow Deflategate got more coverage?). They should have become the most hated team in baseball, but animosity towards the Cardinals translated more into Cardinal fatigue more than Cardinal hate for me. It just wasn’t the same.
The Yankees are the Alabama football or Duke basketball of Major League Baseball. Nobody is indifferent to these teams. If you follow that respective sport, you have strong feelings one way or the other, and that keeps you engaged even if your own team is not a contender. I should be upset that the Yankees were not bad for a longer period of time, but hating a middling team or a team with a losing record is just not as much fun.
Last month, a football analytics article took the Boston Sports Media by storm… in July. I was personally caught off guard, as I was still focused on NBA and NHL free agency, and immersed in the heart of baseball season, but the NFL has a way of dominating the local and national sports culture at will.
The article, by Cian Fahey of presnapreads.com, was about the challenges aging quarterbacks face, highlighted by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning, and provided detailed breakdowns of their performances in 2016.
The parts about Brady were the highlight of the discussion on Boston radio, of course. Over the course of a week, I heard at least three different pronunciations of Fahey’s first name as hosts and callers reacted to Fahey’s analysis. Brady has won five Super Bowls and played in seven, and just came off the best age 39 season by a quarterback in NFL history. The article was presented as a hot take, that Brady might already be in decline, and Patriots fans have heard people in the national media proclaiming Brady’s decline for nearly a decade now. It still has not happened.
Tom Brady turns 40 today (and I encourage everyone to read the stories Mike Reiss of ESPN compiled to celebrate the milestone), but, without sounding like too much of a homer, I need to see Brady decline before I believe he is actually declining at this point. I have counted him out personally too many times, and I have scoffed at too many pundits and analysts who counted him out even if deep down I had my doubts–with Super Bowl LI being the most obvious and recent example–to go down that road before Bill Belichick starts Jimmy Garoppolo over a healthy Brady in a meaningful game.
The point about arm strength is a fair concern, and missing the first four games of the season had to help him hold up, as outraged about the Deflategate nightmare as Patriots fans were. But arm strength is less of a concern for Brady than a lot of other quarterbacks because of the way he plays and the way Josh McDaniels orchestrates the New England offense to play to Brady’s strengths. He doesn’t rely on the deep ball. He’s not the Justin Verlander of QBs. That’s Aaron Rodgers. Brady is Dallas Keuchel. If arm strength were everything, Jay Cutler (who I guess would be Aroldis Chapman if we’re going to keep comparing quarterbacks to pitchers) would still be in the NFL and not in the Fox broadcast booth.
Even if his skills have declined, there are only a handful of teams that could take advantage of this 40 year old superstar. Houston’s defense gave the Patriots fits in the playoffs for sure, but their quarterback was Brock Osweiler. This year, Osweiler is out of the picture and the effectiveness of Tom Savage and rookie Deshaun Watson remains to be seen. Derek Carr and the Exiting Oakland Raiders could make a formidable foe, but their defense was nowhere near Houston’s last year and has a lot of room for improvement. The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos have historically given Brady trouble, but Denver’s quarterback situation is unproven at best, and the injury to Joe Flacco could leave the Baltimore with more uncertainty than a team that has only made the playoffs once since winning the Super Bowl in 2013 would like.
The Falcons are clearly a team that can hang with the Patriots on both sides of the ball, but they are in the NFC, where the road to the Super Bowl is much tougher year in and year out. Also, given the way they imploded in a game they were so sure they had won that owner Arthur Blank was standing on the sideline preparing to celebrate as he instead watched his team lose, they might be damaged for 2017. The Pats had their share of struggles in the years that followed their 18-1 2008 campaign, and the decision to throw instead of hand off to Marshawn Lynch still haunts the Seattle Seahawks two and a half years later.
The best thing Brady has going for him late in his prime is a league that mostly does not have an answer for him, much like LeBron James in basketball. The only difference is there is no juggernaut on par with the Warriors that are definitively better than Brady’s team. Not only is Brady the greatest QB, but Bill Belichick is the greatest coach, and Rob Gronkowski is the greatest tight end. It’s like if LeBron was on the Warriors. Okay, maybe I am a homer.
My belief in Brady at 40 is as much about the results on the field as the stories Reiss highlighted about his insane level of competitiveness at every stage in his adult life. From pickup basketball games when he was at Michigan to chugging beer at a bar in Rochester to refusing to give an inch to any backup, even if he knew he wasn’t going to start the September games in 2016, Brady is as dialed in now as he was when he was taken 199th by a team that already had a franchise QB. If Jimmy Garoppolo’s entire career as an NFL starter is just those six magnificent quarters last fall, he will go down as one of the greatest draft picks in the Belichick Era because of the level his presence made Brady reach late in his career. Then again, that narrative might not be entirely fair to Brady.
Tom Brady’s career has been a joy to watch. It wasn’t all great, but the struggles in 2009 and 2010 only made what he accomplished these last few seasons even more impressive. At 40 one would think he is nearing the end, but Brady keeps moving the figurative goal posts for himself as efficiently as he moves the literal chains on the field. Take that for data!
With the news coming that Rob Ninkovich plans to retire after 11 NFL seasons, my immediate reaction was “will the defense be alright without him?” He was been a mainstay of the New England Patriots defense this decade, a decade in which they have reached three Super Bowls. But my secondary reaction falls more along the lines of “in Bill we trust” as much of a homer and a brainwashed, used to winning fanboy as that makes me sound. Patriots fans have this inherent belief in the organization and the head coach because of guys like Rob Ninkovich.
Ninkovich played at Joliet Junior College before transferring to Purdue University, and was picked in the 5th round of the 2006 NFL Draft. He bounced back and forth between the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, and even attempted to convert to the long snapper position as a means of football survival before being released by the Saints in 2009. He did not record his first NFL sack until he was with New England.
Ninkovich was one of those pleasant surprise Patriots. I knew nothing about him before he was here, and my first reaction to him was “Who is this white guy who kinda looks like Mike Vrabel wearing Vrabel’s old number? He’s pretty good.” Vrabel was a favorite of mine and many from the run of Super Bowls in the early 2000s, and was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs following the 2008 Bradyless Except For One Quarter Of One Game season. Ninkovich embodied Do Your Job.
Out of nowhere, Bill Belichick found a useful player where other teams could not, and found a younger, cheaper option to turn over an aging defensive unit. Rob Ninkovich is what the Patriots do, and moves like that are what has made them so consistently successful. For every Willie McGinest, Vince Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower, or Rob Gronkowski (who only fell to the second round because of very real injury concerns), there are a dozen humble beginnings guy, lower level prospects, and castoffs from lesser teams who find important roles with the Patriots from Tom Brady to Ninkovich to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman to Malcolm Butler to LeGarrette Blount to Alan Branch to Kyle Van Noy. Belichick is the master of filling out roster depth with competence at every position, and occasionally, that competence gets developed into greatness. Until he stops being able to do this, I have faith Bill Belichick can continue to do that. Call me a homer.
I can understand why Ninkovich would want to retire, even if I didn’t see it coming. He’s 33 years old, has injuries in his history, and plays a sport that maims everyone who plays it long enough. He can walk away now now with two Super Bowl rings and his head held high. Football is important, especially for guys who can play it at the highest level, but that it hardly the only important thing in life.
Unfortunately for Ninkovich, his second career as a rapper might already be over. He participated last week in Toucher & Rich’s Celebrity 98 Mile rap battle tournament, and got his butt kicked by Pete Frates in the court of online fan voting. Nobody can be good at everything.
I was prepared to write about the New England Patriots’ disappointing seventh trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick and Brady Era. I was prepared to apologize to Patriots fans for the blog post I wrote about Matt Ryan a few weeks ago, when the not yet crowned MVP was going to face off against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, and I used this opportunity to take some less than subtle jabs against Boston College football, New England’s most prominent college football program that nobody cares about unless they went there. I was prepared to write about how the Atlanta Falcons not only deserved to win because they played against the Patriots the way the Patriots normally play against everyone else, not making mistakes and making their opponent pay for any mistake they might make, but also because it was the will of the country, as comedians and fans all across social media framed this games as “Trump’s America vs. Black America.” The angle in which I was mentally approaching writing about Super Bowl LI changed more dramatically and more times than any other game I have ever written about including the Bruins thrilling Game 7 comeback against the Maple Leafs in 2013. The second half of this game threw superstition out the window, and it took a few days to fully process what happened.
I watched the game with my dad and my brother, and by the middle of the third quarter, the hope was that they could just make the score respectable, as it was 28-3 with the Patriots slowly driving down the field. This part of the game was not even tense anymore. That’s how far out of it the Patriots seemed to be. We instead turned to the 2017 season, talking about key free agents: Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler topping that list. We talked about the possibility of trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, to load up on draft picks for Brady’s final years and focus on coaching up Jacoby Brissett.
I floated out the idea that Bill Simmons mentioned in a column a couple weeks ago about the possibility of Belichick trading Rob Gronkowski before Gronk’s body breaks down for good, and about the Belichick dream scenario of sending Gronk and Jimmy G both to the Cleveland Browns for the 2017 #1, #2, and a boatload of 3rd and 4th round picks. My dad had not heard that theory before, and said throughout the rest of the game and (spoiler alert) trophy presentation that he really hopes they keep Gronk. As someone who has spent money on exactly one athlete’s jersey for himself, and that athlete is Rob Gronkowski, I agreed, but am also well aware of Belichick’s history or trading or cutting star players a year too early rather than a year too late from Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy to Willie McGinest to Mike Vrablel to Richard Seymour to Randy Moss to Logan Mankins to Vince Wilfork. That strategy, while painful in the short term for sentimental fans like us, is undeniably a key part of why the Patriots have been so consistently competitive this century, so you take the good with the bad.
Next thing we knew, the Patriots were right back in it. Hightower had a key strip sack, the Patriots made up for a missed extra point and a botched onside kick by scoring two more touchdowns and making two straight two-point conversions. The Falcons defense was gassed, and their offense was cold, with the exception of Julio Jones, who was inexplicably only targeted four times in the games, catching it all four times, each time more impressive than the one before. Atlanta’s aggressive offensive strategy, allowing Ryan to get sacked for big losses without eating away enough at the play clock or the game clock certainly played into their demise, but when the narrative becomes solely that the Falcons choked, the level at which the Patriots executed gets lost.
On Hightower’s strip sack, for instance, he was able to get to Ryan because Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman blew his blocking assignment. On any given play in a football game there are 22 players with an assignment, and success or failure is determined not only by the obvious variables like the quality of the quarterback’s throw or the hand and footwork of the intended receiver, but also the defensive coverage assignments and offensive blocking assignments. In the second half down by a lot, the Patriots were still playing like they thought they could win, and Hightower, who is older than me by a month and has two BCS National Championship rings with Alabama and two Super Bowl rings with New England to show off as he heads into free agency, executed on every play waiting for someone on Atlanta to slip up, and capitalized when Freeman did.
It really was a tale of two halves, because in the first half, the Falcons were the ones taking advantage when the Patriots slipped up. The first quarter ended scoreless, but New England’s offense seemed to be moving the ball better than Atlanta’s, and were marching toward what looked like the first score of the game early in the second quarter when LeGarrette Blount fumbled the football, and the Falcons recovered, and quickly marched the other way to score. It was Atlanta that recorded a pick-six on Brady, and went up 21-3 at the half. The Falcons had adopted the DNA of the Patriots, which made sense considering the presence of longtime Belichick underlings Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli in their front office. This was a new kind of Super Bowl experience for a Patriots fan who has seen his team play in the Super Bowl eight times since first grade. I had seen thrilling victories and devastating defeats, but never a blowout. I was not born yet when the Pats got destroyed by the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears team in Super Bowl XX, and every Patriots Super Bowl since had been at least competitive at the half, regardless of the eventual outcome. I honestly had not even considered the possibility of getting blown out by Atlanta, but could not help but respect the way they were doing it, as I would have been rooting for the Falcons in the Super Bowl against any other AFC team this year.
After trading possessions to start the third quarter, the Falcons scored another TD, making it 28-3, and I Facebook messaged my friend “At least Gaga was good” as if Lady Gaga’s halftime performance would be the only redeeming thing about this Super Bowl. It would be a solid hour before Hightower’s strip sack, and a little longer before it really felt like the Patriots were actually back in it, but that whole time, the Patriots were still executing like they had a chance to win, which is a credit to the players and the coaching staff. Peyton Manning would not have orchestrated a comeback like this, and I can say that with confidence because of the way he folded in 2014 in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Moments like this are what have always separated Tom Brady from his peers, and put him alone with Joe Montana in the GOAT discussion.
By the time the game made it to overtime, there was no way the Patriots would lose. Special teams captain called “heads” for the coin toss, as he always does, but unless Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who has since been hired as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers) finally figured out to just feed the ball to Julio Jones like he’s LeBron in crunch time, which he did not do all game, the Patriots would have stopped a cold, suddenly not ready for the moment offense and gotten the ball back and scored. Even if the Falcons managed to stop the Pats on 4th and Goal, they would have had to take the ball out from the one, and the Pats defense would have gotten the ball back and only needed a field goal to win.
For years, I have been saying that I would love to see a Super Bowl go into overtime, just not in a year when the Patriots are in it for stress management purposes. But when it got to the point that my team was in the first ever overtime Super Bowl, all the stress was gone. They had all the momentum, and they were the team that had been there before. Instead it became a question of who would be the one to make the Super Bowl ending score. It was almost Martellus Bennett, who got interfered with near the goal line on one play and was targeted with a end zone throw that could have been Atlanta’s version of the Malcolm Butler interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Instead it was James White, who did not have a rushing touchdown in the regular season, and who was inactive for the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago who punched it in, breaking the plane of the end zone just enough to end the game, putting the Patriots ahead in a game they never led.
This game also proved the validity of some of the other football philosophies Bill Belichick & Co. have employed for years. The Falcons had greater elite, high-end talent, while the Patriots place a greater value on depth. While both teams have elite QBs, Matt Ryan has more elite weapons at his disposal in Jones, Freeman, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. Brady has Rob Gronkowski, the greatest player in the history of the tight end position, but did not have him most of the season, including the playoffs, and the Patriots went undefeated without him because Brady makes guys like Julian Edelman (whose insane late-game catch was indefensibly not mentioned until now), Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Martellus Bennett. Patriots players are notoriously frustrating to use in fantasy football because you never know, for example, which running back will be getting the bulk of the carries. If LeGarrette Blount struggles early (as he did), then Dion Lewis or James White could have a big game, and game to game, that is tough to predict. The same is true on defense, where Belichick traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in the offseason and Jamie Collins to the Browns during the season, and got better. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would rather have a deep rotation of guys who can play than a small handful of elite players, who could just as easily get hurt or get tired (the way Atlanta’s defense had to play twice as many snaps as their offense did in the Super Bowl) and not be there for them when they are needed most. It’s frustrating to watch your team consistently trade down at the draft, going for quantity over quality, but it is hard to argue with that method when they are in seven of the last 16 Super Bowls.
Ultimately, coming back from 28-3, and winning the first OT Super Bowl was the perfect way to end the nonsense of the last two years with Deflategate. The thing I am most excited about is that the Patriots were accused of a stupid thing that should not have been a big deal at all, and they reacted by winning two of the last three Super Bowls, the commissioner tried to bury them like he did the New Orleans Saints by fining the team, taking away draft picks, and suspending the greatest player of this generation for twice as many games as he suspended a guy who knocked his fiance unconscious on camera, and the team responded by winning everything anyway. There is nothing better than that. Nothing.
I haven’t written a blog post that was just about the NFL since the Patriots traded offensive guard Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the preseason. After that, I went back to school, and one scandal after another got me less and less interested in the NFL. I love football, and I love the Patriots, but it had finally gotten to the point where the incompetence of the commissioner and the moral depravity of the league took me out of it. It’s a league that doesn’t care about the health of its players. Junior Seau gave twenty years of his life to the NFL, but killed himself before he could get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The NFL is willing to overlook its concussion epidemic just as easily as its willing to overlook security footage in a casino elevator. It’s a miracle Roger Goodell didn’t make Seau’s family hold a press conference to apologize for tarnishing the NFL’s reputation, the way the Baltimore Ravens did with Jenae Rice. Then, the NFL found a scandal they could get behind because it was a scandal about nothing and they knew people are comfortable enough with the Patriots being villains.
The last two weeks for Patriots fans had been awful. Just hours after the Pats booked a trip to their seventh Super Bowl in my lifetime, accusations started swirling about the footballs being under-inflated in New England’s rout of the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. All of a sudden, the Patriots were cheaters again, with no hard evidence, and a narrative led by leaks to the media. Through all of it, Roger Goodell was hard to find, and when he did get in front of TV cameras, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to say nothing. If it wasn’t the Patriots, this would not have been a story. People love to hate the Patriots because of the success they have experienced since Robert Kraft hired Bill Belichick away from the AFC East division rival New York Jets in 2000. People love to hate the ones who always succeed. For all the problems the NFL had on and off the field this year, there could not have been a better ending, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Patriots fan.
I wrote over the summer questioning how much Tom Brady had left in the tank. He’s an all time great, and in the discussion for Greatest of All Time, but when it goes, it goes. In Kansas City during the fourth week of the season, it looked like it went. I was at work and listening on the radio as the Patriots looked like a college team playing an NFL team (or at least a terrible team like the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Jets) when they were manhandled in every facet of the game in Arrowhead Stadium by the Kansas City Chiefs. The offensive line looked porous. The team missed Mankins and longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia more than anyone realized, and Brady looked like a washed up has-been standing in the way of the future. Drafting Jimmy Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois last spring opened the door to discussing life after Brady, and with that loss in Kansas City, it looked like that day would come sooner than expected. In hindsight, it was foolish to think that was the end. The most Garoppolo would contribute after that game was playing like Russell Wilson in practice in preparation for the Super Bowl, but after Kansas City, it seemed outrageous to even think about the playoffs. We just hoped we could win a game.
Bill Belichick elected not to channel Jim Mora in his presser after the loss to the Chiefs, and instead put out the most memorable quote of his illustrious career of saying as little as possible to the assembled media. “We’re on to Cincinnati.” They were ready for Cincinnati. Then they were ready for Buffalo. Then they were ready for the Jets. Then they were ready for Chicago. Then they were ready for Denver. Then they were ready for Indianapolis. Then they were ready for Detroit. Then they lost a close one in Green Bay, but by then they had established themselves as the top team in the AFC as the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning were coming undone. They won in San Diego, and avenged their season opening loss to the Miami Dolphins before beating the Jets a second time and losing to the Buffalo Bills in the completely meaningless season finale. The Patriots seemed poised for another deep playoff run, but their Divisional Round opponent would be no easy task.
The Patriots always seem to have trouble with the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore had their share of struggles this season, having to release Ray Rice after his domestic violence incident became a viral video that the NFL had apparently never seen before TMZ showed it to everyone, and it took all sixteen games to make the playoffs. So much for getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Broncos got an easier game in the form of the Indianapolis Colts, and the Pats had to play the resilient Ravens. They were down by 14 points and things looked bad, but that’s when the Patriots got creative. The play of the decade came when Brady threw a lateral pass to wide receiver and former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman. The split second when every Pats fan realized Edelman was going to throw it changed the tone of that game and the tone of the playoffs. Edelman’s first NFL pass was a completion to Danny Amendola for a touchdown, and the crowd at Gillette Stadium erupted. The Patriots did their job, even if their job included receivers throwing to receivers, and running backs lining up as linemen to confuse the defense. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh cried to the media, and Tom Brady told him to read the rule book. The creative ineligible receiver formations were not a Belichick invention. Chip Kelly has used them at the University of Oregon as well as with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Nick Saban used formations like that with the University of Alabama this season.
Where New England did their job, Denver did not. The Broncos lost their home playoff game to the Colts is what may have been Peyton Manning’s last real shot at winning a Super Bowl. The personal rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, which began with Brady’s first NFL start, may be ending for good, and while both are great and both were champions, Brady put himself ahead of Manning with this year’s playoff run. It’s clear that Brady intends to go out with a bang, not to say he is finished at the age of 37, but whether Manning retired now or hangs on another year, he is much more likely to go out with a whimper. Manning is a great regular season player and maybe the best pure passer in the history of the game, but Brady has a little more of the old fashioned gunslinger in his makeup, pumping his fist after every big first down like the young kid who stunned the Oakland Raiders in the snow in 2002. When Peyton Manning fell apart against his former team, the Patriots were ready for a rematch with the Colts. Deflated balls or not, Andrew Luck had replaced Manning in Indy, but he was still out of Tom Brady’s league.
After two weeks of accusation, leaks, and scientific lectures from both sides of the issue, we finally had a football game, and it more than lived up to the hype. We had the Patriots, a perennial contender with an all time great coach and an all time great quarterback who had not won a title in a decade, and the Seattle Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions with a fun-loving coach (an unusual characteristic in the NFL or college football, two levels where Pete Carroll has thrived), an all time great defense, and a great young quarterback who is only getting better. In two decades as an NFL owner, Robert Kraft has only hired two head coaches: Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. While Carroll did not work out with New England, he ad a great run at USC before making a triumphant return to the professional level with Seattle. It was a scoreless first quarter, and tied at the half. The Patriots moved the ball well, but Brady threw a bad interception. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks had a slow start on offense, but found a way to score quickly at the end of the second quarter. Halftime of Super Bowl XLIV was the tensest moment set to a Katy Perry soundtrack since the battle scene from The Interview.
The second half got off to a slow start for the Patriots, and the Seahawks played the third quarter like champions, but the Patriots stayed in it. While Richard Sherman was gloating on the sideline, the Pats chipped away. Brady and the offense came alive in the fourth quarter, with touchdowns from Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, and then the Seahawks got the ball back down by four points.
“I’ve seen this movie before.” I said aloud. Super Bowls XLII and XLVI ended with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning marching down the field. When 19-0 was on the line, David Tyree made a nearly impossible catch off his helmet. In 2012, Mario Manningham made a catch just as impressive on the sideline to get the drive going. Both of those Super Bowls ended with the the Giants raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy instead of the Patriots. When Jermaine Kearse kicked up the ball that undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler knocked away, it was happening all over again. Seattle was going to score. There was no way they wouldn’t. All I could hope for was enough time for Brady to launch another score. For all the success Boston teams have had since 2002, we have had out share of devastation as well. In addition to David Tyree and Mario Manningham, we have had Aaron Boone’s home run off Tim Wakefield, Ron Artest’s shooting in the 2010 NBA Finals, and the 17 second period of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final that I still refuse to watch. Another ne of those moments was happening. It was just a matter of time.
It’s a bit of a blur now. The way it ended was so surreal. Dont’a Hightower made a great tackle to keep Marshawn Lynch out of the end zone, and the broadcast team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth both thought Belichick should let the Seahawks score to give Brady more time for the comeback attempts. Instead, Belichick let the clock run down and Pete Carroll put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands. Malcolm Butler, who bobbled the ball into Kearse’s hands moments before made an incredible interceptions to seal the game for the Patriots. I think I saw it when it happened, but it did not register right away. Then I was standing up and laughing and screaming. It had happened. They survived. The Patriots were champions again.
With the 2015 playoffs, Tom Brady did more than pass Peyton Manning as the greatest quarterback of his generation. He also passed John Elway by starting his sixth career Super Bowl, tied Joe Montana as a three time Super Bowl MVP, and tied Montana and Terry Bradshaw as a four time Super Bowl champion as a starting QB. Brady and Belichick reestablished themselves as the Duncan and Popovich of football, continuing the success that began fifteen years ago. With all due respect to Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots will never have a better quarterback than Tom Brady. The best we can hope for with Jimmy G is that he becomes the Ray Bourque to Brady’s Bobby Orr, the Steve Young to his Joe Montana, the Larry Bird to his Bill Russell, or the Carl Yastrziemski to Brady’s Ted Williams. There is still a chance for greatness in the future, but nothing like what we are seeing now. Enjoy it. We don’t know how much longer it will last.
The best part of the night was the trophy presentation where Kurt Warner, who the Patriots beat to start this run of dominance walking through a gauntlet of newly crowned champions with their trophy, and then Robert Kraft refusing to acknowledge Roger Goodell on the podium. Everyone hates the Patriots, and the Patriots don’t care.The conversation about deflated footballs was dominated by sports pundits who have a reason to hate the Pats: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, Tony Dungy, Bill Polian, and the list goes on. They just hate us ’cause they ain’t us. It’s the fourth Super Bowl victory by the Patriots in this century, and then ninth Boston championship in that span, and it still hasn’t gotten old. They did their job. On to the parade!
Good football teams have to make tough decisions about good football players. That fact will always be true as long as they want to continue to be good football teams. The Indianapolis Colts did not want to release Peyton Manning, but it’s what they felt the had to do when they were sitting atop the NFL’s draft board and Andrew Luck was theirs for the taking. The Green Bay Packers loved Brett Favre and everything he had done for the organization, but by 2008, Aaron Rodgers was the quarterback of the present, and not just the future, so they did what they had to do. Years ago, the San Francisco 49ers had to make the difficult decision of trading Joe Montana, who had led them to four Super Bowl victories, to the Kansas City Chiefs, because it was Steve Young’s team now. It’s never easy, and it’s never fun, but that kind of cold decision making is what keep good teams from becoming bad teams as time goes on.
The New England Patriots are not strangers to tough personnel decisions. Their first Super Bowl championship in February of 2002 came as a result of Bill Belichick deciding to start an unproven second year backup out of the University of Michigan named Tom Brady ahead of the former #1 overall pick and face of the franchise in Drew Bledsoe, once Bledsoe had returned to health. Two years later, Belichick parted ways with Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy, and although Milloy played many more years at a high level in the NFL, even outlasting his replacement, Rodney Harrison, the Patriots went on to win back to back Super Bowls with one of the best defensive units in recent memory. Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour were traded away (Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs, and Seymour to the Oakland Raiders) when they still had plenty of good football left in them. Wes Welker and Aqib Talib are now both playing for the Denver Broncos, the one team in the AFC that was better than the Patriots last year, because their price got too high. This week the Pats made another tough decision.
The Patriots traded All Pro offensive guard Logan Mankins, who had played his entire professional career with New England, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. Mankins was maybe the toughest player I have ever seen in a Patriots uniform and he was an easy guy to like. He was a leader, and one of the real heart and soul guys in the Pats’ locker room for the past decade. In a year when it looks like the Patriots can really make some noise, and the defense can potentially return to the form they had when they were winning Super Bowls a decade ago, it would have been nice for Logan Mankins to be a part of that team, and he had been to the Super Bowl twice in his career, but they were the two times the Patriots lost to the New York Giants. Now it’s time for the Pats and for Mankins to move on, and move forward. I think Mankins will eventually get his red jacket as a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, and his Patriots career speaks for itself, but for now, they’re going in a new direction.
Mankins is over 30, and was the highest paid guard in NFL history when he signed his current contract. The Patriots did not feel he was worth that kind of money anymore, and they traded him. In return, the Pats got a second year tight end named Tim Wright and a 4th round draft pick. Wright, and undrafted player who played college ball at Rutgers, signed with Tampa and played his rookie season for his former college coach, Greg Schiano. He played well, making 54 receptions for 571 yards, and scoring five touchdowns in an offense that lacked a true starting quarterback, but when the Bucs fired Schiano last winter and hired longtime Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, Wright soon fell out of favor with the new regime. Belichick has familiarity with the Rutgers football program, since his son went there, and he has drafted Devin McCourty (a two time All Pro in four professional seasons), Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon in recent years. The Pats are also thin at the tight end position, without many pass catching options if Rob Gronkowski is unable to suit up. Wright is only 24, so there’s a chance he can contribute the New England’s offense years after Mankins has retired from he NFL.
Maybe the most overlooked aspect of the Patriots’ offeseason has been the retirement of offinsive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Scarnecchia first started working for the Patriots in 1982, before the team’s first trip to the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears, and ten years before Robert Kraft bought the franchise. Withe the exception of a two season stint coaching the offensive line of the Indianapolis Colts, Scarnecchia had been on New England’s coaching staff ever since, coaching tight ends, offensive line, and special teams among other responsibilities. Since 2000, when Bill Belichick became head coach, Scarnecchia also held the title of Assistant Head Coach, running team practices in he rare cases when Belichick could not be there in person. Scarnecchia was one of the most important contributors to the success of the New England Patriots in the last 30 years, but did not get nearly as much attention as the other people that high on the list like Kraft, Belichick, Bill Parcells, Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, and Troy Brown. The Patriots’ offensive line has been as consistent as any line in the NFL the last 15 years, and even before Mankins’ departure, there would be questions about the offensive line because someone other than Dante would be coaching it for the first time in a long time.
For years, the offensive line in New England was anchored by Mankins, left tackle Matt Light, and center Dan Koppen, and now none of them are here anymore. This is Nate Solder’s offensive line now, and now it’s time for the kid to show us how good he is. Nothing lasts forever, especially in a sport as physically demanding as football. The Patriots will probably be really good this year, and will probably win at least 12 games, but it will be without some of the mainstays we’ve grown used to seeing on the team. That’s football.