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Are the Patriots Patriotic? (Redux)

  • Apr 20, 2014
If you would have walked up to Mr. Average Joe Monday Morning Quarterback Football Fan anytime between 1960 and 2000 and asked him what team he hated, he would almost certainly have said the Dallas Cowboys, unless he was a Cowboys fan himself. The old hatred of the Cowboys, though, now comes off like an ancient relic of Ye Olde America. The blame for that falls quite squarely onto the shoulders of their blind fearless leader, Jerry Jones, and a Texas-sized ego which keeps him from admitting he doesn't know the first thing about what he's doing. The new Vader cape of the NFL is currently being worn by the New England Patriots, a onetime lovable backwoods outfit which has since risen to become the cream of the football game in one of those unexpected transformations. 

The Patriots are Boston's football team, and you know how it goes with Boston sports: Endless suckitude before finally hitting it big. Yeah, before the B and B men came along and started winning, the Patriots would win one or two games a year and never, ever made the playoffs, and there's no fucking way in hell you could ever possibly imagine what an existence like that feels like. …. Wait…. Editor's message…. Well, shut my mouth and paint me red, white and blue! That hapless Patriot existence has been a big-ass lie! What do you know! Boston sports fans have been harping about past misfortunes which haven't actually been all that bad! Who would expect such a thing!

Okay, in fairness to Patriots fans, the team hasn't been the runaway success that it is now. The team history, however, gets played up to a point where everyone - including real, knowledgeable Patriots fans - believes they were the league's carpets, and that's not even close to being true. They were often underdogs, but as underdogs, they were very rarely hapless. They were more like the tough scrapper underdogs who usually had a great chance to win and could make a fight of it when they didn't. The team was one of the founding members of the AFL in November of 1959, when original owner Billy Sullivan got Boston chosen as the eighth - and final - host city for the AFL. The Patriots were founded as the Boston Patriots, and during their AFL years, they never had a true home stadium. They were always sharing: Cawley Stadium - a high school stadium - was one of their home fields, and they also had occasional access to Harvard Stadium and Fenway Park. The less-than-desirable circumstances, though, didn't keep the Patriots from accumulating an army of stars. Babe Parilli, Gino Capelletti, and Jim Nance became stars for the early Patriots as they fought their way to five winning seasons and five losing seasons from 1960-1969. They made the playoffs twice during the span and even got to the AFL Championship in 1963, which they lost to the San Diego Chargers. 

In 1971, the Patriots moved to their new home in Foxboro and rechristened themselves the New England Patriots. New name, new era, new attitude, and new chronic problem with losing! Well, actually it wasn't a new problem at all by then. The losing actually started back in 1967. The team had two losing seasons before then, but starting in 1967, it came to define the Patriots. In their first four years as an official NFL team, the Pats ran through three coaches in four years. They found a few fine players like John Hannah, Sam Cunningham, Jim Plunkett, and Darryl Stingley, but they were never quite enough to get the Pats off the ground until Chuck Fairbanks was hired to coach. His first season was 1974, and the team did improve, breaking an even record at 7-7. The next year saw a regression to 3-11, though, Plunkett was traded, and Mike Haynes and Tim Fox got drafted. After that, the Patriots finally had a breakthrough when they accumulated an 11-3 record in 1976, their best ever at the time. It set off a largely successful stretch in team history.

In 1978, Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum walloped Stingley in a preseason game. Tatum was a bit of an asshole - he never apologized for the hit until he wrote a book about it years later, which wasn't accepted by Stingley because he believed Tatum's apology stemmed more from a need for publicity than from any real sense of remorse. Tatum liked to compare his best hits to felonious assaults, so whether or not he meant it is up for grabs. 

New England started suffering from Bozo Syndrome at the turn of the decade. That is the term one sportswriter used to describe the way they kept blowing it down the stretch: They started 7-3 in 1979, only to finish 9-7, and started 6-1 the next year, a stretch that usually predicts dominance but ended with only four victories in the following nine games for a 10-6 record. The only truly bad season during the entire era, though, was 1981, and those Patriots were a very odd team. Despite being out-won by a whopping 14 games, they were outscored only by a grand total of 48 points for the entire season. A 48-point differential is something that usually belongs to a seven or eight-win team; a generally good team having an off year (which the Patriots basically were), not a walking disaster which would ordinarily pull in a mere two victories. They were the victims of a lot of bad karma. The Bills beat them in one game with a last-second touchdown pass, and they lost twice to the Baltimore Colts…. Who, notably, only won two games that whole season and were very much a true walking disaster. Other than that, they lost eight games by a touchdown or less, five by a field goal or less. For whatever it's worth, the 1981 Patriots might have been the best two-win team in history, and between from 1976 to 1989, it was their only losing season. 

The 1983 quarterback draft class is legendary for yielding John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly, but it also yielded Tony Eason for the Patriots, who takes a lot more shit than he should. In the seven years Eason played in the NFL - six with the Pats - Eason threw 61 touchdowns to 51 interceptions and finished his pro career with a respectable 79.7 QB rating. He wasn't a true starter for most of his career, but he was reliable when he did. Unfortunately, he was injured early in 1985, and so Steve Grogan stepped up to be the hero… Until Grogan was hurt late in the season and Eason was called again. Somehow, this quarterbacking seesaw managed to go 11-5 and luck its way through three straight road playoff games, including an AFC Championship against Marino's ultra-powerful Miami Dolphins. Well, their luck finally ran out in the Super Bowl, which everyone ceded to the opposing Chicago Bears. Which they were very much right to do, as the shufflin' Bears proved as the pounded the Pats 46-10, setting Super Bowl records for point differential and points scored. (Both have since been broken. In fact, they were broken within the next few years.)

While the Patriots didn't see that kind of success again in the 80's, they weren't a bad team until they went 5-11 in 1989. There was an ownership change, the team couldn't decide on a starting quarterback, their GM left for a job with the New York Jets, and their coach was fired and replaced with someone worse. Although the first truly bad era of Patriots history lasted longer, the stretch from 1989 to 1993 is considered the worst in team history by fans, who refer to them as The Patsies Years. They hired legendary New York Giants coach Bill Parcells in 1993 to sort everything out, but success didn't return until 1994, when quarterback Drew Bledsoe was drafted. New England had had very good quarterbacks before, but Bledsoe was the first for New England who was truly great. By 1994, the Patriots were in the playoffs again, but they lost to the Cleveland Browns and their first-time head coach, Bill Belichick. Ironically, Belichick's biggest gig before coaching the Browns was as the defensive coordinator for the Giants teams coached by Parcells. And that's only the second-biggest irony in this situation. You're going to want to remember Belichick's name; it's going to be very important later.

In 1996, Parcells, Bledsoe, all-time-but-somehow-understated running back Curtis Martin, and rookie receiver Terry Glenn finished 11-5. After beating the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars in the playoffs, the Patriots reached their second Super Bowl ever. In the big game, they faced the Green Bay Packers, whom all onlookers had already ceded the game to. Which they were very much right to do. While the Patriots showed some great life in the first quarter - scoring 14 points - they were only able to muster up one more touchdown in the third quarter. Although that touchdown made the score 27-21, game MVP Desmond Howard - who's primary position in the game was AS the returner - pulled in a 99-yard touchdown return, and that ultimately put the game out of reach for the Patriots. After the Super Bowl, Parcells resigned. 

After Robert Kraft bought the team, he put Pete Carroll in charge. You may recognize Carroll's name; he's the current coach of the reigning Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, and before that, he coached USC, where he installed the famed option attack that gave Trojan opponents such nightmares. While fans speak of Carroll's Patriot years like the team had fallen to its dark void nadir, they were not a bad team during these years. Carroll's worst record as Patriots coach was 1999, when he went 8-8, and that was after going 10-6 and 9-7 in the two previous years. The team let Carroll go. Here's where things get complicated: Remember Bill Belichick? The Browns coach? Yeah, after his massive failure in Cleveland, he went crawling back to Parcells, and was the defensive coordinator for New England in 1996. When Parcells went to the Jets, Belichick went with him. A day after the 1999 season, Parcells retired, and Belichick took over as coach of the Jets.

Why is this important? Because the Jets, being the Jets, were filled with drama: A bad ownership situation following the death of their owner, Leon Hess. After being the head coach of the Jets for a day, Belichick wrote his resignation note on a napkin, reemerged as head coach of the Patriots, and was given near-complete control over everything. Belichick restructured the team's entire personnel department during the offseason, but that didn't prevent most players from showing up out of shape, and as a result, the new era of Patriots history began with the team going 5-11.

That poor showing, however, didn't last very long. The Patriots weren't expected to fare much better in 2001. Not with their new method of finding players who fit Belichick's system at very low cost, and certainly not after Bledsoe went down with an injury on the second play - yes, PLAY - of the season. So Belichick had no choice but to make do with a sixth-rounder from Michigan by the name of Tom Brady. Brady proved to be really, really good - he won three of his first four starts and was happy to spread the ball out more. Brady became a quick fan favorite, and the Pats played excellent football, going 11-5 on the season. In the playoffs, the Patriots faced the Oakland Raiders in a snowstorm. The Raiders might have won, but a play which should have been ruled a fumble was called as an incomplete pass because of an obscure ruled called the Tuck Rule, and the Patriots went on to win the game. Bledsoe was given his job once more in the AFC Championship after Brady hurt his ankle, and he led a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots reached their third Super Bowl, where they faced The Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams. All watchers had already given the game to the Rams. Which they were very much right to do. The 14-2 Rams had been thoroughly dominant, and they were a 14-point favorite. The Patriots made a statement during the Super Bowl; first, instead of being introduced by the player-by-player custom, they ran out as a team. Then they ditched their regular game plan by using the blitz sparingly. This let them chip the Rams' receivers, harass star running back Marshall Faulk, and totally disrupt their precision passes. New England forced three turnovers, all of which resulted in scores. By the fourth quarter, New England was up 17-3, but you can't keep The Greatest Show on Turf down forever, and they roared back with two touchdowns of their own. With 90 seconds left, the game was 17 all, and everyone expected overtime, but Brady led a drive to the St. Louis 30, setting up a 48-yard field goal try. Adam Vinatieri made the attempt, and the Patriots walked off with one of the greatest upsets in NFL history.

There's been a lot of turnover with the Patriots since then, but Belichick is still coaching, and Brady is still their starting QB. Bledsoe was traded to the Buffalo Bills the next year to make Brady number one, over and out. Although Bledsoe is often blamed with starting the team's downward spiral, his tenure had much more good than bad, and the bad wasn't anywhere close to his fault. Brady, meanwhile, is arguably the greatest quarterback ever. The Patriots proved they weren't flukes when they won the Super Bowl again in 2003 and 2004, but 2001 might be the last year anyone LIKED them. Brady is doing the Hollywood act now, and Belichick's videos were found. (Every team does this. Sports journalist Mike Freeman covered it in his 2003 book Bloody Sundays, long before the 2007 scandal.) They're the most hated team in the league, the biggest bandwagon team in the league. In 2007, after the camera scandal broke, Belichick basically made it a point to stick his finger at the league. The Patriots went 16-0 that year - a perfect record, at least in the regular season. They also put 589 points on the board, another record which was broken last season when Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos scored over 600. They went to the Super Bowl and every account wrote them as the only perfect-record team of the 16-game era, especially when their opponents turned out to be the New York Giants, a seemingly ordinary 10-6 outfit which somehow managed to luck its way through three straight road playoff victories, including an overtime showdown for the ages against the Packers in the NFC Championship. They were very much right to do it, too. But the Giants had managed to find all the weaknesses New England had and exploit them, and they spent the game in Tom Brady's face. New England did have a 14-10 lead with under three minutes to go, but Eli Manning - Peyton's little brother - managed to lead the Giants on the drive to end all drives. At one point, on third and long, Manning escape a group of Patriots defenders who should have gotten him - hell, their hands were grabbing his shirt - and heave a hail mary to David Tyree. Hail mary really is an appropriate name for that pass, because when Manning threw it, a prayer was exactly what it was. Tyree, a journeyman receiver, somehow managed to beat three defenders to the ball and keep control of it by holding it against his helmet, like it was stuck with glue. The drive lived, and with 35 seconds left, Manning threw a pass to Plaxico Burress, and the Giants had the lead. On the ensuing Patriots drive, the Giants' line chased Tom Brady like a mouse in a maze, and New York walked off with a monumental upset, spoiling New England's bid at a perfect season. A few years later, the Giants and Patriots met in the Super Bowl again, and New York won again.

The Patriots are currently removed of the aura of invincibility they presented at the start of the millennium, but they're still plenty dangerous. They made the last two AFC Championships.

Gino Capelletti, Mike Haynes, Steve Nelson, John Hannah, Bruce Armstrong, Jim Lee Hunt, and Bob Dee are the Patriots whose numbers were retired. You'll notice that's not a list of household names. People who performed admirably as faces for the team include Jim Nance, Sam Cunningham, Steve Grogan, Stanley Morgan, Drew Bledsoe, Curtis Martin, Troy Brown, Terry Glenn, and Tom Brady. That's not the most notable bunch, but Bill Belichick could probably make them into a great team. By far the greatest coach the team ever had, Belichick has proven to be one of those rare coaches who was able to make huge but necessary changes to his entire method of operation when he needed to. When he arrived in New England, he built his teams around deceptive and stingy defenses. When his top defensive dogs aged, he became an offensive guru.

The Patriots have never really had much of a consistent marquee rival. They have a fierce divisional rivalry with the Bills, which has resulted in some wild games and finishes, but lately that rivalry has been one-sided. Since Rex Ryan was hired to coach the Jets, they haven't gotten along with the Patriots either (plus, you know, the whole Boston/New York City thing), especially after Ryan made a remark about how he wasn't there to kiss Belichick's rings. They're technically supped to have another rivalry with the Dolphins too, but the Dolphins have been in such a weird mess over the past decade that the idea of them being a rival to anyone is laughable. No, the biggest Patriots rivalry now is actually a rivalry between two particular men: Tom Brady against high-powered quarterback Peyton Manning. You could make solid cases for either one being the best of all time, and the games between the two have provided the league with some of its most exciting moments.

Back when the Patriots were unknowns, they would have been a very safe team to adopt: No one would have minded. There would have been absolutely no bandwagon stigma, and you would have been able to refer to a generally good team as yours. They won a lot in those days, but instead of being dominant, they would have been just good enough for the fans to believe they had a real shot. Now it's a different story. Now, it's the Patriots everyone hates, and they're the team everyone is out to get. Before, even people from Boston didn't care about the Patriots. Now they won't shut the hell up about them. You can give them this: The league needs a villain, and the Patriots are wearing that hat well. They even have a somewhat more menacing color scheme than they used to: Before, they had traditional red, white, and blue, with a dressed colonial on their helmets standing in three-point position. Since then, they've gone to dark blue and silver, and the colonial - nicknamed Pat Patriot - has been replaced by another logo called Flying Elvis.

The Patriots have a philosophy dedicated to teamwork and humility, or at least they used to. That may be a reason people hate them now: They've forgotten what they used to be about. They're not a particularly bad team to adopt if you want to be the bad guy and still can't fathom rooting for the Dallas Cowboys.

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review by . November 24, 2011
I don't think I need to regale you with too much of the more recent history of the New England Patriots. Lord knows there are more than enough bandwagon fans around the country who are more than willing to brag to your face about the greatness of "their" team. You know the story: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Deion Branch, Kevin Faulk, three Super Bowl victories, four appearances, and a perfect regular season in which the Patriots set records for number of wins in the regular season, number of points …
Quick Tip by . December 12, 2011
Is it odd that I prefer the old sucky Pats more than I do the winning Pats?
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