Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fear and loathing in Arizona

Until this season, I was not a Patriot-hater. To the contrary, I found a lot to admire in the way they played and how they won. They were smart and flexible on defense. One week they could shut down a high-powered passing offense like the Colts and then the next week they would stuff a physical running team like the Steelers. No team was better at halftime adjustments. Few teams hustled more or executed as crisply.

All of this is still true, but now it is overshadowed by the baggage. Or, to be blunt about it, the cheating and the Patriots’s arrogant response when they were caught.

Videogate is a big deal. To me, it did taint the Patriots legacy. It was a big illegal edge that is especially important in light of the narrow winning margin New England racked up in their first three Super Bowls. It was supremely relevant to Belichick’s ability to beat teams the second time around.

Sadly, the NFL blinked when they confronted the issue when they confronted the issue. While they dished out some fines, they also moved quickly to sweep the matter under the rug and to destroy the evidence.

Sports media played along. Instead of investigating the matter, jock-pundits assured us that “everyone steals signals” and it was no big deal. (If it was no big deal and if the Patriots did nothing wrong, then why even bother with the fines?)

The “every one does it” defense of the Patriots stands to in stark contrast to the on-going crusade by sportwriters against Barry Bonds. To be fair, shouldn’t they admit that his home run mark is A-OK because pitchers were juicing too?

The Patriots response was telling. Belichick churlishly refused to admit that he did anything wrong. He just copped to an inaccurate interpretation of the rules. Right after the fines were levied, his boss gave him a big raise and contract extension. His bank account never felt the pain of his “punishment.”

This is in keeping with the Patriot way. Belichick does not like the NFL’s injury reporting requirements. So he makes a mockery of it by listing Tom Brady on it by for over 50 straight weeks (4 seasons). In that time, Brady never missed a start. Belichick does not like the coaches game day dress code, so he manages to comply while at the same time looking like a tramp.

The NFL, to its shame, has tolerated this willful defiance. The new commissioner was John Wayne when it came to players and their off-field behavior. When Roger Goodell has to go nose to nose with Robert Kraft or Bill Belichick the tough talking lawman turns into Barney Fife.

This official cowardice makes its way onto the playing field. In big games, the Patriots get to push the envelope. TMQ has made this point many times but the problem continues.

Once again, not only did the weather (stiff winds died down just before kickoff) seem to be under Belichick's control, but so did the officials. Disciplined teams commit fewer penalties, and Belichick teams are disciplined -- but there's a difference between discipline and seeming to get a free pass from the officials. A few years ago, New England won an AFC championship when repeated obvious pass-interference penalties by the Patriots against the Colts went uncalled in the fourth quarter; that year, New England won the Super Bowl without ever being called for pass interference or offensive holding in the postseason. On Sunday, the Pats were flagged just twice, for 19 yards. With 11 minutes remaining and San Diego driving, Richard Seymour, after the whistle, shoved Philip Rivers to the ground directly in front of referee Jeff Triplette -- no flag. During a play, linebacker Mike Vrabel spun around his blocker, then leg-whipped Rivers, causing him to fall and throw an interception -- no flag. Reader Jacob Robertson of Rock Hill, S.C., writes, "Tripping is a penalty in the NFL, yet not only was this not called, the announcers praise New England linebackers when they cheat."

I fully expect the Patriots to win SB XLII. That will make them the greatest team in the Super Bowl-era. I’m just sorry that an extraordinary season comes with so much baggage.

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