Wednesday, October 31, 2007

New England Patriots - Epitome of evil or misunderstood heroes?

There's been tremendous hue and cry over the Patriots performance, and whether they're exhibiting "poor sportsmanship" by "running up the score." From message boards to talk radio (even in Boston) to the football pundits and sports columnists. It is an article of faith that the Patriots are on a "Vengeance Tour," running up the score whenever they get the chance.

I don't disagree, necessarily, with the "vengeance" thing. While no one knows exactly what goes in someone else's head, these guys are proud and competitive, and it certainly is very easy to imagine that they're responding to press speculation about their past achievements being "tainted" by using videotaping on opposing coaches signals. It doesn't require great imagination to think that, "you think we won because we cheated? OK, let's just show you what we can REALLY do!" has crossed their minds.

And there are a couple of things that I won't defend. I think that it was dumb to have Brady in the fourth quarter of the Redskins game at all, and I certainly think that you can make a case that having him throw a touchdown on that drive, with the score already 38-0, was "piling on." But I don't actually think that the point there was to run up the score. It was "stat padding." (Which doesn't excuse it, or make it more attractive.)

There's no question that Belichick's a historian of the game. He's been in football his entire life, he's been in the NFL for over 30 years now, and he knows and cares about the history of the game, and his place, and his team's place, in it. That has led, at times, to game actions that wouldn't necessarily have been made had circumstances been slightly different. He put his first-string defense back into the final game in 2003 after they'd already wrapped up both the home field throughout the playoffs, and that game, simply to keep the Bills out of the end zone, and finish with a 31-0 win, mirroring the 31-0 loss to Buffalo in week 1. He let Doug Flutie kick a drop-kick field goal against Miami 2 years ago. Last year, with a big lead late against Tennessee, Vinny Testaverde threw a TD pass for the 20th consecutive year. None of those things were required by competitive reasons - they were either messages or stat-padding.

He's stat-padding now. You think he doesn't know what the TD pass record is? You think he doesn't know that Brady's running a record streak for three TD-pass games? He does, and he wants it to continue. I suspect (again, how can you know?) that he feels that Brady's been unfairly considered inferior to Manning because of the stats, and they're demonstrating that Brady can put up the stats, too.

In any event, I'm not going to defend Brady being in the game in the 4th quarter last week. And I think that re-inserting him for that last drive in Miami was also unnecessary, though understandable. The defense wasn't playing well, Miami was moving the ball, they've had problems there before, and 21 points is just not an insurmountable lead. I wouldn't have done it, but it doesn't warrant the vitriol it received. So there are a couple of things that have happened that people can legitimately complain about.

That said, a lot of the complaining has been just whining from people who don't like the Patriots. (Also very understandable - were I not a Patriot fan, I'd hate them, too, though you've got to respect what they are - they're putting on a clinic every week.) There was whining about the "fake spike" play in Miami. Sorry - this is the NFL - even if there is such a thing as "poor sportsmanship" by "running up the score," you can't do it in the first half. The other team is getting paid, too, and if one team can do it in one half, it's mathematically plausible that the other could do it in the second. So any complaints about plays in the first half "running up the score" invalidates the complainer from the discussion.

The other thing that's silly is the idea that they shouldn't go for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter with a big lead. That came up in Dallas, when a timeout by the Cowboys meant that they couldn't kneel out the clock. So they handed it to their 4th running back, who ran into the line four times. Including fourth down. And scored a touchdown. The funny thing is, three weeks earlier, in the same situation, they'd run on fourth down against the Bills, and been praised for it. You see, kicking a field goal there is running up the score. By running the ball on 4th down, you give the defense a chance to stop you. Dallas, of course, failed, so the Patriots are guilty of "running up the score." Nope. Kicking the field goal there is "running up the score." Running is just playing the game. So now they're getting criticized for exactly the same thing in the Redskins game. Again, you can't kick a field goal, you can't punt. What the hell are they supposed to do - take a knee with 4 minutes left? How does that make the losing team feel? Are they supposed to run a play but not try? It sounds like that's what people want, and you can't do that. If players are playing, they've got to play. Likewise with their last score on Sunday, which was a 15-yard scramble by the back-up quarterback.

Former Tennessee Titans GM Floyd Reese had some interesting comments in Mark Maske's Washington Poststory.

Reese said that Belichick's team is so proficient that Belichick is placed in some no-win situations when it comes to coaching decorum.

"I felt for the Redskins," Reese said. "I felt for Joe and especially Gregg [Williams, the Redskins' defensive boss who worked for Reese in Tennessee]. But the Patriots, they're just so good. You get into a situation like that on fourth down, what do you do? Do you kick a field goal? That's automatic points. You don't punt where they were on the field. So you might figure they're going to anticipate a quarterback sneak, and you run a play they have a chance to stop. If you start kneeling down with a lot of time left on the clock, that looks bad, too."

And all of the "shouldn't go for it on 4th down" whiners shouldn't be praising the Colts. They went for it on 4th down in the 4th quarter and a 31-7 lead over the Panthers. But since they failed, no one's accusing them of "running up the score."

But we know that's not the actual reason. People hate the Patriots right now (again, very understandable - I've already said that part of me loathes the fact that I'm apparently rooting for the late 90s Yankees and early 90s Cowboys. Of course, when the Patriots went 14-40 from '89-'92, I was watching all of those games, so I'm not going to feel TOO guilty about it...) So the Patriots are always wrong and, as the only team with a legitimate chance to beat them, the Colts are always right. The fact that none of this is actually close to being that cut and dried isn't relevant. I've seen the term "Patriots Derangement Syndrome," and I think that it is, at least in some cases, apt. That's life. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe once said (don't remember which book) that "he has the right to offend who is willing to bear the opprobrium." That's the situation the Patriots are in.

They seem to be bearing up under the burden...

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