by Jason Keidel
Though we’ve experienced a string of sunny days, the blue-tarp sky of Indian Summer, this has been perhaps the coldest autumn in NFL history, a confluence of troubling issues converging at the league’s headquarters in New York City, where Roger Goodell is in full spin cycle. Players are cheating and beating women. We’re learning that young men are suffering from CTE, with its tentacles curling up the rungs of mental illness.
If that weren’t enough, we’ve also heard that the league’s monolithic franchise, the New England Patriots, was sliding down the rungs of relevance.
Tom Brady was slow and stiff and stubborn, his cataract-infested eyes unable find any number but 87, who himself was crippled by bad knees and a balky back. And their ornery leader, Bill Belichick, who runs the empire in his hobo wardrobe and addresses the media in monosyllabic bromides, has lost his wand and his way.
If you’ll allow for a quick bow, I wrote a column that week calling the eulogy rather absurd. Then they vaporized the unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals on national television. And suddenly the solar system is in comfortable order. No longer are the pundits and critics lunging over each other to slap the premature postmortems on the Patriots. No more wreaths hung on Tom Brady’s tomb.
We’ve had a similar situation here in New York City, where the Giants were supposedly being lowered into the ground. Their head coach, Tom Coughlin, has breached the nuclear, geriatric number (70), when all mistakes are suddenly senior moments. Coughlin was to be ushered to the nursing home, wrapped in a Big Blue bib, and spoon-fed green jello for the next decade.
And Eli Manning, despite the two Super Bowls he delivered – at the expense of Brady and Belichick, no less – was an overrated quarterback on the back-nine of an overstated career. If not for a freak-show catch by David Tyree and untimely drop by Wes Welker, Eli would just be Peyton’s quiet, humble little brother, thumbing the overalls under his shoulder pads.
Fan, short for fanatic, is obviously given to turbulent moods. But remember that the Giants, who aren’t the model franchise but are a model franchise, are set at the most sacred duet in sports.
The Pats, who are the model franchise – a painful concession from a Steelers fan – have two monoliths at the two bedrock spots on the NFL’s totem pole. That would be QB and HC, of course.
And as long as Brady can sling it and Belichick can bring it, they can sleepwalk to at least ten wins every year. It helps to reside in the dust bowl of the AFC East, where the the Dolphins are the most recent Super Bowl winners – in 1973. The BIlls have never won a ring and the Jets are still chasing Broadway Joe’s ghost.
But the Patriots, like the Giants, like the Steelers, like the Colts, Seahawks, Broncos, and Packers, have a proper, corporate coda. They are firm up top and simpatico down the corporate ladder.
- The Steelers are owned by one family for 70 years. Three head coaches since 1969. Always build through the draft, including four Hall-of-Famers in in 1974. Six Super Bowls later, it still works.
- Giants have been owned by the Mara family forever. Tom Coughlin has been the voice of the team for over a decade, and Eli Manning has been there for almost every snap. No one disputes Couglin’s authority or autonomy. Because ownership doesn’t, either.
- Colts had Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy, and now lucked into Andrew luck, who is in lockstep with coach Chuck Pagano. Just that pairing alone will keep the Colts relevant for a decade.
- Pete Carroll struggled at first. Then he found Russell Wilson – equal parts spotless and selfless. Now the Seahawks are likely to repeat as Super Bowl champions for the first time since – of course – the Patriots.
- John Elway, whose visage is more iconic than the Rocky Mountains, is a lifelong Bronco who graduated from under center to corner office, and runs the Broncos brilliantly. He snags Peyton Manning and now Denver is the perennial favorite to win the AFC.
- The Packers, the progenitors of Titletown and the home of Lombardi. Lambeau is the womb of modern football. And it doesn’t hurt to have Brett Favre, who passed the Packer baton to perhaps an even better QB, as blasphemous as that sounds. Aaron Rodgers, in this writer’s humble opinion, is the best QB in the NFL. And you never hear about Mike McCarthy squirming on a hot seat
Now shine your flashlight on the bottom of the barrel, and you see the Jets, Jaguars and Raiders – all of whom have parallel ineptitude in the same place.
The Jets are a kaleidoscope of conflict. The owner loves the coach, yet hired a GM who can’t wait to fire the coach. The GM leaves $20 million of cap space on the table. They draft a QB in the first round, Mark Sanchez, who’s long gone down the NJ Turnpike. Then they double-down on Geno Smith, who has committed more turnovers than any QB since he entered the league in 2013.
The Jaguars haven’t had a franchise quarterback since Mark Brunnell. They have little stability in the front office, struggle to sell out their stadium, and have long been rumored to migrate to Los Angeles. (Even if the rumors had no merit, no one particularly cared where they played.) If Blake Bortles blossoms, then the franchise could, as well. A team pivots on the fortunes of a first-round QB. Just ask the Jets. Ask the team that drafted Tim Couch or Akili Smith or Ryan Leaf.
The Raiders are a wreck. But unlike the Jags and Jets, there’s a resounding sadness over the former NFL titan. Al Davis doesn’t count to the Key Demo. But ask anyone over 40 about the Silver & Black, the bloody, prison-yard game they played, the intimidation and commitment to excellence and the wild-haired barbarians who made the Raiders essential, from Ted Hendricks to Lyle Alzado to Ken Stabler to Jack Tatum. But Davis morphed from character to caricature, high on the fumes from the halcyon years, tooling around in a golf cart and Mafia-chic jumpsuit. For the last 20 years of his life, Davis just planted a turnstile in front of the head coach’s office.
This long-winded monologue is meant to help you find a filter when you become overly frustrated after one month, one week, or one Sunday afternoon. The Patriots lost on the road, in a decibel-drenched stadium, to a rabid Kansas City pass rush, on Monday Night Football. Every good team gets ambushed on occasion.
And New England, like all the persistent, prosperous teams that win despite the legislated socialism of the NFL, where the sport is programmed to produce a phalanx of 8-8 teams, deserve an optimistic nod until they prove otherwise.
Since free agency has been tossed into the NFL blender, we’ve had to redefine the modern sense of a dynasty. By any reasonable metric, New England has been one ever since Mo Lewis lit-up Drew Bledsoe and some tall, slow-footed kid from the running-rich Big Ten Conference came in and told Robert Kraft that he was the best draft pick he’d ever make.
The Patriots won’t be the patriarchs of the NFL for much longer. Despite his epic record since 2000, Bill Belichick had a losing record before Brady. A coach’s competence has long been commensurate to his ability to find a franchise quarterback.
Bill Walsh almost traded Joe Montana for rights to John Elway. My beloved Black & Gold drafted Gabe RIvera over Dan Marino. The Chiefs took Todd Blackledge over Jim Kelly. The Colts got Manning and the Chargers got Leaf.
In Foxborough, the line between fortunate and fabulous resided in the sixth round, the 199th pick. So they bag Brady, in the hopes he might make the team and hold the clipboard proudly, perhaps filling in for Bledsoe in blowouts and preseason games.
Then he became Brady and Belichick became a genius. Despite his ancient bona fides as a defensive savant, the grumpy coach has morphed into a mad scientist of offense. Such are the whims and winds of pro sports. But some truths always trump the historical histrionics of fans, pundits, and former players.
Stick to the script. It usually produces a happy ending.