These guys used to be downright lovable.
They're not so lovable anymore.
The Patriots will seek their sixth title in 17 seasons when they play in Super Bowl LII on Sunday. They also will resume their role as entitled villains, which has made them the most disliked team in American sports.
Meanwhile, the Eagles will costar as the new America's team, hailing from the birthplace of democracy. They will be led by a plucky, persevering quarterback and will be coached by an earnest nerd; a team largely without stars or story line. They will remind you of the Patriots of the 2001 season, when they were the lovable underdogs whose delirious fans invaded and conquered New Orleans.
This is less a critique than a lament. It has been sad to watch the transformation of Patriots Nation from what it was into what is has become: a team and a region stained by its defense of the team's indefensible actions.
That reality was years away when the team and its legions descended on the Big Easy. The scene was heartwarming: eager, excited hibernators dancing down Bourbon Street like inmates released from the prison of football insignificance. A lot of them got really drunk, but it was the happy inebriation of weddings and births. And that was only Thursday.
They celebrated like the condemned, which they were. They could never beat "The Greatest Show on Turf," would never outwit offensive guru Mike Martz, but their hearts remained aflame nonetheless. You were happy for them, these two-touchdown underdogs who had as little chance with this kid Tom Brady as they'd had after the 1985 season, when the Bears shuffled all over Steve Grogan in the very same Superdome.
The sports world pulled for the Pats because, for many, the Pats represented hope and unity. Remember, this Super Bowl was played less than five months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The country was born in New England, and it was still reeling, still mourning. Being called a "patriot" in those days didn't reflect the nation's polarization. It just meant you were going to lose the Super Bowl.
Then they didn't.
Ty Law returned an interception for a touchdown, the Pats sacked Kurt Warner three times, and Adam Vinatieri kicked the winner as time expired. Brady, a sixth-round pick in 2000, was football's Rocky Balboa.
The Patriots remained darlings for a long time, as Brady ascended to superstar status. He won another title two years later, then won a third when he beat the Eagles after the 2004 season, and he was getting handsomer and better, as some men do with age. The curmudgeon coach, Bill Belichick, was an antisocial genius who somehow kept winning no matter whatever leftovers he assembled. The Patriots even earned a grudging respect from Philly, just as the Red Sox had. Both towns chafed at championship droughts while the bully between them, New York, won again and again and again.
So, what changed it all for the Patriots? How did they migrate to the dark side? The cheating?
And it wasn't just the cheating. It was arrogant, entitled, pervasive cheating.
It is not un-American to cheat. Not exactly. Everybody looks for loopholes, and everybody rolls through red lights.
It is patently un-American to justify cheating, and to claim entitlement to it. That revulsion is amplified when you cheat at sports, which, we like to believe, are founded on fair play. But the Patriots have built an evil empire, and they have done so without regard to public sentiment, and, so, they are despised.
Spygate, uncovered in 2008, would have lost the Patriots any support they had from Philadelphia, but the intricacies of the crime — systematic videotaping of opponents' signals during games for the previous eight years — were a bit too byzantine for the casual fan to comprehend.
It was the Deflategate saga after the 2014 season that did the trick. It sounds as ridiculous today as it did after the 2014 season: The Patriots were found to be manipulating the air pressure in footballs used in the AFC championship game against the Colts in Foxboro. That made the Pats repeat offenders; but, really, what's so offensive about a lower PSI?
So, no, it wasn't the cheating. Not exactly. It was their defense of the cheating, their obfuscation of the matters, as if the rules did not apply to them. America loves a penitent because America loves to redeem. The Patriots never confessed their sins, and so they have been excommunicated.
Belichick said he continued to tape games after the league told him to stop because he'd "misinterpreted" the league's directive, in that he'd never used the tapes to help him during the game in which the taping occurred. Nobody who doesn't pronounce it "chow-dah" believed him.
The Deflategate issue, while less significant, was much more damning, mainly because the organization and the chief offender went to such lengths for so long to defend something so absurd. The league tested the footballs at halftime of the AFC championship game in Foxboro, found the Patriots' balls to be flatter than the Colts' balls, then determined that, after the NFL's pregame ball inspection, Brady directed a locker room attendant and an equipment assistant to deflate them to lower than the legal limit. Small hands, you see.
When incriminating texts from Brady to the team employees surfaced, it seemed the case was closed. Brady would say he made a mistake, and he would wink, flash his dazzling smile, pay a fine, maybe sit out a game in 2016, and we'd all move on. Right?
Wrong. Brady and the Patriots fought like demons.
At the Super Bowl in Arizona, owner Bob Kraft deplaned in the desert and immediately held an impromptu news conference at which he demanded an apology from commissioner Roger Goodell once, as Kraft predicted, Goodell discovered no rules had been broken. The team then employed an army of experts and enlisted a legion of media support in its effort to discredit the NFL's test results. Brady denied culpability and litigated the matter for 18 exhausting months. It was surreal, and it was unnecessary. Tom Terrific played his best Super Bowl in a decade and proved that, no matter how flat the balls were, he was the greatest playoff passer in history.
Then, during the league's investigation into the matter, he destroyed his cell phone. That cut it for most people. Obstructing an investigation can be more incriminating than being found guilty. One is a judgment call, with room for doubt and argument. The other is a cowardly and indirect admission of guilt.
In May 2015, Goodell fined the Patriots $1 million and stripped them of a 2016 first-round draft pick and a 2017 fourth-round pick. More significant, Goodell suspended Brady without pay for the first four games of the 2015 season. Brady appealed the suspension, then fought it in court until June 2016, when, rather than taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court, he finally accepted the suspension.
This, of course, allowed him to play all of 2015. It gave the Patriots two training camps to prepare for his absence. It let Brady renegotiate his contract so he would save almost $2 million while suspended.
It also kept the matter in the news, which, ultimately, forever cast Brady and the Patriots as irredeemable cheaters and bad citizens of the sports world. This isn't unfair, but it is unfortunate. Brady isn't evil. Neither is Belichick.
The Patriots are an excellent organization with an unmatched commitment to discipline and teamwork and unparalleled investment in cutting-edge strategies and innovative concepts. They get the most from their coaches and players. Everything, every day, is geared to help the team win.
Yes, they've won big, and they've won for a long time, but winning doesn't always foster resentment. In fact, we tend to respect greatness, not revile it. The Bulls and the Lakers and the 49ers built dynasties, but Magic and Kobe are still adored, Joe Montana is iconic, and everybody still likes Mike.