Holding up the Lamar Hunt trophy for the fourth time in seven years, there was actually a small, brief, almost minisule hint of a smile on New England coach Bill Belichick’s face. As Jim Nantz would tell us among the Augusta azaleas in April, what a moment.
There wasn’t much more than that, however. Wes Welker actually had a fist pump on the last Pats’ touchdown, but after finally closing out the San Diego Chargers in a game that didn’t even feel in doubt when it was 14-12, there was little celebration on the field. Ho-hum. Another win. Another trip to the Super Bowl. Another mark on sports history. Even the crowd seemed muted. It seemed like a big collective sigh.
All of which seems right in line with Sunday’s Designated Hitter column. Here it is:
You’re probably not going to want to read this.
I know, I know. That’s the last thing I should write to start a column.
But I’m just being honest.
Because this column is going to be about the New England Patriots.
And if you’re like me and a lot of sports fans around the country, you’re probably about as sick and tired of the Pats as I am.
I can’t do it anymore. I’m done with them. I see the word “Patriots” in a headline or a story, and I’m not skimming the story, I’m flat-out skipping it.
I don’t know how this happened, but it has. It wasn’t that long ago, less than a decade actually, when the cool thing to do was to like the New England Patriots.
But I can’t do it.
They are remarkable, what they’re doing. Marching toward their fourth Super Bowl in seven years, and doing it without losing a game. Unbelievable, really. In what we’re constantly told is a league of parity, the Patriots are the exception, winning all the time, every year. They deserve all the respect in the world.
Thinking back on it, the Pats were the NFL’s darlings once upon a time. When they took the field to play the arrogant and flashy St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots walked in as one, as a single entity, as a team.
And after they pulled off the improbable and sent Mike Martz smirking away, we fawned over them. What an amazing team, led by this Brady guy, some kid who was drafted in the 117th round or something.
And then the Pats kept winning and we all kept lauding them. They did it the right way. They worked the salary cap in their favor. They drafted brilliantly. They got free agents to sign for less money just for the privilege to play for them. Yada, yada, yada.
All along the way, however, we were treated to an increasingly dour Bill Belichick. Course, lamenting and downright distant, Belichick could turn an afternoon news conference into a comalike experience.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. So the media doesn’t get a splashy quote. Big deal. Who cares about the media anyway? Good for Bill, some of us still said.
But as the victories and the championships piled up, something happened. It wasn’t just that the Patriots were caught spying on the New York Jets’ sideline during a game. Machine-like, stomp-on-their-throat victories pretty much became the story of the Patriots in the 2007’s season’s first 10 games, putting Spygate on the back-burner.
But while the Pats kept rolling and brushing off suggestions that they were running up the score, the luster and awe at their brilliance began to wear off.
Actually, it didn’t wear off. It wore on, as in, it began get tiresome.
Yes, we in this nation, especially sports fans, love to try to tear something down once it achieves great success. It’s an ugly trait, but a real one. Certainly, that’s part of it.
But there’s something else. And it’s evident in every postgame handshake between Belichick and the poor coach he’s just beaten. On a good day, he’ll have a blank expression on his face, but more likely, there’ll be a hint of a frown. Three rings, on his way to a fourth after 19 straight wins, and yet there is nothing to suggest even an ounce of joy in the accomplishment.
His team is robotic in every way, efficient like none other we’ve seen in the history of the game. On the field and off, the movements seem mechanical with precision plays and mind-numbing quotes. There’s more personality on the teams on one of those long-lost electric football games, the one where seconds after you turn it on, all the players seem to end up jumbled in the corner of the board.
We’ve wondered for a while how long it would take before those video games would look exactly like the real thing. Well, the Patriots have done it.
And in the end, they’ve made it feel just as artificial.