Friday, December 7, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

After this week’s heart-pounding end to the Patriots/Ravens game, several Ravens players said they thought the NFL wants the Patriots to go undefeated. They used that conspiracy theory to explain why they had so many penalties called against them, especially down the stretch.

The idea that the NFL (which punished the “bad boy” Patriots earlier in the year) wants to see the Patriots rewarded with anything is ridiculous. And anyone who observed the officiating in New England’s hard-fought win over Indy (more info here) would plainly see that there couldn’t be any conspiracy.

Or could there? The more one considers all factors, the more it seems like there is a conspiracy to help the Patriots win. But the NFL Offices and referees aren't involved. It’s the 31 other NFL teams and the sports pundit-ocracy who allow the Patriots to restock their team with talent and provide a continuous supply of motivation to keep the team focused and sharp.

How else can you explain the following:

1. Both Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis were retained by the Patriots for the 2003 and 2004 Super Bowl Championship seasons. There were 15 head coaching changes during the off-seasons that preceded those two years, and neither Weis nor Crennel received more than cursory interviews, even though most observers thought they would make excellent head coaches.

Add to this the NY Jets hire of under-performing defensive coordinator Eric Mangini in 2006 (which allowed the Patriots to hire Dean Pees, who has been much better), and one might conclude that the other NFL owners wanted to make sure the Patriots got as much out of their coaches before hiring them away. How generous of them.

2. The Buffalo Bills traded their 2003 first round pick to the Patriots for Drew Bledsoe – when there were no other suitors for Bledsoe’s services. The Bills were so desperate for a quarterback, they ended up bidding against themselves and the Patriots held firm and extracted a first-rounder, even though everyone in the NFL knew the Patriots couldn't keep both Bledsoe and new star Tom Brady.

The Patriots chose star defensive lineman Ty Warren with pick, and the Bills ended up with a 23-25 record under Bledsoe with no playoff appearances in three years. It's not a big deal, if you think Bledsoe is your man and you want to make the trade. But don’t bid against yourself when the other team has no leverage at all. Sheesh!

3. The rest of the NFL General Managers sat idly by while the Patriots signed Rosevelt Colvin and Rodney Harrison as free agents and the Bears compliantly traded nose tackle Ted Washington to the Pats for a fourth-round pick in the 2003 off-season.

Colvin was the most prized defensive player in free agency that year, and Washington was the run stuffer the Pats needed while they groomed current star Vince Wilfork. It would have been impressive if the Patriots had gotten any of the three players, but at the time, I noted: “Of the six most significant defensive acquisitions in the NFL [this off-season], the Pats made three.”

If I could see that, why did other GMs sit on their hands? The Patriots had won a Super Bowl two years earlier and missed the playoffs in a tie-breaker the previous year. Yet the rest of the league looked the other way while they improved every problem area they had from the prior year. Maybe ownership and coaches should just say, “thank you” and wait until next year’s bumper crop of signings.

Oh, by the way, the result was the team's second Super Bowl Championship in three years. And a big, wet smooch to the rest of the league for enabling it.

4. 30 NFL General Managers let the Super Bowl Champion Patriots grab borderline Hall-of-Fame running back Corey Dillon for a second-round pick. The only knock on the 2003 Patriots was the mediocre stats of featured back Antowain Smith (642 yards and 3 touchdowns for the year). So when every other team passed on Dillon (who’d gone over 1,000 yards in 6 of 7 seasons), the Patriots shored up their one weakness on the cheap. Of course, what followed wasn't much of anything at all -- just an NFL record for consecutive wins (18 regular season, 21 including playoffs) and another Super Bowl win. Way to go, NFL GMs. Patriots fans really appreciate it.

5. After the Patriots had two early playoff exits, the rest of the NFL was back to its generous ways this past off-season. The Raiders overplayed their hand with the Packers and ended up taking a fourth-round pick from the Patriots for Randy Moss. The rest of the league also allowed the Pats to sign wide receiver Donte Stallworth and linebacker Adalius Thomas (once again, the most sought-after defensive free agent last year). And then Miami put the cherry on top of the off-season sundae by trading receiver/kick returner Wes Welker to the Pats for second- and seventh-round picks.

Moss has been nothing short of brilliant, Welker is an excellent replacement for Troy Brown, and Stallworth has played exceptionally well. And the signing of Thomas was crucial, given the age of the Pats linebackers and how steep the drop-off is from Junior Seau to Eric Alexander. The rest of the NFL had to know how desperately the Patriots needed help at wide receiver and linebacker, but they the team shore things up all the same. Again. Does anyone else out there smell a conspiracy?

(Oh, and that fourth-round pick the Pats traded for Moss... they got it in a trade with San Francisco. In return, the Patriots got San Fran’s first round pick next year; which looks like it will be a top 5 pick in the 2008 draft. Looks like the league is still full of gifts that keep on giving!)

6. With all that talent, the last thing the Patriots need is extra motivation. But the rest of the NFL has consistently provided plenty of it – often aided by the 24/7 sports pundit-ocracy.

If Bill Belichick was unsure how to motivate his team, the media reaction after the videotaping incident was all he needed. Dozens of NFL “experts” in the media declared that the Patriots Super Bowl victories were “under a cloud” or “tainted” by the scandal. And of course, many current Patriots were on those teams. So all Belichick had to do was remind the players that people were questioning their past achievements – and it was one blowout win after another.

7. At mid-season, Don Shula (the head coach of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins) said that if the Patriots went undefeated, there should be an asterisks next to their record. And two players from that Dolphins team questioned whether or not the Patriots have the stamina to go undefeated. Shula has since backed off that statement, but don’t think the Patriots forgot it.

8. ESPN columnist Gregg Easterbrook has written over and over that the Patriots are running up the score in a display of bad sportsmanship. He even went so far as to write a column that characterized the Patriots/Colts game as a showdown between “Good and Evil.” He later said he was being sarcastic, but I’m sure that didn’t lessen the fire it lit under the Patriots players.

Every time a team or a pundit questions the referees calls, wonders how good the Patriots are, says that “the best team didn’t win" after a Pats victory, or questions the Patriots sportsmanship in “running up the score,” it provides just a little extra edge the Patriots can use to keep themselves focused on the game at hand. Think about it: when the Ravens accused the NFL of conspiring to allow the Patriots to win... well, isn’t that a roundabout way of saying that the Patriots aren’t good enough to win the games on merit. Think the Pats took that personally?

So it appears the Patriots have always depended on the kindness of strangers. And perhaps the Ravens are onto something, there might well be a conspiracy in support of continued success for the Patriots. But if there is, the Ravens are as much a part of it as the rest of the NFL. Maybe they forgot the old saying: “When you point your finger at someone else, you’ve got three pointing back at yourself.” Look in the mirror, guys – you are as much a part of the “conspiracy” as anyone.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-0!

No comments:

Post a Comment