Saturday, February 2, 2019

LIII - Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

    It seems the old adage holds up, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A new post on this blog can only mean one thing: the Super Bowl is upon us once again. Nearly as predictably, this year's game once again features the New England Patriots, facing off this time against the Los Angeles Rams, a near-repeat of Super Bowl XXXVI, also held in Atlanta. I say near as last time out the Rams hailed from St. Louis and they'll be playing in the Mercedes Benz which was built to replace the 25-year-old Georgia dome. Yeah, the fine folks of Georgia only had to pony up $700 million to avoid the fate of St. Louis. As is always the case, there's a bazillion story lines fuelling the media hype, from the seemingly consequential to the game itself such as how the Patriots defense will be able to contain the high-flying Rams offense to the impossibly trivial such as whether Sponge Bob will make a halftime appearance with Maroon 5, a brilliant bit of marketing to distract millenials from the broohaha over Rihanna's refusal to play in protest of the NFL's blackballing of Colin Kaepernick for his, er, protest against the country's enduring racism.

    Yet nothing seems more compelling to me about this match-up than the aforementioned rematch between the teams as Super Bowl LIII will kick off 17 years to the day after the game that kicked off the amazing run that has seen the Patriots establish the most improbable dynasty in sports history. Love em or hate em, and I am firmly in the latter camp, what the Patriots have done in a league that is designed for parity, from the salary cap to the draft system, beggars belief and belies comprehension. Consider:
    • The Patriots have been in half of the Super Bowls since 2001. This will be the Patriots 9th Super Bowl appearance in 18 years
    • The Patriots won their 10th straight AFC East title this year. Only the Atlanta Braves have won more consecutive division titles in major American sports (11).
    • Those 10 titles have put the Patriots in the playoffs 10 consecutive years, an NFL record
    • New England now has won 10-plus games in 16 straight seasons, which ties the San Francisco 49ers' NFL record (1983-98) for the longest such streak. Oh, that's more 10+ win seasons than 14 franchises have in their history
    • This year marked the Patriots 8th straight AFC Championship appearance, no other team has made more than 5 straight (the Raiders)
    • New England has now played in the final four 13 of the last 18 years
    • The Patriots have 113 regular-season wins and 14 postseason wins so far in this decade (2010-present) for 127 total wins to set the record for wins in a decade, besting the Patriots mark of 126 set from 2000 through 2009. They have another year to add to the record.
    • Tom Brady has won more Super Bowls than any quarterback in history
    • Brady will have now played in more Super Bowls (9) than any other franchise (the Steelers, Broncos and Cowboys have each been to eight)
    • Brady has played in more post-season games (40) than 18 franchises and won more playoff games (29) than 27 franchises
    • Brady has 2,576 career passing yards in the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner is 2nd with 1,156
    Need I go on? Didn't think so. The point being, if you're a Patriots fan, there's never been a better time to be alive. Not so much for the rest of us as, in fact, the streak of dominance has been long enough for me to go from disliking the Patriots to hating them to respecting them and finally back round to an outright loathing as watching the Patriots in the Super Bowl is almost as boring as the game's official logo which has become as soulless as the league itself over the past decade. As in all sports at this level, the margin between victory and defeat is razor thin with the merest flap of the proverbial butterfly wing often making the difference. Perhaps that's what make the what if scenarios so tantalizing to contemplate. Just this year's playoffs offered up the double doink in the divisional round while the conference championship games offered up "what if the Chiefs' Dee Ford hadn't lined up offside in the AFCCG?" and "what if the refs had been watching the Rams' Robey-Coleman's pass interference/helmet-to-helmet hit?". This Super Bowl rematch seems a good opportunity to imagine how different the game and the world could have been had the ball bounced a little differently or fate bestowed her graces alternatively.

    Harken back to September 11, 2001. The New England Patriots have an 0-1 record in coach Bill Belichick's second season with the team coming off a lacklustre 5-11 first year. The team's starting quarterback is a strong-armed veteran named Drew Bledsoe who had signed a then record 10-year, $103 million deal the previous March. No one expected much from the the team; a playoff berth would have been happily greeted by the fans of the long suffering franchise which, since its birth as the Boston Patriots in 1960 in the old AFL, had been to only three championship games having competed for and lost the AFL championship after the 1963 season as well as Super Bowls XX and XXXI. About as many people were aware of the name Tom Brady, a quarterback drafted in the sixth round the previous year out of Michigan as werre of one Osama bin Laden, son of a Saudi Arabian millionaire, who had joined the Mujahidden in Pakistan to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 and formed a little-known group call al-Qaeda nine years earlier.

    We all know the disaster that would unfold that day and the calamity that would ensue as the world watched the most powerful nation in the world use the catastrophe to justify laying wasted to an ever-enlarging swathe of the world. Imagine if you will an alternate timeline, what would need to have been different for things to have played out less calamitously? Perhaps something as simple as the 2000 election not only having been won by Al Gore as it was but also awarded to him by the Supreme Court instead of the brother of Florida's governor. Sure, he may have led his nation into war in Afghanistan, maybe even Iraq, but at the very least he wouldn't have pulled the US out of the Kyoto Accord or made the documentary An Inconvenient Truth and become the bogeyman of the climate change denying lunatics thereby adding ammunition to the lies spread by the fossil fuel industry since the 1970s in their mission to muddy the water of science. Who knows, instead of hurtling towards doom, our species may have made inconceivable strides in science and technology to aid humanity rather than simply enslave it.

    If that's a leap to far, how about something simpler. What if NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had followed President Bush's urging to play the games the weekend following the attacks of September 11th "to show that terrorists can’t alter the way we go about our lives" instead of cancelling them as he did. Maybe then Drew Bledsoe doesn't get hurt in the team's second game of the 2001 season on September 24th, the first after the attacks. He wasn't simply hurt; he was almost killed by a hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Instead of Tom Brady entering the game (one they lost 10-3) and turning the team around leading them to an 11-5 division winning season capped by an improbable, underdog victory against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, Bledsoe remains quarterback and Brady languishes on the bench. Maybe the Steelers (beaten by the Brady-led Patriots in the AFC Championship) face the Rams, and maybe the greatest show on turf wins their second straight Super Bowl seventeen years ago.

    Yeah, win or lose come Sunday, if he's not remembered as the greatest quarterback of all time, at the very least Tom Brady will go down as the league's most successful, yet even he needed a twist of fate to wind up where he is today. The team's success, as any real fan knows, may not even rest on his right arm though, but instead hidden below the hoodie on the sideline in the mind of the Sith Lord himself: Bill Belichick. Regardless of who wins Sunday, a coaching record will be set; if the Rams win, Sean McVay will become the youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl, and if the Patriots win, Belichick will become the oldest. For BB it would be just one more to add to a bevy of other records he has, many of those mentioned above also apply to him along with a host of others requiring their own website to enumerate.

    Again, however, one needs but a smidgen of imagination to envision a different world where Belichick never joins the Patriots and the dynasty never happens. This time we have to go back more than another year to early January 2000, the millenium bug has failed to blow up the world, Bill Clinton is still in the Oval Office and another Bill, Parcells, had just unexpectedly stepped down as coach of the New York Jets. If only that bug had caused a few more glitches perhaps we could have avoided the zombie apocalypse that tech over-dependence is hurtling us towards. Supposing Clinton had admitted to inhaling? Then maybe marijuana would no longer be taboo in the NFL especially considering the promising impact of endocannabinoids for traumatic brain injury. Had only Parcells not set in motion the series of events that were to come, perhaps the Patriots would never have ascended to such heights. After an uninspiring 36-44 five-year stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Belichick had gone back to the assistant coaching ranks by joining Parcells' staff first with the Pats in 1996 then over to the New York Jets from '97 to '99. It was the move following the '96 season that set the stage for the confusion to come.

    You see, at first the Patriots wouldn't let Bill go, Parcells that is. In fact, when the Jets couldn't get him out of his contract they 'settled' for Belichick, naming him to the first of his short term stints. Unfortunately, this didn't please the New York press as they hectored the team into redoubling their efforts to get Parcells, which they eventually did a week later. However, as part of the negotiations, a clause was worked into both coaches' contracts stipulating that Belichick would become the Jets head coach in the event of Parcells' departure. When this came to pass three years later, Belichick became coach of the Jets. For a day before making this announcement:

    Yes Jets fans, in an alternate timeline, perhaps you are the Patriots. Unsurprisingly, they're a little salty. We'll never know what led Belichick to scribble his resignation on a napkin shortly before the press conference that had been scheduled to announce his signing. Why he chose the Patriots we'll never know; he has claimed in interviews that he was uncomfortable with the Jets ownership situation. The Patriots maintain they sent a fax to the Jets, one the team and Parcells claim they never saw, asking for permission to interview Belichick, who likely saw an escape route and took it. After failing to extricate himself from the contract in court, using the same lawyer that Brady would later use in the Deflategate case, the teams negotiated a settlement that saw the Patriots give the Jets a number one draft pick. History has vindicated the Patriots, but not everyone thought it was a good swap at the time. What if Belichick had coached the Jets for more than a day? Does he create a Jets dynasty or wind up just another coach? Would the Patriots have hired Dom Capers as might have happened had a snowstorm not delayed his interview by a day? As it was, however, BB wound up a Patriot and the rest is history.

    Unquestioningly, things had to fall perfectly into place for a quarterback selected in the sixth round, number 199 overall, to replace the game's first $100 million player. Serendipity might explain his pairing with a coach who probably should have wound up elsewhere, but instead combined to form the most successful quarterback-head coach tandem in NFL history, winning more regular season and post-season games than any other such duo as well as appearing in eight going on nine Super Bowls. Meanwhile, the rest of the league has gone through a coaching carousel of 184 head coaches combined. Nevertheless, it still wouldn't have had a chance to happen had there not been a New England Patriots team for them to join, and the fact there was requires yet one more level of suspension of disbelief and reliance on destiny.

    The NFL has a mixed bag of team owners. There's football's Palpatine, Jerry Jones in Dallas. A publicly-owned non-profit corporation in Green Bay. The nearly impossible to believe how much horribleness can be stuffed into one person owner of the Washington Football Club, Dan Snyder. Shahid Kahn, the embodiment of the once-possible American Dream, starting off as an immigrant washing dishes and living at the YMCA to owning the Jacksonville Jaguars. Of course, there's fuck Dean Spanos. Then there's Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a man who perfectly embodies America today combining the best and the worst the world has to offer in one person, without whom there would likely be no Patriots dynasty as there would not have been a team in New England.

    This time we've gotta go back a little further to 1988. Ronald Reagan is still dragging the Overton Window rightward and the owner of the New England Patriots is one Billy Sullivan. Facing bankruptcy resulting of all things from bankrolling the disastrous Jackson 5 Victory Tour, he's forced to sell the team for the firesale price of $84 million to Victor Kiam (yes Gen-Xers and older, the guy who liked the shaver so much he bought the company). Essential to the story, however, the sale doesn't include the stadium or land around it, which is sold separately to, you guessed it, Robert Kraft. Fast forward through four painful Patriot seasons that saw them amass a 21-43 record including a 1-15 1990 season and Kiam bails, selling to James Orthwein for $110 million prior to the 1992 season. Orthwein came by his wealth the old-fashioned way, he inherited it, being the great grandson of Adolphus Busch, he of Anheuser-Busch fame. Of course this means he had St. Louis roots, a city which had lost its NFL team, the Cardinals, in 1988 to the siren song of the air-conditioner hum of Arizona.

    Under Orthwein's stewardship, the team turned things around: Parcell's was lured out of retirement, Bledsoe was drafted to be the franchise quarterback and the Pat Patriot logo was transformed into the Flying Elvis. Orthwein's crowning achievement though was still to come: moving the team into the newly-built Trans World Dome in his hometown where he would rename the team the St. Louis Stallions. If Robert Kraft hadn't bought Foxboro Stadium, it would have happened, instead, as the team had a stadium lease through the 2002 season, one that Kraft refused a $75 million offer to buy out, they were stuck playing in New England. With neither party happy, weeks of negotiation finally resulted in Kraft buying the franchise for a then-record $172 million and keeping the team in New England. Before you become one of those Kraft-bots espousing the loyalty and wonders of Robert Kraft, maybe you should read this and see how he, with the help of now-NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, held the area hostage for public money when he went on to sign a deal in 1999 to move the team to Hartford, but ultimately used an escape clause days before the deadline.

    Yeah, you might say things have worked out pretty well for Brady, Belichick and Kraft along with their fans, but the rest of us are stuck watching them in the Super Bowl again. If the Patriots are to win, it'll likely owe a lot to an assistant coach, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. His line hasn't allowed Brady to be sacked yet this post-season, that's right, neither the Chargers nor Chiefs got to him (unsurprising, really, considering the Chargers horribly matched zone scheme all game and the Chiefs now unemployed defensive coordinator Bob Sutton). Anyone who saw James White routinely converting 3rd and 4s against the Chiefs knows they can run block as well; in fact, they only had 19 runs for losses all year, fewest in the league, with an o-line ranking 26th in the league salary-wise and no player drafted before the third round. With All-World Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald demanding constant double teams (and still beating them), they'll have their hands full. Donald will make his share of plays, but something tells me for the Rams to win one of the other Rams defensive linemen will have to step up, be it Dante Fowler, Michael Brockers or, most likely, Ndamukong Suh. If they can pressure Brady on more than 40% of his drop backs, the Rams will win.

    Meanwhile the Pats defence won't make the same mistake as the Saints made when they kept dropping seven defenders into coverage against the Rams thereby giving quarterback Jeff Goff too much time to pick them apart. Expect physical press coverage from the Patriots and lots of blitzing, but the Rams o-line ain't so shabby either as the team averaged a league high five yards a carry. Speaking of which, mystery surrounds last years offensive player of the year Todd Gurley's recent lack of play time, but late season scrapyard pick up, human bowling ball CJ Anderson has been a revelation bowling over players on the field as easily as he does pins in the lanes. CJ, and not one of the Rams high-flying receivers, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks, will set the team's tone and be the difference maker. If he and Gurley outperform the three-headed Patriots running attack of Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead, the Rams win.

    Regardless of whether the Patriots win or lose, I'm sure to spend some of Sunday yelling at the broadcast, be it the game or the commercials. We know we won't get the medical marijuana ad, but I sure hope we don't get that all-too-obvious whitewashing from Verizon celebrating first responders in the wake of the fact that the company intentionally throttled their data while fighting the California wildfires. Maybe we'll get the best men can be Gillette ad to trigger the folks that want to keep politics out of sports but voted for a pumpkin who regularly injects politics into sports to distract them from the fact he's helping his buddies rob the country blind. What's that? Maybe the problem is a multinational conglomerate that records almost $10 billion in annual profit with a CEO to worker pay ratio of 287 to 1 that has been found guilty of price fixing, child labor, forced labor and false advertising is using identity politics to sell over priced razor blades? No, instead of raging over that or the fact that we found out this year that cheerleaders were being flown to Costa Rica, stripped of their passports, and required to pose topless before wealthy fans they'll mash their keyboards over the fact that two of the Rams cheerleaders are guys.

    Regardless of the whether or not we get the next cultural tagline or Tide ad, at least we viewers will be blessed with Tony Romo providing the color commentary in the booth. Unappreciated during his career, he's been universally hailed in his new gig as he brings passion, insight and a knack for predicting plays to the games he calls. His play-by-play sidekick Jim Nantz aptly bestowed on Tony the moniker Romostradamus before he did this during the AFC championship:

    One silver lining about being cursed with yet another Patriots Super Bowl is that they've at least provided fans with good games in the past and this shouldn't be an exception. The Brady hagiography will reach new heights if he manages another win with the motley crew disguised as a wide receiver corps plus Julian Edelman he's got to work with. Ok, plus TE Rob Gronkowski and RB James White. Belichick's acolytes will be given new scripture to sing his praises if he manages to outfox his flavor of the week nemesis Sean McVay. And Robert Kraft, well, he'll be able to get black out drunk to make up for last year's loss to the Eagles. It didn't have to be this way but it is what it is so despite the bad-taste-in-your-mouth feeling of cheering for a Stan Kroenke-owned team, that's what I'll be doing tomorrow as Greg the Leg propels the Rams to a 30-27 victory.