What's Wrong with the New England Patriots?
There’s a perception in this world that everyone has to enjoy the journey – the total experience – of doing something worthwhile. In any walk of life, we’re always advised to stop and smell the roses along the way, because they won’t always be there.
Don’t take things for granted. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
It’s hard to rationally declare that the New England Patriots 2012 season wasn’t worthwhile, but if I stop and smell the roses I might throw up. And trust me – I know what I’ve got. I’m not happy with it. Three days after the Pats were held to their lowest point total in three years and were eliminated 28-13 by the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, I still can’t shake the feeling that despite being one of the final four teams left, it simply wasn’t good enough.
Just like last year, when losing in the Super Bowl wasn’t good enough. And the year before that, getting the No. 1 seed and losing in the Divisional Round – that wasn’t good enough either. Losing to the Ravens in 2009 in the Wild Card Round wasn’t good enough, and neither was losing in the Super Bowl to the Giants after going undefeated in 2007. Getting beat by the Colts in the 2006 AFC Championship Game felt like a colossal disappointment, and so did losing to the Broncos in the 2005 Divisional Round.
Yet, to any reasonable football fan, repeatedly making the playoffs – and advancing deep – is a special season. There’s 32 teams in the league, and the vast majority of those teams would trade places with the Patriots every single season. Twenty-eight teams would have given their seasons to be in the Patriots’ shoes this year.
But those teams aren’t chasing the dragon like the Patriots are. They aren’t chasing another title that they’ll never get.
You know how in the real world success changes people? Well success has changed the Patriots, and it’s made their seasons underwhelming and it’s made their accomplishments seem run of the mill. There was a time, before 2001, when the Patriots had never won more than 11 games in a single season. Now, if they win 11 games, they’ve had a sub-par regular season.
Since 2001, the Pats have won 11 games or more nine times. They’ve won 14, they’ve won 13, they’ve won 12. Hell, one year they won 16. It’s become a curse.
I’m sure that sounds ridiculous, someone complaining about the team they root for being consistently too good. If I was a Jets fan, I’d probably close this column right now. No one wants to hear about actors who suddenly became hugely famous and then say things like “Sometimes I just wish I could go back to walking around without being recognized.” It sounds like a crock of shit, and most of the time it probably is.
This isn’t. The Patriots regular season success and past postseason success has taken away from the enjoyment of having a perennial contender. Look at this way – the Patriots won three Super Bowls in the early 2000′s, and since then they haven’t experienced a drop-off in talent or in regular season performance. Because of those three Super Bowl wins, Patriots fans have been under the impression that a strong regular season + high talent level + Brady and Belichick = championship. It hasn’t, in quite a while, and every single year that it doesn’t happen it’s like someone is adding more weight on the team’s shoulders.
A team with three Super Bowl wins, five Super Bowl appearances and seven Championship Game appearances in the last 12 seasons has a disproportionately huge monkey on their back and it doesn’t seem like they’re any closer to getting it off.
That’s where the “chasing the dragon” comparison really shines through. If you’re addicted to a drug, you take more and more of it until the initial dose that used to get you high doesn’t work anymore. It used to take one bump, one line, one hit to get you going. Now, it takes, two, three, four. Well it used to be enough for the Patriots to win 10 games and make the playoffs – that was a great season. But once we all got a taste and got addicted, and then got strung along each year with 12-13-14-16 win seasons, it was impossible to be satisfied with anything less than perfection.
During championship seasons for all the teams I root for, there are moments that stand out in my mind. For the Patriots first Super Bowl, it was the Snow Game, then Bledsoe coming in against Pittsburgh. It was beating the Rams as two touchdown underdogs. When the Red Sox won in 2004, it was the Varitek-A-Rod fight. It was Dave Roberts’ stolen base. It was Papi being as clutch as can be. It’s the same for the Bruins two years ago, or the next two Pats titles, or the Red Sox’ title in 2007, or the Celtics title in 2008.
When it’s all said and done, you sit back and reflect on those moments. For me, at least, there are triggers everywhere that remind me of them. I hear a song on the radio, and I turn it up and before I know it I’m singing at the top of my lungs to something that inexplicably reminds me of the Patriots’ reaction when Adam Vinatieri’s field goal cleared the uprights in New Orleans in 2002.
I’ve become so high on those moments, on the feeling of getting over the hump and winning that not having those moments trivializes everything else. I used to love a big regular season win, and now it rolls off my back. Instead of having those “HOLY SHIT, YES! WE MIGHT GET THE NO. 1 SEED!” moments, I have a lot more of the “Okay, good win” moments. There aren’t as many highs because there is only one high that is satisfying enough - winning it all. For instance, when the Patriots lose a regular season game, I am shocked. I almost can’t believe it every time it happens, because it’s become such a rarity. By the same token though, that means I’m not shocked when they do win, regardless of the opponent, regardless of the situation. It’s business as usual.
At the end of the day, it’s as simple as the fact that the Patriots are going to make the postseason every year, in this era. They’re going to win the AFC East every year, in this era. It’s not as exciting as when it was rare, or when they were underdogs. If you watched a movie and knew the ending, would it be that exciting to watch? We know the Pats’ ending in the regular season.
It’s unfulfilling, and so is the ending that we’ve come to expect in the playoffs. Like clockwork, the Pats have gotten there and lost for the last eight seasons. They’ve turned into the Philadelphia Eagles of the early 2000′s – good enough to contend, not good enough to win. Brady and Belichick started out 10-0 together in the playoffs. They’re 7-7 since. If you look at the two runs independent of each other, the Patriots aren’t a perennial contender, they’re a perennial underachiever. They’re the team that can’t get over the hump, like the Colts of the early 2000′s, or the Ravens of the past five years (until this year). If Belichick hadn’t won the three Super Bowls, fans would be calling for his head like they were for Andy Reid’s head in Philadelphia, because simply keeping the status quo isn’t good enough when that status quo is falling just short of winning it all.
The Patriots first-round wins in the postseason, when they advance before eventually losing, those feel empty. That sight of Tom Brady walking off the field, not talking to anybody, head down, is become all too familiar. The joy from fans of other teams when the Patriots lose is becoming overpowering, and there’s no retort from Pats fans anymore because we don’t have a crutch to lean on.
Once you’ve tasted caviar, it’s hard to go back. We used to beat the Ravens. We used to beat everyone. Now, we’re the opposite. We’re like the teams that didn’t used to be able to get past the Patriots, and everyone else – whether it be Ravens or Giants – takes on the role of the Pats of old. Now we know what it’s like to keep getting close, only to see it slip away.
And remember how teams used to always have excuses when they lost to the Patriots? They would constantly talk about how they couldn’t believe they lost, how they were the better team. How the Pats were frauds. We just laughed, because we felt invincible.
Well we all have those excuses now. Gronkowski gets hurt. Talib gets hurt. A pass gets tipped up in the air 15 yards and intercepted. These are freak things – we should have won!
It’s the same refrain that we used to make fun of other teams for. Now, I guess, the joke’s on us. I’m tired of the same end of the year feeling, the same “It was still a hell of a run!” columns.
Sometimes it’s better to not get there at all then to get there and lose.