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Friday, January 1, 2016

For The Love and Hate of The New England Patriots

Me heading to work on Opening Day
I’m getting myself in trouble even beginning this. Why? I love the NFL. Like stupid crazy love. Like if you’re a guy who doesn’t have 17 weeks of Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays already marked on your calendar as “sorry, I’m busy” days, there is zero chance for a second date. I love the sport, the play calling, the yelling at the TV screens, the beautiful game of chess and evasion and collision that manifests in a gorgeous dance of speed and power across 100 yards of turf. I don’t know every Super Bowl fact or every player’s statistic or the name of all 32 teams’ defensive coordinators. But I know football. And I know that I love it. And that is enough. It is enough to feel my heart rate accelerate before every kickoff on Sunday morning. It is enough to bathe in the beauty of it for four months of the year, and go through withdrawals every time it leaves me in the beginning of February.

And let’s get something straight. Contrary to popular belief, Tom Brady is not my first love.

The NFL is.

And in order to write this, I’m going to have to shed a little light on my true love. And what's under that light is a little ugly. When you choose to love someone, you love them wholly and completely, regardless of their faults and vices. And let’s do a little math (and Captain Obvious common sense): the NFL has 53 players a team, if you’re not including the practice squad. At 32 teams, that’s 1696 players who were not hired for their moral uprightness, but for their passion, drive, and intelligence of the game.

One thousand six hundred and ninety-six.

Since last year and Deflate Gate, I have received an avalanche of disparaging remarks when people see me don my #12 jersey: 

“How can you support a cheater?” 
“I thought you were a good person.” 
“Of all teams, you’re a PATRIOTS fan? You?” 
“Tell me you’re from Boston. There’s no other excuse.” 
“I can’t believe you can actually feel okay wearing that.” 
“How can you have a crush on such a fraud?” 
“They are the most dishonest team in history. And you’re a fan?”

I must clarify that I rarely hear these comments among fellow football fans. They’re usually from those who don’t follow the sport, yet feel the need to attack it as if they own stock in it and have a Masters in the game that they’ve most likely never sat through four quarters of, except during the Super Bowl with a good multi-layered bean dip to keep them on that couch.

Mind you, I never rebut these comments, as I have often found people like to hear their opinions as universal truth, and then move on. Any defense I could offer would bore them, as they don’t care about the sport anyway, much less my opinion. Plus, I cannot nor will not justify that my team was innocent or clueless of the deflation.

Brady over my right shoulder (oh, and my parents and Jen - haha)

At the game 3rd quarter

This year, I was lucky enough to fly to Denver and watch the Patriots play the Broncos in a sold out stadium of orange and blue. 

I was at the 50 yard line, fifteen rows up from the field, stomping my frozen feet for four quarters of snow. Denver’s back up QB Osweiler held his own against an injured Pats defense, and in OT, they took down the Pats and their undefeated record. It was heartbreaking, but still an incredible experience, even as my parents (big time Bronco fans) would reach to hug me every time their team did something magnificent.

Of course I came back home to comments like, “It’s about time the cheaters got brought down,” and “Sweet justice.” People rallied around Denver, the heroes who conquered the enemies, The Robinhoods who served those thieves right! Yes, my sweet non-NFL-watching hecklers were defending Denver.

Let’s travel back to 1998. Let me introduce you to three fantastic Denver offensive linemen: Brian Habib, Gary Zimmerman, and Mark Schlereth. It was the AFC divisional playoff game and the Broncos won in Kansas City. Fair and square, right? 

Well, except for the Vaseline.  

Yep, those three linemen were fined after it was discovered that they lathered each other’s arms in Vaseline pre-game. My friends and I used to play water polo in the Delta River with a watermelon that we slathered in Crisco. Ever tried to catch one of those? Yeah, impossible.

You wanna compare advantages between Crisco linebackers and 1.6 PSI? I don’t. I’m not justifying one over the other. I’m just reminding us all that these players were not picked out of a church lineup. They love to win. I get it. But let’s not come up with patronizing nonsense that the team who leads the NFL with suspensions for Performance Enhancing Drugs DESERVED to take down the New England Patriots.

And a note on PEDs. If you’re going to play the comparison game to conclude that the Pats are SO MUCH WORSE in their cheating tactics than any other team, let's just remember that PEDs increase risk of injury to other players, and THAT is far worse than a ball that is more catchable. Since 2010, the top three ranked teams for PED suspensions are the Washington Redskins, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Indianapolis Colts. In a four way tie for fourth, you have the Baltimore Ravens, The New York Giants, the St. Louis Rams, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All of the above teams have had more PED suspensions each in the last five years than The New England Patriots have had IN TOTAL SINCE 1960.

But the Pats have a reputation! Remember when they filmed games and defensive signals? Yes, I do. But I also remember in 2010, when the Broncos also secretly filmed, except it was of the 49ers walk-thru practice. And THAT is illegal, on or off the field. What the Patriots did is actually legal and common; it’s just not allowed from the field. Had it been in the stands, it would have been no harm, no foul.

But Belichick is such a cheat. Other coaches aren’t as shady as Belichick.

Are you a Jets fan? Do you remember when Coach Sal Alosi was suspended for the rest of the 2010 season after he intentionally tripped the Miami Dolphins corner Nolan Carroll running up the sideline?

He’s not the only coach who has forgotten that he’s not wearing a jersey. Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin walked on the field and into the line of Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones as he was returning for the kickoff. Jones literally had to move out of his way and into a tackle.

Raiders fan? Then you may know that your owner Al Davis once posted a sign in the locker room that read “Raider Rules: #1. Cheating is encouraged. #2. See rule #1." Does that mean they cheated? Nope, but it doesn’t seem like your owner is frowning on rule-breaking.

However, while we’re talking Raiders, it is important to note that Stickum was only made illegal after the 1980 season when Raider Lester Hayes would cover himself fingertips to elbows in the stuff. Did it work? Well, he did intercept 13 passes and receive the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. You be the judge.

NY Giants fan? By far my favorite of the shady NFL moves is from Linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who wrote in his autobiography that he would routinely hire escorts the night before football games to “entertain” the running backs he would face the next day. The escort’s job? To “weary their legs.” Ha! Talk about covertly preying on men’s weakness to give yourself the advantage. Well played, good sir.

I could fill pages with different players in the 32 teams who have cut corners, helped themselves, and hurt others in their fight to have every advantage on Game Day. They’re fierce. Not flawless. Notorious. Not noble. No one ever said they were noble. 

Should there be consequences? Absolutely. I’m not trying to advocate for a rule-free league. However, before you come down on the Patriots as THE cheaters, take a step off the field and back up to the nosebleed section. Look down on the NFL as a whole. Add up every team’s multiple violations, from PEDs to Salary Cap infractions, from Vaseline and Stickum to dance/sex partners hired for their opponents, and I think you’ll find that the New England Patriots are far from the front lines in the ranking of “scandalous teams.”

As for Deflate Gate, let's take a look at the two refs' measurements of the footballs at halftime (credit:
So, no, they weren't all at least two pounds under, as originally reported. But it doesn't erase that most were one pound under. One is still one.

Here’s my quick stance on the deflated balls: I don’t think my coach was aware of it, and if you know anything about NFL coaching, you know that when preparing for a game, the footballs are not even on a coach's radar. That’s petty janitor work, when he's the principal: he's assuming the classrooms are ready for students, but he's not checking the desks for gum. He's dealing with the important administrative logistics.

But sadly, I can't say the same for my quarterback. Brady’s too good to be ignorant. If he didn’t do it, which I don’t think he personally did, his hands would have still recognized the difference. Brady is good. Really good. No one, no matter how much he or she may dislike Brady’s fame or good looks, denies that. Brady is damn good. He knows his football as if it’s another appendage. And therefore, I only have two options: he either knew or he didn’t know. Here, his talent deceives him. You can’t be that good and not recognize the meticulous differences. Would it have changed the outcome? No. That’s what’s so disappointing about it all. It would be like Michael Phelps wearing invisible fins. Why, Michael, why? You're good enough to kill the competition without them. 

Do I think the balls were deflated in the same way I let air out of a soccer ball? No. I think they were inflated to 12.5 PSI in a warm inside environment on purpose, knowing that Mother Nature’s cold weather would do her magic. Subtle. But nothing new. Andrew Luck does the inverse. He has his footballs inflated in the cold outside on purpose so that his footballs naturally increase in PSI in the slightly higher temperature of the field. It’s preference.

Aaron Rodgers has admitted to overinflating his footballs. CBS broadcaster Phil Simms recalls Rodgers stating pre-game, “I like to push the limits of how much air we can put in the football, even go over what they allow you to do.” Does it help with his grip and confidence? Probably. Do I think he’s a cheater because of it? No.

Brady can throw a deflated ball. He can throw an overinflated ball. He can throw a regulation inflated ball. And would you be able to tell which is which if you just watched his throw? No. Brady can throw a helium balloon as if it were a rocket. I think it affected the catching more than the throwing, but then it really just comes down to good field playing, because if you can intercept, it’s an easier catch for you too.

So is it that big of a deal? Eh.

Every team is guilty. Every. Single. Team. Yet The Pats are the ones with the mark on them.
Which leads me to the question, why so much hate for The Pats? I mean, truly, there is no middle ground. It’s crazy passionate love or vehement hatred. 

I think it’s because America loves an underdog. We rally, don’t we? We tune in for the Cinderella teams who squeak into the March Madness bracket. We are America: the eternal optimists. Believers in miracles through enough hard work. We fight for the impossible. We hope for the hopeless. Look for life among the ashes.

At the end of the day, I see a team who is really good and a coach who is never pushed around and a quarterback who is that talented. And hot. And married to a supermodel. And dammit, just stop it already, New England! Why would I cry for the popular head cheerleader who loses an earring when she is basically nice with awesome parents and a sexy-and-good-to-his-mother boyfriend and no financial struggle. Can she just trip going down the stairs? Just once? Or get a gnarly wart on her face?

I get it. I do. And you are perfectly entitled to hate whatever team you want. What I’m trying to prevent is the untrue absolute that The New England Patriots are more deplorable than 31 other teams and their naughty shenanigans.

Newsflash: They’re all naughty. And for the 17 weeks in the regular season, I will park myself in front of multiple screens and soak in the bliss of a beautiful and well-crafted symphony of strategy and strength known as the National Football League. Because at the end of the day, the scandals and shadiness are far outweighed by the beauty and sexiness of the game. I love all 1696 of you. Play on.

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