Greatness isn’t as easy as it seems.
Feel free to begin rolling your eyes at any moment, but the life of a Patriots fan has become more and more difficult lately. Sure, the team will play in its sixth Super Bowl in 15 years in a couple weeks. And yes, New England is simultaneously blessed with one of the greatest coaches in football history as well as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. Trust me when I say that I know I have nothing to complain about. My brother roots for the Detroit Lions, so I’ve witnessed true suffering as an NFL fan.
But the scandals have begun to pile up. First, the Colts complained about the Patriots’ rough treatment of their receivers back in 2004, prompting the NFL to restrict the shoving that took place between receivers and defensive backs, leading to an increase in illegal contact calls.
Then came the big one: Spygate. I brushed it off, and I think most other Patriots fans did the same. Of course what the team had done was questionable—at best. But everyone seemed to do it, and then the team ripped off one of the greatest seasons ever in the NFL and the fan base pushed any thought of videotaped signals to the back of its mind.
And now there is Deflate-gate. Or Ballghazi. Or the Ball-o-caust. Now the world has to stand by and watch as Bill Belichick pretends to know something about physics and Tom Brady figures out how many different ways to turn us all into fourth graders. And Patriots fans, for our part, have to search for the old answers. “Everyone does it to some extent,” or “they only target us because we win,” have become default responses for New England residents during the past few weeks. And all of this is okay. The Patriots have done a lot of borderline things during the past decade, and they and those who support them should have to answer for that
With that said, it is precisely the Patriots’ unheard of combination of football talent and brains that makes incidents like “deflate-gate” so frustrating. Tom Brady has a legitimate claim to the title of the best quarterback of all time. His playoff numbers beat almost any other quarterback’s in a head-to-head matchup, and should the Patriots win on Sunday then his candidacy to this title would grow even stronger. His coach, Bill Belichick, has earned a place alongside legends like Lombardi, Shula and Landry.
These two, among the best of all time in their respective roles, have dominated the beginning of this century, yet they will forever find themselves defending their record. Maybe everyone was doing the same thing, but that argument has gotten nowhere for the greatest sluggers of the MLB’s steroid era. And us Patriots fans, instead of celebrating one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports history, have to fight back against the asterisk-writers and legacy-deniers.
And maybe, just maybe, we wonder in the back of our minds whether they have a point. We wonder if those videotapes made a difference, or if Tom Brady can throw a fully inflated ball just as well as a deflated one. I can cast off the doubt with enough sessions of creative thinking and viewings of the 2001-2002 Super Bowl run, but I would so much rather not wonder if my team’s successes are legtitimate. These are the problems of a great team, and I understand that most fans would switch places with me in a second. But sometimes, I feel like I am watching a superhero movie and rooting for the villain.
The Patriots’ successes are not mine, just like any team’s victories do not belong to any fan. But watching Tom Brady drop a 40-yard pass over a sprinting linebacker into the waiting hands of Brandon LaFell is the closest I will ever come to NFL glory. I would hope that I could know that this glory—however removed and irrational—did not come through cheating. I hope that it didn’t, but the burden of rooting for the bad guys is that I can never be sure.
Photo: Steve Milne-USA TODAY Sports