Despite the fact that I’m an unapologetic Patriots homer, I have to confess that like most people, I, too, am starting to have serious concerns about where this team is headed.
Granted, I’m not, like some people -- cough Ron Borges cough, cough -- ready to declare the Dynasty finished for the 37th time since it began. The Patriots are constantly retooling. And while the Death Star II might only look half-finished, I firmly believe that there’s still some firepower left in the fully armed and operational battle station.
I’m 100 percent comfortable that between Emperor Kraft, Darth Belichick and his staff of Sith lords, the Empire is in the most capable hands possible. But still, with the season halfway over I’m having this creeping feeling that maybe … just maybe … there’s a serious flaw in the way the Patriots have been put together. It’s starting to dawn on me that the Pats as constituted are lacking a fundamental ingredient.
I wonder if the Patriots need more Bad Guys.
I don’t mean Bad Character Guys by any means. I’m not saying they need to trade for Cedric Benson or bring Travis Henry out of retirement or spring Rae Carruth out of solitary. Part of me is just worried that they don’t have enough certifiably Badass Types on this team.
I’ve had a theory for a few years now, and it’s one that seems to be confirmed by the parts I’ve read of Michael Holley’s new book “War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team.” The Pats put a premium on drafting bright, cerebral players. Belichick is predisposed toward building around guys who were team captains on their college teams. Right down to punter Zoltan Mesko, an educated, multilingual scholar who was elected team captain at Michigan.
The Hooded One’s plan, it seems to me, is to fill his locker room with strong leader types, and have these sort of superleaders emerge out of the group to lead the team. Think Captain America leading the Avengers, with Belichick in the Nick Fury role. (Author’s note: six paragraphs in and I’ve already decided I need to dial down the nerd level in here before I go any further.)
Belichick likes his players as controlled and level-headed as he is, and there’s no question he’s succeeded. They don’t step out of line before the media. There’s never a single sentence of bulletin board fodder for their opponents. Their end zone celebrations are rare, and even when they have one it’s so subdued it would get them voted off Waltz Week on “Dances With the Stars.” (Author’s note: Oops. That was a slip.) When someone screws up in their personal life like with PornstarGate or FondlemanGate, they’re so good at closing ranks, saying nothing and keeping the story from becoming a distraction that Herman Cain should hire them.
I think we all agree it’s a major reason Belichick has been able to bring in other team’s problem children without any risk to the rest of the team. How he’s brought known cancers like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss into the clubhouse and managed to keep them from spreading. Even the most carcinogenic of them all, Albert Haynesworth. Belichick was able to remove Fat Albert just as he started to turn malignant, in large part because his locker room is so strong.
And that’s great. They’re a reflection of their coach. Soft spoken, cerebral, careful with their words, immune to distractions and focused entirely on football. And I’ve always taken it as a given that this is a good thing. Until now. Now I’m starting to have my doubts.
I don’t know if I’m just frustrated by two straight losses or what, but I can’t stop looking around the NFL and seeing the top teams in the league acting like feral maniacs, playing some really good football doing so, and I start to wonder if maybe there’s not a connection there.
I look at the clubs near the top of everyone’s power rankings and I see guy after guy who’s an obnoxious, grandstanding jackwagon. Guys who shoot their mouths off and go on ridiculous rants for the TV cameras during warmups and do signature gestures after every play. As much as I hate that stuff, I see these same guys playing with intensity, showing passion for the game and (cliché alert!) making plays. And I’m having a hard time thinking there’s not a cause/effect at work here.
I despise Ray Lewis. His whole act with that insane, incomprehensible word soup of nonsense he spews before every game (always caught on camera, in case you didn’t notice) is laughably stupid. Until the whistle blows. Then he’s one of the 10 most enjoyable players to watch of my lifetime. Watching that Ravens-Steelers game last Sunday I realized that both teams are stocked with guys like that. Over-the-top caricatures of a fired-up football player.
Terrell Suggs is an angry lunatic. James Harrison is a berserk, mouthy loose cannon. But I can’t deny all of them play football the way I love to see it played.
I hate the Jets more than I hate soiling my pants. No team has ever congratulated itself more for accomplishing less. The Jets lead the NFL in on-field celebrations. They can’t pick up a first down, or prevent one, without bringing in a caterer, hiring a DJ and renting a moon bounce. But you can’t have watched them throttle the Bills in Buffalo and not respect the way they play.
The best team in football is the impossible-not-to-love, America’s-sweetheart Green Bay Packers. Yet they have quietly become the Team of the Signature Move. The Lambeau Leap, Clay Mathews Muscle Flex thing and Aaron Rogers’ Champion Belt gesture are cute now but will become those things you hate about them later on if they keep on winning. The way a girlfriend’s quirky, endearing habits become the annoyance you can’t stand just before you dump her.
After they beat the Patriots Sunday, the Giants went completely banana sandwich in the Gillette visitors' locker room. Video of the celebration went viral on the sports websites. Even allowing for the fact that it was a dramatic win for them, it seemed excessive even if they were a high school team winning its division Super Bowl.
But it hit me that maybe it just seemed over-the-top for me because I’m partial to the Patriots. I try to imagine them losing their excrement like that and it’s impossible. Just like I can’t picture Jerod Mayo leading the team with one of those crazy Lewis tirades, or Vince Wilfork shooting his mouth off T-Sizzle style. I can’t picture Wes Welker coming up with a Mathews-like pose, especially since the last time he colored outside the lines he had fun with an opposing coach’s bizarre foot fetish and got benched for a playoff series for it.
Again, I’ve always felt like the Patriots Way is the right way to carry yourself. But now I’m not so sure. In NFL Net’s “Bill Belichick: A Football Life,” he showed his players film of them from the year before, making great plays and fighting hard, and no one coming together to celebrate it. He reminded them it’s an emotional game and they should celebrate. They ought to congratulate each other when they do the job. Somehow, I can’t imagine John Harbaugh has ever had to remind the Ravens defense of that.
It’s not about (cliché alert 2) “swagger.” I hate that word as much as Belichick does. One of my favorite quotes from him (I think this comes from Holley’s other book, “Patriot Reign”) is when he quoted one of his players telling a reporter the team needs to play with more swagger and he said, “You can take ‘swagger’ and stick it up you’re a**, OK? It’s about doing your job.”
To me, it’s about playing with a cockiness. An arrogance, which, according to Thesaurus.com, would be another word for … swagger. Fine. But it’s more than that. The Patriots need more crazy. Fewer student council presidents and more kids who get in trouble all the time. Like the Breakfast Club, only 1,000 times worse (OK, the nerd slipped back in). They could use more guys who get called into the commissioner’s office, get fined and come out bitching about how unfair it all is. Borderline jerks who fans hate not because they’ve won a bunch of rings but because they play on the edge and intimidate teams.
I guess I just worry that they’ve got too much brains and not enough raw emotion on this club. You can’t win without both, obviously. And the championship teams of seven years ago had both in spades. Heady, physical guys like Rodney Harrison and Ty Law. It’s hard not to remember the time Tedy Bruschi held up a ball carrier just so Law could come flying in and finish him off and not get all misty.
That was pure badass. That kind of thing still exists, even in the Madden game the NFL is becoming. I’d just like to see more of it coming from the Patriots. Like I said, I’m not giving up on this dynasty. And I don’t think the problem is the guys they have are bad. I just think they could use more Bad Guys.
Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryThornton1