You know, you’d think that with us not being all that far removed from the days when Boston was “Loserville,” we’d all just be able to appreciate winning just for its own sake. That we wouldn’t worry about the manner in which we won or style points or any of that nonsense. That only the scoreboard would matter.
And if you thought that, you’d have a hell of a good point. Part of being the City of Champions should be acting like winning is all that counts. That it’s all about results and nothing else. If 10 years ago today, in December of 2001, when we were sitting on 15 years without a championship, you told me that someday the Patriots would be 9-3, two games up on the division, sitting on the No. 1 seed in the AFC and looking at possibly having home field throughout the playoffs but all any of could talk about is how bad we think their defense is, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Worse, I would’ve called you a heretic, asked you if I should hold onto my America Online and pets.com stock, then sent you back to the future where you belong. Because I’ve always lived by the same credo as Conan the Barbarian: What is best in life is to crush your enemies, to see them driven them before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women. And it doesn’t matter how the winning is done.
And yet, here we are. The Patriots are winning. But they’re winning ugly. There’s no denying that. For the most part they’re keeping teams out of the end zone (13th in points surrendered), but they’re giving up so many passing yards they’re on pace to shatter the all time record with 4,960. In other words, they’ve made every QB they’ve faced this year -- and that includes Mark Sanchez, Tyler Palko, Vince Young and Dan Orlovsky -- almost the equal of 1984 Dan Marino.
To steal a line from another movie character every bit as tough as Conan, the great Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, the Pats defense is so ugly it could be a modern art masterpiece. So, admittedly, it’s been hard to watch, .750 winning percentage or no .750 winning percentage. Defensively, your 2011 Patriots play a style of football that’s difficult to watch. Soft, prevent-style deep zones that make every journeyman quarterback’s agent dream of contract renewals and reached incentive bonuses.
And it got me realizing that this isn’t our first rodeo. In the past 25 years or so we’ve seen plenty of examples like it in this town -- teams, athletes, managers and coaches that were an ordeal to watch. That didn’t entertain you as much as they made you endure them. The Patience-Testers.
I’m not talking about just your garden-variety talentless failures. No one cares about those. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m referring to the one who played with a style that tested the limits of your patience to the breaking point and made you question whether they’d be worth following, even if they did bring us a championship.
Counting down the dirty dozen of the last quarter-century:
12. Claude Julien’s Bruins: Before I lose all credibility with the hardcore puckheads, keep in mind that winning the Cup put them at the bottom of this list. Winning is the Botox that hides a lot of ugly. So not to be the turd in the punchbowl, but let’s not forget that right into, Claude’s approval rating was hovering right about where Obama's or John Lackey’s is right now. Julien had them playing a smothering, conservative, defense-obsessed style to the detriment of the offense. Lack of scoring was killing them, but he stuck to his four line-rotation guns. They couldn’t score a power-play goal if you spotted them a five-on-none. Revisionist history might claim B’s fans weren’t screaming for him to be fired, but a thousand WEEI audio on demand files say otherwise.
11. Drew Bledsoe: I apologize for tossing another sacred cow on the altar. Especially because Drew didn’t have a bigger defender than me. I’d had 10 million arguments over his Pats career with a thousand of his detractors who saw nothing but the flaws in his game. But a season, maybe a season and a half after he was traded to Buffalo, it was like a veil was lifted. Through objective eyes I finally saw the lack of pocket awareness. The poor throws. The terrible decisions. The bad turnovers. His career learning curve you could use to level a bookshelf. I’ll go to my grave defending Bledsoe’s toughness, class and leadership. But I can’t deny that he was a patience-tester. Bill Belichick’s, Bill Parcells' (twice) yours and mine.
10. Tim Wakefield: Forgive me again for saying bad things about another class act. Wakefield is a great teammate, a true pro. and does great things representing the team off the field. But let’s level with each other. On the field, the novelty wore off a long time ago. He’s been throwing that same pitch since the early '90s. And in all that time he’s had no more idea where the pitch was going or how good it was going to be than anyone else in the ballpark. We can and should give him credit for a long career, and recognize that him volunteering to pitch in the 2004 ALCS Game 3 blowout and save the bullpen ultimately won us the World Series. But if we’re being completely honest, no one’s been excited to have a ticket to one of his games since MTV was still showing music.
9. The geriatric Celtics: Obviously I don’t mean the Big Trinity of Pierce, Allen and Garnett. If you don’t like the way they play, you don’t like basketball, period. This is about the other veterans. The osteoporosis ward of guys Danny Ainge brought in the last two years as insurance against Kendrick Perkins’ health or his tradedawayishness. Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal and Shaq had their Celtics' injury careers interrupted by short bouts of playing. Ineffectively.
8. Closer by committee: I’m probably the only one who’ll admit this, but Theo Epstein’s revolutionary idea seemed sound to me. Every other sport uses specialists when they’re needed. Defensive replacements, pass rush specialists, good free throw shooters … all get put in the game where they can be most effective, not by the time of the game. Why not relievers? If the key out in a game is in the seventh inning, why keep your best pitcher sitting on his hands in favor of some scrub? Made sense to me. What Theo and I didn’t take into account is that pitchers are human beings. Fragile ones at that. Creatures of habit who can’t be effective unless they “know their roles.” The results were brutal. So much so Theo traded for a closer midseason then spent big money on Keith Foulke. That was probably the last time I used the term “fireman” for a closer, because firemen are supposed to give you help whenever you goddamn need it, not when they’re mentally prepared to.
7. The Ray Bourque Bruins: NOT Ray Bourque, obviously. But the teams Harry Sinden and the Jacobs family surrounded him with while his great career ran out of him like coolant out of a punctured radiator. Forecheckers, pokecheckers, backcheckers, fact-checkers, Chinese checkers … with never enough offense to ever give the captain a hope of winning. Not because out of some team concept that a superstar and a team of grinders was a recipe for winning. But only because they came cheap.
6. Jimy Williams: Jimy was a good guy. His players responded to him for the most part. But watching him manage was maddening. There was never any logic to the moves he made. The hopes of millions rested on a goofy man’s hunches and gut feelings. Ask Terry Francona why he did a particular thing and you always got a rational response. Jimy responded to perfectly logical questions like he was giving a spy sign/countersign. “Jimy, you brought in a lefty to face a right-handed batter who kills lefty pitching. Why?” “Why does the porridge bird lay his egg in the snow? Spring comes late this year. The daffodils will not bloom. …”
5. Rick Pitino’s Celtics: Again to my point, it’s not just that these team’s didn’t win. It’s about the fact that they were unwatchable. Between Pitino’s control-freakism that made every veteran in the NBA tune him out before he finished his second sentence to his utter lack of patience, leading to his itchy-trigger finger in trading away guys before you knew anything about them (Chauncey Billups), he made it impossible to root for his teams. And were that not enough: Antoine Walker used to lead the league in 3-pointers. And I haven’t even mentioned Rick took Red Auerbach’s presidency away from him.
4. The Moneyball/sabermetrics Red Sox: Moneyball has some good concepts. Sabermetrics are a useful tool for evaluating performance. But they’re like ammonia and chlorine. Two stable compounds that when you mix them together form a noxious cloud that destroys everything around it. Moneyball is all about working the strike zone, grinding out at bats and wearing down pitchers. Sabermetrics involve pitch count data, favorable matchups, pitching changes and pinch-hitting. Combine the two and you fill the ballpark with the noxious gas of four-hour, 400-pitch nine-inning marathon.
3. Sox vs. Yankees: The Moneyball/sabermetrics idea in its pure, undiluted form. The best rivalry in all of sports has been completely ruined the last few years by games that you know before the first pitch have zero chance of ending by midnight. Deep counts, seven pitchers per team, pick off moves by the boatload, guys stepping out of the box, pitchers circumnavigating the mound after every pitch, more conferences than FDR, Churchill and Stalin had at Yalta. Purists love the fact that baseball is the only game that doesn’t have a clock. Well, chess does, and the way we’re headed more people would rather watch it than Sox-Yankees.
2. The 2011 Patriots defense: The secondary is what quarterback heaven looks like.
1. Daisuke Matsuzaka: I tried. I tried with everything I had to enjoy Dice-K games. I convinced myself it was all just part of his master plan. Walk the bases loaded every inning and lull the opposition to sleep. Going 3-2 on every batter and rubbing the ball for 30 seconds between every pitch will make them think you don’t know what you’re doing. And all those 3-0 deficits in the second inning will give them a false sense of security. Yup. It was hard work, but I tried to tell myself Dice-K had everyone just where he wanted them. I finally lost the strength to go another step though sometime in his sixth or eighth rehab in 2010 and quit on him once and for all. But some part of me still thinks he’s holding back the gyroball for just the right time.
So we’ve been down this road before. And despite the No. 2 ranking, I refuse to give up on this Patriots defense. And for what it’s worth, the next worst defense after them? The undefeated Green Bay Packers. I said they tested my patience. I didn’t say there’s no hope for them.
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