After the Patriots’ comeback win this past Sunday, Texans defensive end Antonio Smith cast some lighthearted aspersions about Bill Belichick’s team possibly spying on his own because Tom Brady and his offense adjusted immediately and perfectly to some looks the Texans threw at them in the second half. He claimed Houston was employing brand new defensive tactics — ones the Pats couldn’t have scouted — and it was “miraculous” how swiftly New England understood how to exploit them.
Smith said all of this with a glimmer in his eye, which makes it unsurprising he made himself marginally clearer on Monday, saying that the news outlets that ran with his quotes were a touch hysterical. Smith’s tone is a little bit difficult to decipher in print, because he tends to speak in innuendos that I think are meant to betray a certain giddy facetiousness. (Even when an NFL player is being “funny” instead of khakily dutiful, it’s kind of a headache.) But Smith basically kidded about how Oh, did I mention “spying”? I forgot that was a sensitive term with respect to Belichick and company.
Whether Smith clarified his comments or not, his initial ones were going to be newsworthy, the sort of weekly non-story we discuss because sports media has airtime and column inches to kill, and it’s good for a few jokes. Smith is right to assume that, because he was insinuating something negative about the Patriots — and not, say, the Chargers — his words garnered more attention than they otherwise might have, though he seems to misunderstand why, because he said, “It tickles me how much the country loves the Patriots so much that they take everything so seriously.”
The reason this is any sort of story is because the Patriots, outside of New England, inspire feelings of revulsion. Perhaps more remarkable than their sustained success over the past decade-plus is that we still hate them, and our ears perk up whenever someone alludes to Belichickian villainy. Continually maintaining possession of the Unlikable Team crown in a league with volatile rosters and more than a few child-tyrant coaches and angry bro superstars is something like an achievement.
It’s not that the Patriots aren’t interesting, but as I wrote a week ago, Belichick is made out to be a much more unusual thinker than he actually is. Brady, while once-transcendent and still-great, isn’t stylistically exciting or particularly anything besides handsome and forehead-pulsatingly overcompetitive. There’s rarely any strife happening in New England, or at least any we hear about. The Pats are even less quotable than your average NFL team because of the way players speak to the press as if Belichick’s scowling specter is standing directly behind them.
Yet the discourse tilts disproportionately their way. Whenever there’s a hint of unrest or impropriety from Belichick’s boys, it ends up as, at least, a fiercely-discussed-for-about-five-minutes event. For all of the coverage they receive, we know very little about the Pats, except that we hold them in contempt, and that they cheated a while ago in a way that, supposedly, other NFL teams have also cheated but not gotten caught. All they have been, mostly, for the past 12 years are an exceedingly competent franchise with two arrogant public faces.
What I’m finding as I take stock of what I think about the Patriots, and why most NFL fans have a generalized antipathy toward them is they remind me of the league they’ve been near the top of for so long. They’re absurd less in the sense of what they do than in what they are. They’re aggressively serious, in a way that makes you wonder if they understand that fun is allowed to be had on a football field. They’re corporate and clandestine. They’re a miserable, windowless factory that produces with reliable frequency moments of genius and skill. They are forbidding and sometimes beautiful and you can’t look away.