A Necessary Evil

Antonio Smith joked around about a possible Spygate II and struck a nerve, which says something about non-New Englanders' relationship with the Pats. (USA TODAY Sports)

Antonio Smith joked around about a possible Spygate II and struck a nerve, which says something about non-New Englanders' relationship with the Pats. (USA TODAY Sports)

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.

13 thoughts on “A Necessary Evil

  1. I think at least part of the problem so many people have with the Pats stems from the Boston fanbase. The Pats were basically an afterthought pretty much their entire history until the Brady era and yet the perception of the “long suffering fans” bled over from the Red Sox to the Pats and it all seemed so disingenuous. Plus, despite all their success, I get the feeling that as soon as this era of success is over the Pats will go right back to being the third or fourth most important team in the Boston sports scene.

    • agreed. i like the patriots. brady was one of my favorite players growing up.

      that said, i hate boston fans. hate em hate em hate em. so when the pats got jobbed, i dont mind, bc i know a half a million massholes just had their day ruined.

    • Uh, yeah. Read about the Sullivan family and Victor Kiam someday. New England fans are and have been loyal to the Pats, and they had been long suffering until Kraft saved them from moving to Hartford or St. Louis. They’ve sold out whatever stadium they play in since Bledsoe and they’ve always drawn well.

    • Patriots have been my favorite sports team since 1990. Yes I did in fact sit through that 1-15 season and was as yipity as Dick McPherson the very next year when we won six games for me being a lot. I agonized the next year reverting to 2 wins only for the heralding of Bill Parcels and Drew Bledsoe. Yeah Patriots fans do suck cause I’m too poor to go see a game perhaps I’ll get to enjoy them like the good old days after BB and Brady hang em up.

  2. I dislike the Pats but, in this case, Goodell and co. did New England a real disservice by destroying the 2001-2004 video evidence. It can’t possibly have been as damning as the implication that there must have been something damning there for the NFL to destroy the evidence. It’s not like the Rams, Eagles or Steelers would suddenly be SB champs. And now cheating will be the knee-jerk assumption until Belichick retires.

    And yes, the fans of Boston play a huge role. They discovered the NFL in 2001. I went to school in New England from 98-02, and never met a Pats fan until the fall of my senior year when they won the Super Bowl.

    • The Pats have been pretty popular in New England since Kraft bought the team. There were many ups and downs before that, but (from Wikipedia) :

      “On February 26, 1994, Kraft’s first full day as owner of the Patriots, the team sold 5,958 season tickets, shattering by over sixfold the team’s prior single-day record of 979. Moreover, since Kraft took control over the franchise, the Patriots have sold out every home game, including playoff and preseason games.”

      I’m not sure it’s fair to say that NE fans discovered football in 2001, just that they drew a lot more interest after they won a Superbowl. Just like every team does.

    • That speaks to the smartness of the fan base more than anything. Why root for a poorly run/managed organization?

      • The Red Sox organization was functionally inept for DECADES and yet they never had trouble drawing in Boston. So unless you are saying Pats fans have no intersection with Sox fans your argument doesn’t hold water.

        • That’s just hash. The Sox drew poorly in the 1950s and well into the 60’s. Ted Williams’ last game had a ‘crowd’ of 10,000 or so. Then 1967 happened and they’ve been a draw ever since — but that also coincided with them almost always having a good team too. Moreover, if the Sox were in Foxboro instead of the Back Bay, fewer people would bother going to most games.

  3. I find the number of bloggers on this site who justify their positions by using the first person plural (we hate them) vs. first person singular (I hate them) to be risible. I’m not partisan, but rather than hate the Pats for their success, I respect them. Is there really any evidence “most NFL fans” have antipathy for them, or is it another blogger who’s expressing his opinion as a trend?

  4. I’ll stack the destroyed video tapes up next to dead 70’s era Steelers linemen and the Sainted Rooney family any day of the week.

  5. Tom Yawkey was looking to get out of Fenway Park in the mid-’60s until the Impossible Dream happened in 1967 and the Red Sox won the pennant. That season saved Fenway.

  6. Really? Is it important to characterize a fan base? Are the fans in any football city different? I doubt it. A football fan is a sports fan, little different from a baseball, basketball or hockey fan. Except for the colors, the fan base at any city is interchangeable. Stop ginning up a non existent controversies that spark regional stereotypes. We are now a homogenous society. Perhaps it would be different if all the players were home grown, but that has not been the case for 80 years.
    If you want to see what a different fan base looks like, go to a soccer match in South America, or in Europe for that matter.