It took until 2001 for it to finally happen. The New England Patriots, long the doormat of the NFL, ran onto the field of their first-ever Super Bowl as a team, eschewing the popular tradition of individual player introductions. They played a hard-fought game against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, falling behind The Greatest Show on Turf by at least seven touchdowns, but digging themselves out of their grave to win after one-armed, one-legged quarterback Tom Brady drove the Patriots the length of three football fields in eight seconds to score the touchdown that won the game and saved the United States of America from the Axis of Evil!…
Oh, hey, what’s that? That’s NOT how it went? Well, golly gee, you could have fooled me if you were talking to every Patriots fan on the face of the Earth! In fairness, the Patriots of 2001 were one of the league’s greatest underdog stories. They did run onto the Super Bowl gridiron as a team – which I thought was an awesome gesture of unity – and beat the Rams in one of the league’s biggest upsets. But taken as a whole, the Patriots haven’t been as bad as they’ve been made out to be. Seeing pundits refer to the old Patriots as hapless and terrible is like watching them refer to the Buffalo Bills as “once-powerful” just because they went to four straight Super Bowls: There’s a bigger picture there which the common narrative has no place in. The old Patriots weren’t great; that much is true. But they weren’t nearly as bad as they get made out to be, either. They were an inconspicuous team that played just well enough to be competitive and tease people into thinking they may have a real shot, but not well enough to be noticed. That 2001 visit to the Super Bowl was their first victory, but it wasn’t their first visit to the Super Bowl. They had had two previous visits to the Big Game by then, and those appearances sort of summed up their existence before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady turned them into a tornado: They were both nigh-unwinnable and, well, the Patriots didn’t win.
The Patriots were started when the AFL awarded their eighth – and last – original franchise to Sullivan Brother Printers, owned by Billy and Joseph Sullivan. They were businessmen in Boston – for god’s sake, they were named Sullivan, and you can’t possibly get any more Boston than that. They threw a fan contest to name the team, and with the American Revolution starting in Boston and everything, a good name came up. The team would be called the Boston Patriots. And that turned out to be one of the few good things that came up, because during their time in Boston, the Patriots never had a true home stadium. They were forced into four different home stadiums: Nickerson Field, Harvard Stadium, Fenway Park, and Alumni Stadium. They had a little bit of talent as well, between quarterback Babe Parilli, kicker Gino Cappelletti, and defensive tackles Jim Lee Hunt and Houston Antwine. They even produced a couple of MVPs during those years, and a couple of AFL All-Time players.
The AFL Patriots played in the 1963 Championship, only to get clobbered 51-10 by the San Diego Chargers. After that, they were constantly fighting for their division title against the Bills, but they also developed a real knack for falling to the moment. You can tell that because they didn’t make it to the postseason for the next 13 years. The Patriots finally got their own stadium in a far-off Boston suburb called Foxborough in 1971, and to reflect the change, they decided on a new name which would encompass their entire region: They were now the New England Patriots. None of that did much to change their fortunes at the time. They didn’t start to improve a whole lot until 1973, when Chuck Fairbanks became their coach and John Hannah and Sam Cunningham arrived through the draft. A 7-7 season gave fans a reason to believe in the team that year, but when quarterback Jim Plunkett got hurt, they went back to a three-win season the following year. So they activated their second-stringer, Steve Grogan, while Plunkett was traded to the Oakland Raiders. Grogan became The Man in New England, but don’t feel too bad for Plunkett – he won two Super Bowls while starting for Oakland. Grogan took the team to an 11-3 record in 1976, and the Pats had a playoff date with the Raiders. But in a critical fourth-down situation, Patriots tackle Sugar Bear Hamilton sacked Ken Stabler… Only not. He was called for roughing the passer, a mistake which Stabler himself admitted to years later. It also cost the Patriots the game.
From 1976 to 1989, the Patriots reached respectability, finishing with winning records every year except 1981, which proves to be an unusual season as far as 2-14 teams go. In 1981, the Baltimore Colts were also scraping the bottom for some semblance of relevance, also finishing 2-14 – and both of their victories came against the Pats. The Patriots were outscored by only 48 points overall, a differential that belongs to a good team having an off year – basically what the Pats were in 1981. Most of their losses came by a touchdown or less. A couple were by field goals, and they also had the Bills beat them on a Hail Mary final play. One sportswriter accused the Patriots of suffering from Bozo Syndrome, meaning the team played like clowns when it counted. And the way the Pats played in the late 70’s and 80’s exemplified that; they would start well, but collapse. In 1979, they started 7-3 but dropped to 9-7. The next year, it was a 6-1 start to a 10-6 finish. In 1983, the team pulled quarterback Tony Eason out of the Draft. Eason was the starter by the following season, and then benched for Grogan in 1985. And wouldn’t you know it, Grogan brought magic to the Patriots that year. First-year Coach Raymond Berry was a believer in doing the little things well, and the Patriots rode that philosophy to an 11-5 record, beat the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship, and went to their first-ever Super Bowl! Preparing for the big game, the Pats players took the opposing Chicago Bears’ outsized egos and nonstop trash talk as signs of their own insecurities. They practiced the no-mistake-do-the-little-things-well method of play and had no doubt they were going to win. Unfortunately for them, the incompetent, egotistical Bears were the class of the league that year. They walked into the Super Bowl with a 15-1 record and Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan’s 46 defensive formation, which had shut out their two playoff opponents. But the Patriots strolled onto the field and scored the first points of the game on a field goal! They also scored the last points of the game on a touchdown! What a shame for them that those ten points were the only ten points they scored during the whole game! And that this was a game in which 56 total points were scored! Yeah, the Patriots were promptly eaten alive, chewed into oblivion, digested, and disposed of out the other end. The 46-10 final came at the expense of a Patriots team that gave up what was then a record number of points and a record point differential.
That year was the high point for the Patriots for a long time. By 1989, they had become a disaster. Their best defensive players all got hurt in the same preseason game, they had no starting quarterback, and they won five games all year.It was the beginning of what fans call the Patsies years, which are still going, running concurrently with the great Patriots teams of today… Wait, they ended after 1993? They only went for that handful of years? And their fans STILL beg for sympathy from fans of perennial garbage teams like the Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals, or Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But they did get Drew Bledsoe in the Draft and hired Bill Parcells to coach. Those moves sparked a turnaround which culminated in the Patriots’ second Super Bowl appearance, in the 1995 season. Playing against the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, the Patriots didn’t fare QUITE as badly as the 35-21 final made it out to be – hell, they even held a 14-10 lead at the end of the first quarter. But the Packers scored 17 points in the second, which was 17 more points than the Patriots scored in that quarter. The Patriots pulled to within a touchdown again in the third, but after Packers kick returner – and game MVP – Desmond Howard ran the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown, the Patriots never got on the board again. The oddsmakers didn’t give the Patriots much of a chance anyway. Green Bay was favored by an incredible 14 points, and they covered the spread. Parcells resigned after the game because he and new owner Robert Kraft wanted to kill each other.
The next coach was Pete Carroll. Carroll was a shit coach who did everything in his power to run the Patriots into the ground and never could abolish the team’s constant string of 1-15 years… Oh, wait, I’m sorry. I’m telling this story like a Patriots fan would tell it again. Truth is, Carroll was a very good coach who faced a very good team which happened to be on the decline. In his three years coaching in New England, Carroll won 10, nine, and eight games respectively, so if anything, he guided the Pats to a very NEAT fall from grace. After 1999, he was fired as a casualty of the team thinking they achieved everything they would be able to achieve under him. His replacement was a former assistant to Parcells who had just walked away from coaching the New York Jets after his first day after writing out his resignation on a napkin. He went by the name Bill Belichick.
Belichick’s first act was to rebuild the team’s personnel department. He once said that he wasn’t going to win very many games if he had 40 good players while the other team had 53, and a lot of the Patriots’ players showed up for training camp out of shape that year. Belichick’s first year at the helm resulted in five wins. The pundits weren’t expecting them to get any better the next year, especially not after Drew Bledsoe took a nasty hit on the second play of the season and was injured for most of the year. Even before the season started, they were forced to part with offensive tackle Bruce Armstrong when he retired. Receiver Terry Glenn was suspended for drugs for four games, and quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein died of cardiac arrest. But the Patriots managed to find good substitutes at low cost: They drafted Richard Seymour on their defensive line and signed free agent Antowain Smith. But it was after Bledsoe’s injury that the Patriots made the move that defined them for the upcoming era: They activated their second string quarterback, a 2000 sixth-round pick out of Michigan named Tom Brady.
Brady started his career by not throwing an interception in his first 162 passes, which got a vote of confidence from both the team and the fans. But the Pats lost their first two games, started out 1-3, and sat at the 5-5 record dominating teams are usually at after their first ten games. Yeah, things weren’t going very well. But that fifth loss, against the St. Louis Rams, was their last loss of the whole season. They caught fire and went 11-5. In their first playoff game, against the Raiders, there was a point where Brady dropped back to pass, but got tackled and fumbled the ball. An instant replay overturned the call when the referee decided Brady’s arm was going forward when he fumbled, turning the play into an incomplete pass. Brady finished the drive he was carrying the team on with a field goal, which sent the game into overtime. New England won the coin toss, and kicked the Raiders out of the playoffs on their first drive. Bledsoe returned to action in the second quarter of the AFC Championship, leading a decisive victory over the Steelers. Then the Patriots met the Rams in the Super Bowl as a 14-point underdog. While the Rams drew first blood, the Pats managed to run up a 14-3 lead by halftime. They tacked on a third quarter field goal. By the fourth quarter, they had a 17-3 lead and had spent the game swarming the backfield and hassling Rams running back Marshall Faulk. But the Rams began a successful comeback and tied the game with 90 seconds left and the Patriots having no timeouts. The game was now expected to go into overtime, but the Patriots had other ideas. They drove to the St. Louis 30, spiked the ball, and kicked the field goal that won the game.
The Patriots cast Bledsoe off to the Bills, then proceeded to regress the next year. It should be noted that in this case, “regress” means fall to a 9-7 record. In an AFC East that was just weird that year, that tied them for first with the Jets and Dolphins while the 8-8 Bills had second place all to themselves. After that was the year the Patriots truly morphed into THE PATRIOTS. They went 14-2 in both seasons and won both Super Bowls. The 2003 Super Bowl was against the Carolina Panthers, and it was one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played. Both teams were powerful on defense, and they shut each other out until a few minutes left in the second quarter… When they managed to trade touchdowns, and the Patriots put a second touchdown on the board and the Panthers responded with a field goal. The halftime score was 14-10. The fourth quarter saw both defenses melt down and both offenses pick up their slack and the game morphed into one of the most exciting shootouts in Super Bowl history. The Patriots again won by breaking up a tie game with a last-second field goal. The 2004 Super Bowl pitted the Patriots against the most powerful Philadelphia Eagles team ever constructed. The Eagles ran out to a 13-3 record that year which could have been 15-1 if the Eagles hadn’t spent the last TWO games of the year resting their starters. They were equipped with quarterback Donovan McNabb, receiver Terrell Owens, and running/receiving threat running back Brian Westbrook. Unfortunately, they also had receiver Freddie Mitchell, a loudmouth who came with whispered talent; and coach Andy Reid, who seemed unfamiliar with the concept of a game clock. The Patriots won the game 24-21. There’s no question that they earned that victory, but there’s also no question that their dynasty was established because the Eagles shot themselves in the foot. They could have won had Reid managed the game with some sense of urgency in the waning minutes.
That was the last time the Patriots were ever likable. While the next two years saw early playoff exits, 2007 uncovered the camera scandal. See, the Patriots got caught stealing opponents’ defensive signals using camera footage. Commissioner Roger Goodell decided this was suddenly against NFL rules and slapped Belichick with the largest individual fine in the league’s history: $500,000. The team itself got hit with another $250,000, and were docked their first round Draft pick. So it was a very pissed Patriots team the took the gridiron in 2007, and Belichick used the season to stick his middle finger up at the rest of the league. Trading for receivers Wes Welker and Randy Moss made the Patriots an offensive juggernaut; in fact, when the season was over, no team ever produced as much offensively as the 2007 Patriots until Peyton Manning took over calling plays for the Denver Broncos in 2013. Welker tied for the league lead in receptions while Moss stole the show with 23 touchdown receptions. At some point, though, it became obvious that the Patriots were in it to kill everyone they ran into. They did things that were against the league’s unwritten rules about sportsmanship, like keep their starters in and throw in the fourth quarter during blowouts. Nothing kept the Patriots from going a perfect 16-0 during the regular season, though, and it looked like they would soon be joining the 1972 Dolphins as an undefeated team because no one could figure them out. No one, that is, except for New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Coughlin and the Giants were about the only ones who didn’t automatically concede the Super Bowl to the Patriots. They played a close game throughout, and by the fourth quarter, the highest-scoring offense in NFL history only had a 7-3 lead. During the quarter, the Giants scored their first touchdown of the game to take a 10-7 lead. The Patriots responded with a second touchdown late in the game. During the Giants’ ensuing drive, quarterback Eli Manning managed to escape a surefire sack situation which would have almost certainly have clinched New England’s title had they gotten it, and they literally had his shirt in hand when he scrambled away and let loose a Hail Mary. “Hail Mary” was an apt name for that pass, because a prayer was exactly what it was. Its target was a deadweight receiver named David Tyree who had three defenders on him, but Tyree came down with the pass and kept it safe by pressing it against his helmet like it was stuck there with some sort of crazy glue. Then, with 35 second left, Manning threw for the touchdown which took the Giants up 17-14, and fans everywhere held their breath because that was still about double the time Brady needed to get at least into field goal distance. On that last drive, though, the Giants swarmed him and sent him running like a dazed drunk trying to escape the Cops who caught him. The game ended, and the Giants had arguably the biggest upset in the league’s history.
The Patriots and Giants met again in the 2011 Super Bowl, and much the same thing happened. That time it was Mario Manningham who made the miracle drive-sustaining catch. At that point, Tom Brady had been putting up video game numbers for some time, and was in the conversation for greatest quarterback ever. Those two losses to the Giants got people questioning that status because apparently there was nothing better to report than a stupid argument about the quality of a competitor that happened to beat him in two games. (No, that’s not me imitating a Pats fan again. I hate Brady’s guts, but I want him on my team.) The Patriots then had a few “off” years – the quotation marks meaning that they lost the AFC Championship a couple of times – before finally returning to the Super Bowl again. It was the previous year’s Champions, the Seattle Seahawks, playing against them now, led by former Patriots coach Pete Carroll. Again, it was a close game, and the Seahawks could have – and SHOULD have – won had Carroll’s brain not been missing in action. The Seahawks were down 28-24 in the closing seconds and at the Patriots’ goal line. They had running back and unstoppable force Marshawn Lynch in their backfield. And being an unstoppable force, the Patriots spent the game struggling to stop him. Which is why what Carroll did at the time was a mystery worthy of Unsolved Mysteries: He called for a pass, which was picked off and subsequently gave the Patriots the victory and Carroll the new title of Biggest Super Bowl Goat of All Time, a crown he managed to pry from Bills kicker Scott Norwood’s head after 25 years.
The Patriots as they stand are always contending. They’re at the point where people are saying they’re going to fall soon, but then Belichick and Brady pull out another excellent season.
The Patriots retired seven numbers, and very few of them are for people I mentioned. Gino Cappelletti, Mike Haynes, Steve Nelson, John Hannah, Bruce Armstrong, Jim Lee Hunt, and Bob Dee are those numbers. There’s no Drew Bledsoe, who was the first to really put the Patriots on the map. No Sam Cunningham, who is their all-time leading rusher. No Troy Brown, no Ty Law, no Steve Grogan… And there are a few other notable players as well. Tony Eason takes a lot of shit because the team was never great with him, but he walked out of football with a QB rating of 79. Current starting quarterback Tom Brady may be the greatest quarterback who ever played, with arguments by boosters of Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Peyton Manning, and Joe Montana, and actually everyone because they all hate the Patriots. Manning gets the attention because he was Brady’s contemporary and rival, and there’s a case to be made that his accomplishments are just as impressive. Better numbers, more MVP awards, and the fact that he went to four Super Bowls with four different coaches playing for two different teams. I can’t say I buy it because Brady was always a better Super Bowl performer, and he did it against higher quality competition. The only knock people can find in the argument against Brady is that he lost two Super Bowls against Peyton’s little brother, but that’s as weak an argument as you could ever find. Eli Manning is a fine quarterback and a multiple-time Pro Bowler who only gets criticized for the sin of not being his big brother. Expecting any quarterback to be Peyton Manning is a tall fucking order, and anyone who tries to make it doesn’t understand the difference between not being Peyton Manning and being a bad quarterback. You get it a lot from pundits and Brady haters… Which basically makes it the mean as far as arguments go. It’s true that Brady has only known Belichick as a coach, but you’re still trying to criticize a guy who quarterbacked to SIX Super Bowls, emerging from them with a 4-2 record.
Even the big argument against Brady has holes. That would be the Pats’ notorious cheating; or as it really goes, their notorious “cheating.” The Pats take a lot of knocks for being “the biggest cheats in NFL history” because they were caught doing everyday football things which the media blew out of proportion. The first big incident was when the Patriots were caught filming the Jets. What fans calling for Belichick’s head don’t understand is that filming other teams’ practices is actually legal in the NFL. I mean FULLY legal. It’s not discouraged and it’s not considered unsportsmanlike conduct. However, the league DOES have rules about where in a stadium filming is allowed to take place, and the Patriots just happened to get caught doing theirs from an unapproved location. The 2007 NFL Rulebook says filming “must be enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead,” and the Patriots were caught filming outside. It’s not bad in proper context, but Roger Goodell blew it out of proportion because it was his first year and he had to establish his authority. Also, it’s because no league in North America stresses its parity more than the NFL, and the Patriots were ruining it by consistently being smart about personnel and salary cap moves. The second big incident was when the Patriots were reported deflating footballs on he sideline of the 2015 AFC Championship. That leaked out because the guy reporting it heard a now-discredited leak from the league saying the balls were two pounds of pressure per square inch under the league requirement. The information was corrected two weeks later, when an NFL Network reporter said that only one of the footballs was two PSI under the limit. The rest were just a hair under it. The league got special prosecutor Ted Wells on it, but after 107 days, Wells gave up because he couldn’t find any concrete evidence and started guessing. Since the NFL just had a shit year and came under assault for letting several players accused of domestic abuse off the hook, Roger Goodell latched onto his chance to turn himself back into the good guy. He suspended Brady, fined the Patriots, and docked their Draft picks. Again. Based on nothing but wild guessing.
There’s a website called Your Team Cheats that outlines the many ways football teams cheat, and it goes into details about rules and violations and exactly what happened. As far as general cheating goes, New England is one of the better teams in that regard; they’ve been caught cheating a hair less than the league average. But filming is legal and ball-tampering happens so frequently that the NFL picks and chooses its cases of it. The NFL’s established routine with tamperers is to fine them $25,000, tell the offending team not to do it again, and wash its hands. The reason the Patriots’ cases stand out is likely because they’ve spent over 15 years beating up the league’s obsession with its any-team-can-win parity. (And by the way, the team that has been caught cheating most often is the Broncos, in case you’re wondering.) That means there’s a real, bona fide attack on the Patriots that would win the sympathy and good vibes of every other fan base in the league, but…
Those fans. Those horrible, shit fans. I can think of a few great descriptors, but I don’t think anyone could get it better than Deadspin writer Drew Magary in his 2016 Patriots entry for the website’s popular Why Your Team Sucks series: “Take Pride, Boston. No one will ever topple you. You are SHIT. You ace every category of Bad Fandom: Self-pity, racism, arrogance, whininess, racism, entitlement, paranoia, racism, defensiveness… All of it. Thanks to your ultimate defeat in Ballghazi, you are now a permanent voting bloc of the pathologically insane and stupid… Imagine how miserable you have to be to get me to take Roger Goodell’s side in anything. And yet, here we are. The derangement is real… These are trashy people with ZERO self-awareness: Filing bullshit lawsuits, manufacturing their own realities, and expecting the world to embrace them at every turn.” Patriots fans actually filed a lawsuit against the NFL on behalf of the team for their way of punishing the Patriots. It should also be noted that this fandom only came out with the emergence of the Patriots as a marquee team – it seems that a lot of the team’s older fans are taking the new batch of bandwagoners to task themselves and wondering where they were when Eason, Grogan, and Bledsoe were all getting killed in the playoffs. The Patriots fans I’ve met who were fans before Brady and Belichick have actually been among the league’s classiest, but they’re being ruined in the imagery department by the n00bs who have been proud fans since 2001. I’m glad the older fans are enjoying the Patriots’ current dominance, and they seem to know how much heat they’re going to get once B and B are gone and accept it, but I’m hard-pressed to believe that most current fans are going to stick by them when the inevitable revenge beatings begin.
Also, a team that built itself on the image of colonial patriots is using dark blue and silver as its colors. That’s a small detail, but it does seem to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Yes, there’s red and white there, but only in sparing use. That’s bullshit. There’s no silver on the American flag, and the uniforms in general seem to hold more than a passing resemblance to another widely despised team that was grandfathered into the sports hatred pantheon: The Dallas Cowboys. It’s a shame because the colonial imagery has been such a huge part of the Patriots’ legacy. Their mascot, Pat Patriot, is a colonial, and they frequently have a line of people in Continental Army garb carrying muskets which get used in celebration of big plays. The old image on their helmet was of a colonial – also nicknamed Pat – in three-point stance with a football. The new colors are just a lousy fit.
The team’s name is the only one in professional sports which encompasses a whole area of states. I personally think the name Boston Patriots is a better fit, but the New England region is pretty united in its sports loyalties. They seem to have an ironclad loyalty to not only the Patriots, but also to baseball’s Boston Red Sox, hockey’s Boston Bruins, and basketball’s Boston Celtics.
I think everyone is hoping to count down the days until Belichick and Brady retire. Although the team enjoyed some success before them, they are basically its makers. Unfortunately for their fans, B and B will both be gone one day, and the Patriots will never encounter the likes of them again. So adopting fans are going to run into a lot of boiling-blood hate because of the reputation their current fans have earned, and no other fans are ever going to let up when they suck again.
They’re always contending now; the colonial imagery is just cool; they have a history that does, in fact, start before 2001 which has a few highlights too; longtime fans are finally getting their revenge on New York sports fans for everything the New York Yankees put the Red Sox through in baseball; pre-2001 fans, when you’re lucky enough to meet them, are good company
Most NFL fans would prefer the company of a Nazi to that of a post-2001 Patriots fan; most of the fans these days are post-2001 fans; overexposure exacerbates contempt; watching the pundits predict doom every time Tom Brady throws an incomplete pass gets tiresome; there’s a stark divide among pre- and post-2001 fans; team will be inconspicuous again once it’s back to losing and people tire of the networks running 30 of their games in prime time every season
Should you be a fan?
If you were a fan before their current success, have at it. Otherwise, probably not. No matter what your reason for adopting them is, you will never be seen as anything but a bandwagoning glory hound, and no matter how many 0-16 years the team has after this run, no one is ever going to feel sorry for you. You will never be seen as anything but the worst in sports fandom.