Thursday November 8th, 2007

The NFL's new villain started out as a goody goody.

It is hard to remember now, with all the talk about stealing signs, running up scores, refusing post-game handshakes and stomping on opposing logos. But the New England Patriots used to fashion themselves the etiquette police of professional football. They patrolled the league like a second commissioner. They enforced good manners.

When Indianapolis Colts' kicker Mike Vanderjagt declared in the 2005 playoffs that New England was "ripe for the picking," the Patriots eviscerated Vanderjagt for showing a lack of courtesy. "He has to be a jerk," safety Rodney Harrison said.

When Philadelphia Eagles' receiver Freddie Mitchell joked before the 2005 Super Bowl that he could not name members of the Patriots' secondary, the reaction was equally severe. "He's just showing a lot of disrespect," linebacker Willie McGinest said.

And when San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer mentioned after a game in 2006 that the Patriots were playing short-handed, quarterback Tom Brady shot back: "I just assumed you talked about your own team. You don't talk about our team."

The Patriots were not to be teased, tweaked or referenced in anything other than glowing terms. They were somehow above it all. "This organization is about class and about hard work and about saying the right thing and being the right person and holding yourself to a higher standard than what anyone holds you to," Brady said.

That quote, it should be noted, is two years old. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment the Patriots climbed down from their high horse and joined the rest of the unwashed in the NFL. But the moral decline probably began at some point last season.

Perhaps it was when coach Bill Belichick shoved a cameraman after a game ... or when he refused to acknowledge Jets coach Eric Mangini after a game ... or when the Patriots danced on the Chargers' logo at midfield after a playoff game.

"They showed no class at all, absolutely no class," said Chargers' running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "And maybe it comes from their head coach."

At the time, Tomlinson sounded like a sore loser. But the following week, after the Patriots lost at Indianapolis in the AFC title game, Belichick brushed past Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning. Maybe, you had to wonder, Tomlinson was right.

With the Raiders obsolete, the Patriots became the NFL's new bad boys, minus the black masks and metal dog collars. To define their new role, they even traded for the Raiders' most controversial player, wide receiver Randy Moss. Goody goodies no more.

The making of a villain and the building of a champion are often part of the same process. The Patriots, like the Yankees of the '90s, are easy to dislike mainly because they are so damn good. But haters could always complain, with some reason, that the Yankees bought their titles. They can now complain that the Patriots have been hypocritical.

New England is 9-0, clearly the best team in the NFL, though no longer the most righteous. The Patriots were punished for the spying scandal, Harrison was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, and the team has been accused of running up the score.

The Patriots do not need to cheat. But the spy scandal has become part of their identity, as much as hooded sweatshirts and fourth-quarter comebacks. Don Shula, who coached the Miami Dolphins to the last perfect season in 1972, suggested this week that an asterisk should go by the Patriots' record if they finish undefeated.

Shula then compared the Patriots to Barry Bonds. Even Belichick, who rarely shows much feeling, had to be stung a little bit by that one.

In the old days of the dynasty, New England probably would treat Shula like Vanderjagt or Mitchell or Schottenheimer, scolding him for a total lack of public decorum. But they cannot go there anymore. The Patriots, while more powerful than ever, are not the model citizens they used to be.

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