In New England, the Calm Before the Storm
BOSTON — The Red Sox programs weren’t big sellers outside Fenway Park Wednesday night. Even at $1 apiece, few fans were interested in scorecards for a last-place team.
Instead, John (he declined to share his last name) was doing work hawking “Free Brady” stickers and large posters reminiscent of the ones from a few years back, the famous Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Only, instead of Obama, this hard-backed poster was of a pensive, determined Tom Brady. Fans who were there that night to watch a different sport were scarfing it all up. They wanted to hold on to a winner. A tarnished winner, but a winner nonetheless.
Inside Fenway, I spotted four Brady jerseys in the grandstand during the first couple innings of Boston’s 10-4 victory over the Blue Jays. That was only four fewer than the number of David Ortiz “34” jerseys I saw… at a baseball game, shouldn’t the Ortiz jerseys far outnumber any football jersey—particularly with Papi three home runs away from 500 for his career?
As the Patriots begin their Super Bowl defense against the defensively challenged Steelers tonight, New England is not such a conflicted place. Brady is innocent. He is vindicated, he is clear and they’re out to get us. If you live in this six-state region, you have been carpet-bombed with endless Fox News-type rants about how 31 paranoid teams and the league office have it in for the Patriots.
Those doing the ranting might have a point. The NFL doesn’t have the goods on the Patriots, and those inside the walls of the league office’s inner sanctum know it. But now, as the league readies to air 267 shows—256 regular-season games and 11 more in the playoffs—the evidence in the Brady case takes a back seat. In fact, it may take a seat in the trunk. Because now football games are going to dominate the headlines, rather than claims of innocence and discussions of a legacy that will likely be decided by an appeals court in New York sometime in 2016.
Kickoff for Steelers-Patriots is 8:30 p.m., and for the first time since mid-August the parched northeast could get significant rain. There’s a 50% chance of scattered thunderstorms in Foxborough, Mass. at kickoff. Maybe the incoming rain is symbolic, washing away the mess of the last eight months as football, glorious football, returns to America’s living rooms.
The bright side of the off-season scandal, one league insider told me last week, is that “at least the [rating] for the game is going to be huge.” That’s a sad way to look at the effect of one of the worst scandals in NFL history, but isn’t that the way this league thinks? Each storm cloud has a silver (dollar) lining, right?
So much has conspired to make this game a viewership monster. Two multiple Super-Bowl-winning quarterbacks, Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, winners of six of the last 14 NFL title games. Two storied franchises. Two teams that start every year with Lombardi Trophy dreams. And an audience that is hungry for actual football to take the focus away from the off-season scandal.
The stage is set for Brady to be the story. Not only do the Steelers have, potentially, the worst secondary they’ve had in years (and New England one of the most dangerous passing games in football), but the Brady motivation factor is huge. Even those who know him well have been surprised at what they’ve seen in him this summer. With the weight of a franchise on his shoulders, Brady hasn’t brought the strain of this story to work with him. One person inside the Patriots uses this word to describe Brady’s off-season: “compartmentalize.” As in: Brady has been able to compartmentalize his life and the battle to win his football freedom and still show up to work and be the leader of a Super Bowl champion. Corny, yes. But that’s the reality of Brady’s world. That’s the way he has treated this off-season.
There will be time to develop the lasting storyline of Brady vs. Goodell, as if we haven’t done enough of that already. Now, thankfully, there will be a game, and a season, to take us away from that. When you tune in tonight, don’t be surprised to see a team, and a region, mad at the world. The good thing for football, and the NFL, is that the ancillary stories will fade when the games begin. Let them begin. That’s the best news the sport has heard since Seattle and New England walked off the field, spent, on Super Sunday seven months ago. For everyone, the return of football couldn’t have come soon enough.