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
When Philadelphia Eagles' receiver
And when San Diego Chargers coach
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
"They showed no class at all, absolutely no class," said Chargers' running back
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
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
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.
Shula then compared the Patriots to
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.