Against the Grain: The Patriots' biggest crime? Making football boring
The Patriots’ biggest threat to the NFL is not cheating; it’s making football more boring. All of the controversy surrounding Deflategate simply masks the fact that the Patriots are the San Antonio Spurs of the NFL. On the field, there’s much more efficiency than sizzle—undoubtedly how Bill Belichick likes it. But as much as we all appreciate that NFL games are a chess match, the Patriots make it about as exciting as an actual chess match.
The most thrilling play in football is a deep pass, but last night Tom Brady didn’t take one shot against a shaky Steelers secondary. Except for that one glorious season with Randy Moss in 2007, he rarely gives the long ball a chance. Last season Brady ranked 15th in the NFL with 44 passes of 20 yards or more and last night he had just one. Brady ranked just 25th among qualifying quarterbacks in yards per catch (11.02). He’s perfected the dink-and-dunk game which is great unless you like deep passes like a normal NFL fan.
As for the running game, Dion Lewis’s 13-yard scamper was the closest we got to a home run. Dion Lewis! The Patriots have done more to de-value the running back position than any team in the NFL. This used to be the NFL's most glamorous position, and New England has made it as exciting as a long snapper.
The Patriots also sent a defensive message last night. They're perfectly willing to sit back and let you move the ball within the 20-yard-line. Their bend-don’t-break philosophy is consistent with everything else they do. Bor-ing.
If the Patriots wanted to accurately trash talk, they would come out of the tunnel yelling “we’re going to attention-to-detail you to death.” The exhausting effort the team puts into being bland towards the media has clearly bled onto the field.
“Do Your Job,” NFL Network’s look inside the Patriots' championship season last year, was a highlight reel of assistant coaches anticipating minute details of a football game. It was basically the polar opposite of what you typically see in a classic NFL Films highlight: a moving shot of a long pass spiraling in mid-air with powerful music in the background.
Football is supposed to be unpredictable and wild. The great teams of the past were explosive. The Steelers had Terry Bradshaw throwing bombs to Lynn Swann. The Cowboys had Tony Dorsett breaking long runs. The Giants had Lawrence Taylor punishing quarterbacks. The Packers had Brett Favre throwing into traffic. The Patriots have none of that.
Frequent cheating allegations have boosted no one's profile more than Bill Belichick's. Great coaches don’t have to be boring—Vince Lombardi has some of the most memorable quotes in American history. Bill Walsh wasn’t bashful about his genius. Tom Landry had that really cool hat. Belichick doesn’t exactly evoke images of General Patton; he’s more like an outstanding tax attorney who is equally adept at avoiding eye contact as he is at finding every possible loophole to maximize your return (although he might get you audited every few years).
Rob Gronkowski certainly adds excitement to the Patriots, but not necessarily because of what he does on the field. He’s an explosive tight end, which is a relative term. One of Belichick’s transformational strategies was revolving his offense around two pass-catching tight ends. Typical Patriots, take the least exciting skill position and double up on it because of a market inefficiency.
The NFL as a whole is in no danger of becoming boring, but some of the more exciting aspects of the game are in danger. Quarterbacks, led by Brady, pick apart defenses with incredible efficiency not pizzazz. The days of “mad bombers” are long gone. Running backs other than Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson in 2009 don’t snap off 80-yard runs. No one thinks to blame New England for this trend because they're too busy wrapped in the most recent Pats-induced “Gate.”
One quote that is mistakenly attributed to Lombardi (it was actually from a former UCLA football coach named Harry “Red” Sanders) is “winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.”
Winning, allegations of cheating and arguably Gronk are the only things that make this team interesting. That's fine for Patriots fans. But for the rest of us, it's more fun talking about broken headsets to break up the monotony of another perfectly executed 8-yard pass to Julian Edelman.