A DECADE AGO the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years, a sudden dominance engineered by a defensive mastermind who had failed miserably in his first head-coaching job and a 27-year-old quarterback who had languished until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft. New England was just the second franchise to win three titles in four years (after the 1992--95 Cowboys) and seemed poised to challenge the Steelers and the 49ers as the only teams to win four Super Bowls in one decade. The Pats were the model that every organization in the NFL was emulating.
The Patriots couldn't have known then that they would spend the next 10 years chasing that fourth Lombardi Trophy. And they most definitely could not have known that their quest would include controversies both genuine and surreal, making New England known as much for breaking rules as for breaking records. Now the Pats are in the Super Bowl again, and again there is controversy, this time in the form of a bizarre scandal called Deflategate.
What was remarkable this time was the sight of head coach Bill Belichick, in an extraordinary press conference last Saturday, fighting for either 1) his and his franchise's reputation or 2) some type of psychological edge in which suddenly the burden of proof is shifted back to the NFL and beleaguered commissioner Roger Goodell, while New England is free to prepare for the Super Bowl.
For a long time the Patriots didn't seem to care about controversies. It all started with Spygate in 2007, when they were found to have videotaped Jets coaches' signaling plays from the sideline. Belichick was fined $500,000, and New England was docked $250,000 plus a first-round draft choice. And even then, in a statement issued through the team, Belichick diminished the impact of the taping: "We have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress." He was seen by many fans as ducking full responsibility or, worse, being dismissive of the league's ruling.
The bad taste lingered, and some attached an asterisk to the Patriots' three Super Bowl victories. All of this was prelude to last week's scandal, over whether the Patriots purposely deflated footballs before their 45--7 victory over the Colts in the AFC championship game (which, even if proved, probably did not affect the outcome). Last Thursday, Belichick and Brady spoke at press conferences six hours apart, disavowing any knowledge of football deflation. Instead of shutting down the controversy, they elevated it to new heights of intrigue.
And make no mistake here: The ball-deflation controversy is major news primarily because the Patriots are involved and because it happened in the playoffs. Even as the contretemps was unfolding in Foxborough, the Browns, who went 7--9, were being investigated by the NFL for violating rules regarding the use of electronic messaging on the sideline during games. This received virtually no publicity, because it's the Browns.
There are larger issues. It's possible the NFL has singled out the Patriots for scrutiny regarding football deflation and who knows what else because Belichick is imperious and grouchy and has cheated previously. It's also possible that a large swath of the football-crazed public wonders how many times the Patriots have bent the rules and not been caught.
So here stood Belichick last weekend at the same lectern where two days earlier he had denied any prior knowledge of deflated footballs. The coach, who commonly—but not always—works tirelessly to say nothing, talked endlessly about air pressure and the preparation of footballs. About Deflategate, Belichick said, "We try to do everything right. We err on the side of caution. It's been that way for many years now."
Eight days before the Super Bowl, he sounded like a man who was trying to reshape his legacy. Or a coach trying to kill a distraction in order to win the Super Bowl. The second will be easier than the first.
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$7M to $10M
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