Every mountain and every wave, every steeple and stock has one. And, more pertinently, so does every empire. Peaks are at once a cause to celebrate and a cause for concern. They lull us into an intoxicating feeling of well-being, of permanence and infinity. Yet at the same time, they signify the exact opposite.
The highest point, means, of course, that every time after that will be a little bit worse. The path may not plummet from there — it may even plateau or rise again — but from there, it’s a generally downward thrust.
The Greeks and Romans appeared, at their apexes, to be flawless. For the Greeks, strings of battles and eventual Roman conquest signified the end. For the Romans, it was over-extension and barbarian blows.
And now, the New England Patriots, the modern American sports dynasty, may have come upon theirs, with the accusations that the Pats illegally videotaped opposing teams’ defensive signals (a bit like taping the catchers’ signs in baseball), under the watchful eye of coach Bill Belichick.
The Patriots achieved, through no explicit cheating, an almost perfect team this off-season. Landing Randy Moss — still one of the top-5 most-dangerous receivers in the NFL — for a third-round draft pick isn’t quite Babe Ruth-for-a-sack-of-money territory, but it’s a bit like acquiring a Chateau Brion filet for American cheese on Wonder Bread. Donte Stallworth, my Eagles’ best wideout in 2006, seemed to just slip out of our organization’s back door and crawl into the Pats’ locker room. The receiving corps had amassed such talent that the Pats’ best receiver from the year before, Reche Caldwell (61 rec, 760 yds in 2006), didn’t make the squad.
Moss was on the discount shelf because of a disposition that people agreed lacked enthusiasm, motivation and any fragment of interest in being a teammate. But, we all figured, all Moss needed was to be part of contender and have a reason to play, and we’d be witnessing a rebirth of a man who used to singlehandedly dictate the way that other teams organized their weekly defensive meetings. Statements such as “I might want to look forward to moving somewhere else next year to have another start and really feel good about going out here and playing football,” which he said on a Fox radio show in 2006 while with the Raiders, gave us this inkling.
Week 1: 9 catches, 183 yards, 1 TD. More yardage than the entire Jets passing offense (167 yds).
He was feeling good about playing football again. And we were all feeling very, very much oppressed by the entire Patriot organization.
They were, in almost every sense, airtight. Bill Belichick was robotic in front of the media. Terse, unembellished answers. Only giving them what they ask for, at the very most. His was such wheat-bran personality that a story about obtaining and bankrolling a New Jersey-based mistress lost steam immediately because virtually every reporter found him impossible. He was a famous motivator, the man who seemed to be able to convince a piece of grass to stand up at the right time to slow down an opposing running back. The only coach to ever win three Super Bowls in four years, he was a rock, above reproach. He seemed to be fused with the Patriot empire, the same man inside and outside that haggard cut-off sweatshirt. He was the kind of coach that books were written about — books that became How-To’s for coaches and aspiring businesspeople together.
As if Tom Brady didn’t need more public coddling, Rick Reilly — the man who probed my boy Nick Williams last year for 40 minutes to get one indemnifying quote — wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated that a saint would have written about Jesus. The crux of the story? Tom Brady is a cool guy, citing his ability to have a chin and date two supermodel-calibre women.
If the Yankees or Sox are America’s teams, then the Pats are America’s Dream. A franchise that appeals to the common man as much as it does the luxe-box-seaters. Businesses can admire the team for the way that no one ever says anything bad about them, about how there’s a defined hierarchy and every member seems to feel entirely comfortable being a cog in the greater works. This is Boy Scout stuff. But it’s also Fortune 500 stuff. Every year they’re successful, and every year after, they seem to come out better. People want to play for the Patriots because they know they’ll be associating themselves with greatness and professionalism through and through.
There were so, so few cracks. The Belichick scandal wasn’t even one. But this is.
Now, the waves from this could be disastrous. The media are trained to investigate every lurid lead, and you can expect that this story will unleash a rush of iconoclastic enthusiasm, dedicated to bringing down the team. Perhaps Belichick and the boys will be able to handle all the unusually negative press – they probably will.
But the shockwaves could grow dramatic. Soft waves against the beach can steadily erode a sea shore or, even, create a canyon. If the Pats do lose a first and third-round pick, as was the initial insinuation, it’ll hurt. It won’t be a crushing blow, because you’d have to squeeze the new guys into a phenomenally complete team anyway.
But it’ll be a blow nonetheless.
And if the American media’s history is any indication, the blows will keep on coming. We are not a country good at forgetting, but we do excel at pack-attack. Take Britney Spears at the VMA’s.
The Pats are on a pedestal, which makes them a prime target. Now, when the media feeding frenzy fades out, the Pats may have weathered the storm. But this is mark that will linger, like a corked bat or doping for a biker.
Said LaDanian Tomlinson, a past critic of the way the Pats played football: “I think the Patriots actually live by the saying, ‘If you’re not cheatin’, you’re not trying,’ ” Tomlinson told San Diego reporters with a laugh Tuesday. “You keep hearing the different stories of people complaining about stuff that they do. So I’m not surprised.”