Scary Good

What's really frightening, after a decade of dominance, about the New England Patriots.
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I see what you did there.

Photo by David Roth.

The man in the Gatorade-colored Gillette Stadium Ops Team windbreaker charged our rented, champagne-colored SUV just a brief moment after he had reluctantly waved us past. His whoa-whoa-whoa's Doppler Effected their way towards us, and then the man's face was at the driver's side window. "What are we doing here?" he asked, not in the way that one might ask that question while parking a mile from a football stadium in subzero temperatures four hours before kickoff, but more in the tone a security guard might use when collaring to a pre-teen shoplifter casually attempting to clank out of a Safeway with two dozen cans of soup down his pants.

Jeff, who was driving and with whom I was in Foxborough, Massachusetts to cover the New England Patriots divisional round game against the Denver Broncos, rolled down the window and explained that he was parking the car. Ops Team told Jeff, with the same loud incredulity, that he was parking too far from the truck next to him, then stalked back to his post; Jeff was convinced that he heard him say something about "Giants fans" as he did. Ops Team was still shaking his head when we walked past him, and began the trek towards the workplace of the NFL's sourest and quite possibly best football team.

Between that hinterland parking spot and the stadium was, in order: several acres of unpaved, free-form parking; dirt paths and hurricane fences; lurching Escher-ian helixes of ill-tempered traffic; a sprawling, twilit tailgate tent city of cornhole games, happy drunks in replica jerseys, and incongruously rustic hardwood fires hissing and flaring outside custom vans flying Patriots flags; more avant-garde traffic; a frozen outdoor mall with speakers bumping piped-in sports talk radio, a Victoria's Secret, a Bath and Body Works, and a boot-in-your-ass/it's-the-American-way take on Houlihan's called Toby Keith's I (Heart) This Bar + Grill. And then more parking, and some more up-market tailgating (which means catering-style tents, mostly), and then a few checkpoints. The Ops Team people with posts nearer to the stadium present a pre-exhausted professionalism; these were off-duty law-enforcement types saving themselves for a long night of telling the aforementioned happy drunks not to go certain places, prying less-happy drunks off those miles of hurricane fence or each other, and so on late into the night, win or lose.

Closer in still, an LED screen announces the musical performances coming soon to a nearby casino, or to the CBS Experience restaurant, which is a three-story ziggurat made of HDTV's and glass and wings. A slightly less-jumbo Jumbotron protrudes from it that's tuned to CBS and on which a steak flips, wetly and repeatedly, in an Applebee's ad. The screen says that Aaron Lewis from Staind is coming soon, to somewhere. The stadium is very close, now, although the media entrance is far on the other side, under a small awning near a service entrance and through a parking lot of idled golf cart-style security vehicles.

Everything we passed on our way to see the Patriots could, with some tweaks and exceptions—the Gillette Stadium parking setup is appallingly and unnecessarily horrible by any standard—be found at any NFL game. It's only when we get closer, both to game-time and the team itself, that it becomes impossible to forget what everyone—the giddy drunks in the Ben Coates jerseys fortifying themselves against the cold with canned macro-brews and the purple-faced big-ticket columnists king-shitting it in the press box and the chatty, professorial Revolutionary War re-enactors relaxing in the tunnel at field level, whose job it will be to fire blanks from their muskets after every Patriots score—is there to see. Which, to reiterate, is the most miserable and fascinating dominance-machine in the NFL: the Belichick Patriots, who it so happens are Super Bowl-bound again, and were about to beat the Broncos by five touchdowns. The best team of their era, probably. The most representative team of that bleak and bilious era, certainly. Those fucking guys. These fucking guys. Again.

***

In 2007, when the Patriots marched to the Super Bowl without so much as a loss or a let-up or a flicker of enjoyment, they seemed like something more, something crueler and inestimably worse, than a football team. New England's dominance that season was so outlandishly outsized—their average regular season margin of victory was 19.7 points, and they scored more than twice as many points as they allowed—that it was difficult to assess in a football context. Although the Patriots faded into a more familiar shade of greatness before losing in the Super Bowl, there were whole burned-over months of the season—the first two, for instance, when their average margin of victory was 25.5 points—when the team looked unlike anything that had come before. There's nothing about a two-month stretch of epic-scale, unrelenting blowouts that's fun to watch by the normal standards, but there was a certain assaultive awe to it. Imagine a stealth bomber flyover on a loop, three-and-a-half hours of roaring, brutish, death-from-above dazzlement. Then, if you really want the full 2007 Patriots experience, imagine the pilots then landing, scowlingly climbing down from the bomber's cockpit, and telling you in a low voice to go fuck yourself.

That the Patriots wore their dominance with such spectacular gracelessness was, finally, fine; pro football players are no more obliged to humor Dan Shaughnessey, for instance, than is anyone else. But leaving aside the Patriots fundamental and Constitutionally protected right to dickishness—the freedom of speech certainly extends to mumbled dismissiveness and the proffering of aggressively passive answers at press conferences—there was something deeply unappealing about how the Patriots went about performing their Patriot-ness, and how seethingly plain they made their misery after each triumph. At the end of an especially cruel and frightened decade, the Patriots seemed to embody all the joyless, thwarted smallness of our culture—snarling from victory to victory, accumulating and accumulating and somehow getting both smaller and heavier in the process, growing more paranoid, gnawed and jealous for the seeming effortlessness of those successes.

The National Bureau of Economic Research put the beginning of the recession in December of that year, which is to say that at some point in the last month of 2007, the whole ugly era reached some sour summit and began, slowly and then all at once, its descent onto all of us. The Patriots were perfect that month, of course, as they were in every other. The games were a little closer, and they were a little petty after a Week 14 win against Pittsburgh—Steelers safety Anthony Smith had predicted a Steelers win; "We've played against a lot better safeties than him," Belichick said, which counts as a third-degree burn from a man who steadfastly avoids saying anything at all, always. Otherwise, December was the same as the months that had come before. The Patriots gnashed and raged on the field, then wept disdain from their expressionless faces after. They dug graves and filled them. They kept on winning, and somehow grew only more bitter for it. It was thrilling to see the Giants put the lie to the Patriots' bilious vision of perfection in the Super Bowl, but, more than that, it was a relief.

***

When the Patriots were almost but not quite finished vaporizing Tim Tebow and the Broncos, Gillette Stadium's press box emptied into the elevator for the trip down to field level. The crowd, which had been singing and chanting and gloriously if a little alarmingly drunk earlier, had begun to leave during the fourth quarter, then poured out. The stadium was oddly quiet on our descent. The reportorial pod disembarked and made its way through the stadium's frozen guts. The Broncos dazed their way to the locker room, and reporters took seats in the media room or waited to be let into the locker rooms.

Another Ops Team member, this one piled grayly into a folding chair, chastised a group of television cameramen for obstructing the concourse, then appended a loud, middle-schoolian "Duh" to the end of the statement; the men silently pressed themselves against the wall. Later, in the curtained area outside the home locker room, another reporter—this one veteran, well-known, and a Boston sports fixture of long standing—was told by another seated Ops Team member to move from the middle of an otherwise empty hallway that he was, briefly, obstructing with his middle-aged body. "Stick it in your ear, lady," he said, but he moved. "They give these guys walkie-talkies and some authority and they only know how to use one of them," he told me. "This is the usual for Patriotland. It all comes down from the top." Before Belichick, that was Scott Pioli, who built the 2007 Patriots team before being hired as general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009. While his new team hasn't won all that much during Pioli's tenure, he has succeeded in bringing Patriotlandian nastiness, disquiet and paranoia—paranoia as in "a lousy, un-fun place to work" but also paranoia as in "the head coach thinks his office is bugged"—to Kansas City.

Charles Pierce, after that Denver game, called Belichick "the NFL's last anarchist," which is pretty much correct in terms of football aesthetics—he used rangy tight end Aaron Hernandez as a (very effective) running back against Denver, and has turned Julian Edelman (as he did Troy Brown before him) into a solid two-way contributor at wide receiver and defensive back. In every other sense, though, Belichick is a corporate-style authoritarian of a simultaneously rarefied and familiar sort, and the team he has built in his image reflects that. What offends about Belichick's Patriots is not that they win viciously and consistently, which is of course their job, but that they throw off so little warmth, that they make transcendent success look so bleak and blighted. Disciplined unto savagery, self-starved into brutality, running furiously on cultivated bile and strange spite, the 2007 Patriots were a machine that made war out of a game. These Patriots aren't that good, but they aren't all that different.

This is not to say that Belichick is not great at his job, or that his run in New England was anything less than a staggering achievement. His team's schemes are somehow both protean and microscopically specific, and executed with a grimly dazzling virtuosity; Belichick the coach gets astonishing value from his players, and Belichick the executive is unsentimental about replacing them just before that value is exhausted. But for all that success, Belichick himself looked something more than miserable when he took the podium in the media room after that blowout win.

He barely articulated clock-killing answers to questions that reporters fed him with the usual caveats built in—"Coach, we know there's always room for improvement, but can you talk to us about…"—and barely raised his eyes from the podium. His signature tattered, too-big sweatshirt, sleeves destroyed and rolling back where he cut them off at mid-forearm, looked less like the monastic fashion statement it appears on television, and more simply ragged; Belichick looked lost in it. Shrunken in his greatness and unwilling to admit victory, the greatest coach of his era looked terribly small up close.


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