By Ryan McGowan
There will be a head coach from some NFL team who will raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy at Raymond James Stadium on February 1, 2009. It very well might be Tony Dungy and the Colts for a second time. Perhaps it will be Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, or Tom Coughlin of the Giants in a repeat. Maybe even a dark horse rookie such as the Falcons’ Mike Smith or the Ravens’ John Harbaugh. One thing is certain, though–whoever it is will have a giant asterisk next to his name.
The 2008 NFL playoffs (or “the tournament”, as Bill Parcells likes to say) will be conducted for the first time in six years without the New England Patriots, and the rest of the league can breathe a sigh of relief.
First of all, this is not going to be an arbitrarily argued rant about how the NFL needs to change its playoff format. There has been talk that the NFL needs to go to a seeded tournament; I’m not sure that drastic change is necessary. The NFL playoffs are certainly not like the BCS in which slights and egregious omissions happen every year. In fact, the playoff and tiebreaker system has been generous to the Pats in the past (see: 2001 playoffs), so this is not sour grapes of a disgruntled fan.
Simply put, despite injuries that piled up like the body count in a Terminator movie and having the proverbial bullseye on their back for every game after their historic 2007 regular season, the 2008 Patriots emerged as the best story of the NFL season.
The national media doesn’t want you to think that. Tired of the Patriots and annoyed at Bill Belichick’s say-nothing press conferences and loose-lips-sink-ships disclosure policies, the ESPNs and SportsColumns of the world want you to believe that the Falcons, Dolphins, Ravens, Colts, or even the Giants are better stories. They want to focus on the dysfunction in Dallas or the myopia in the Meadowlands. But the Patriots, despite being universally loathed for nothing more than their consistent and sustained excellence this decade, are the best story.
It might be quite a dubious honor to become, within the same calendar year, both the best team in history not to win the Super Bowl and the best team in history not to make the playoffs. Perhaps that was the karmic revenge of the football gods for the videotaping rule infringement and the “running up the score” fiasco of ’07. But not even the most vocal Patriot-hater of them all, Gregg Easterbrook of ESPN, wouldn’t wish the run of bad luck that soiled the season in Foxborough this year on his worst enemy.
We don’t need to name all the iconic players that ended up on injured reserve this season, nor do we need to rehash the biggest injury of them all, to the heart and soul of the franchise, the man whom Belichick calls the greatest football player he has ever coached.
In stepped an untested backup who hadn’t started a game since high school, but had benefited from playing in perhaps the best college program in the country as well as the best professional organization of this century. And from the moment he threw his first pass from his own 1-yard line for a 50-yard completion to Randy Moss, Matt Cassel showed that not only does he belong as a starting quarterback in the league, that he has the tools, intelligence, and desire to be an elite quarterback in the league. And only Belichick, despite the calls from fans and local media that the four-year Cassel experiment has failed and the team needs a proven veteran quarterback, was vindicated for being the only one to have kept the faith in his new star quarterback.
Sure, there were bumps along the way. There were embarrassing dismantlings at the hands of the Dolphins and Steelers at home, and the Chargers on the road. There were tight, excruciating losses to the Colts and the Jets that could have gone either way with a Jabar Gaffney catch here or a third down stop there. But there were also thorough beat-downs of the Broncos, the Raiders, the Cardinals, and those same Dolphins late in the season. There was the exclamation point on the season, the Week 17 shutout of the Bills in Buffalo that will forever be remembered as the Wind Game as well as the game in which Belichick made Dick Jauron look like an overmatched Pop Warner mom who was calling plays for the first time.
Surely enough, the 2008 season will be remembered as Belichick’s best coaching job ever. How many games would this year’s team have won had Wade Phillips been at the helm? Six? How about Norv Turner? Would the Pats have gone 8-8 under Norv just as his Chargers did? Would Rod Marinelli have managed to eke out three wins with this team? The fact that the Pats finished with 11 wins despite their circumstances, and managed to pummel some teams with a hell of a lot more talent on the field than they did, was testament to Belichick’s peerless masterdom of his profession. When’s the last time anyone cited Belichick’s record without Tom Brady as proof that the Hooded One was overrated and that his star was forever tied to the Golden Boy? Does anyone out there still doubt that BB is the greatest NFL coach of this era and perhaps of all time?
After Week 17, the Patriots were playing as well as, if not better than, every other team in the league. Their downfall is a result of some hiccups early in the season as Cassel struggled to find his rhythm and the defense adjusted to its laundry list of injuries. Win just one of those close games, and 12-4 is certainly enough to get into the playoffs. In most years, 11-5 is more than enough. In 2001, 11-5 was enough to get the Patriots a first-round bye on their way to the Super Bowl XXXVI title. This year, it was a weaker conference record that allowed Miami to claim the division title and Baltimore to claim the final wild card.
The Dolphins and Ravens should be congratulated for taking care of business within the division and conference, and the Patriots won’t be whining about being shut out of the playoffs. But the twelve remaining playoff teams should be ecstatic that the best team in the NFL right now is on the sidelines.
We can be certain that Belichick and the Patriots are not only resting up for next year, but the team now has one more chip on its shoulder as it fights to reclaim the Lombardi Trophy for the Team of the Decade.
If there is anything the 2008 season proved, it is that the Patriot Way is alive and strong. All the talk about an aging defense and the collapse of the team’s winning culture after the Giants loss is all subordinate to the unflinching resolve of a team that could have pulled a Dallas Cowboys and gotten themselves embarrassed in a most disgusting manner with their season on the line. And with a reloaded cast of young stars such as Jerod Mayo, Brandon Meriwether, and Jonathan Wilhite to go along with the old reliables, the Patriots brand is in no danger of going the way of the Raiders any time soon.
Be afraid, NFL. Be very afraid. The Revenge Tour 2009 has already started. And this year’s champion*, whoever it ends up being, is Target #1.