Feb 3, 2019
- Ian O'ConnorESPN Senior Writer Close
ATLANTA — Place that hate in your hands, hold it like a fistful of beach sand and then let it slowly dissolve through your fingers until it is going, going, gone. The New England Patriots deserve nothing but your unmitigated respect and admiration. Chances are, we will never again see anything like them in our lifetimes.
For the 44 states in the union that don't call the Patriots the home team, Sunday night should mark the end of a dysfunctional relationship and the beginning of something pretty special. New England beat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3 in Super Bowl LIII, winning ugly to claim its sixth championship since the day in September 2001 that sixth-round pick Tom Brady took the field as a gaunt and barely coordinated game manager and started developing into the finest football player who ever lived.
It's time for the nation to embrace the non-debate. The Patriots' dynasty is the greatest in the history of American sports, college or pro, and the contempt for it outside Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut should be eliminated along with the Rams.
America loves winners and workers and team-centric people who create new boundaries for human achievement. The Patriots have won two-thirds of their staggering nine Super Bowl appearances since Bill Belichick put Brady under center. They started this by beating the heavily favored Rams of St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI, and they just continued it 17 years later by beating the underdog Rams of Los Angeles. They started this by being erroneously accused of filming a St. Louis Rams practice, and they just continued it by apparently being concerned enough about the presence of a potential Los Angeles Rams spy to conduct all their preparation business indoors.
"There are 20-story skyscrapers surrounding the field," Belichick had said during the week. "I don't think we can have a public practice out there."
Forget about Spygate and Deflategate and any other gate you can get your dirty hands on. The Patriots have long defied a league built on the virtues of parity, a league that uses the salary cap, the draft, free agency and the schedule to prevent Belichick and Brady from doing exactly what they have done. Unlike the dynastic franchises of the NBA, NHL and MLB — the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Montreal Canadiens and New York Yankees — the Patriots could never fall back on the margin for error allowed in best-of-five and best-of-seven series. And unlike the college dynasties of John Wooden, Geno Auriemma and Nick Saban, Belichick's Patriots can't recruit the country's best players year after year. Champions get punished in pro football and are forced to draft prospects from the bottom of the bin.
In Vince Lombardi's time, restraint of trade allowed pro football's overlords to keep their teams intact. Belichick has had to constantly turn over his roster, replacing decorated veterans who want to convert team success into wages worth more than the coach wants to pay against the cap. This truth puts pressure on Belichick to constantly identify and develop talent and to inspire his players to play above their projected limits. It's worth noting that seven Patriots touched the football on the final two touchdown drives (totaling 18 plays and 166 yards) in the historic Super Bowl comeback victory over Atlanta two years ago, and not one of those Patriots was picked in the top 100 of his draft class.
This time around, the triumph was less dramatic but no less meaningful. Belichick, a 66-year-old grandfather, is an old acquaintance of Sean McVay's grandfather John. Belichick beat an opposing coach half his age to become the oldest Super Bowl winner of all and to tie George Halas and Curly Lambeau for most NFL titles. The 41-year-old Brady became the Super Bowl's oldest winning starter, the first player to collect six rings and, on the big-picture scoreboard measuring all titans, the first guy in a long time to tie Michael Jordan. And don't think for a second Brady doesn't know it.
From the postgame stage, after saying the large sections of Patriots fans made Mercedes-Benz Stadium feel like Gillette Stadium, Brady explained how he could continue playing after scaling so many mountains. "Look at this," he said as the cheers washed over him. "How could this not motivate you?"
Brady wants to pass Jordan with No. 7, bet on it. He started his career by winning three of four titles. Why should he finish it by winning three of five when he could just as easily win four of six?
As always, Belichick will be right by his franchise player's side. Sunday night, Belichick survived a rock fight with young McVay, his texting buddy, by fielding the stronger team in the fourth quarter. Nobody knows how physically and mentally draining an endless Super Bowl Sunday can be better than Belichick. He knows how to pace his team. He also knows how to recover from devastating defeats like the one he suffered to the Philadelphia Eagles last year, and how to navigate his team through an uneven regular season and prepare it to win the whole damn thing.
"In the biggest moments," Belichick said from a postgame podium, "when we had to play our best football and compete the hardest, they did it."
Earlier, as he waited outside the news conference room for Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman to finish up, Belichick playfully shouted, "The MVP can wait." When the coach was done talking, he headed down a hallway holding hands with his girlfriend, Linda Holliday, and disappeared into the winner's locker room, where his players were hugging each other and dancing to blaring music.
One of last year's conquering Eagles, Lane Johnson, had observed the Patriots have no fun. To be clear, Belichick's players appeared to be having a blast.
The roots of Belichick's dynasty can be traced to a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in West Orange, New Jersey, where Amos Alonzo Stagg, the son of a laborer who taught himself how to read and write, was born during the Civil War. One of the founding fathers of the forward pass, Stagg was coaching college ball at Pacific in the 1940s when he schooled a player named Wayne Hardin, who was the head coach at the Naval Academy. The young son of Hardin's assistant, Steve Belichick, approached him for a little help.
Bill Belichick asked Hardin what position he should play in youth football, and the Navy coach responded, "Turn around, bend over and snap the ball to me." Hardin thought the first snap wasn't delivered with enough purpose and told the boy to try again. Belichick nailed the do-over. "Don't change it," Hardin barked.
As a developing center and coach on training wheels, Belichick closely studied Heisman winners Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino and other Navy players as they treated every practice, every detail, with extreme urgency. That was the Academy's culture in Annapolis, where the midshipmen were trained to make life-or-death decisions. Phil McConkey, one of Steve Belichick's players in the 1970s, said Belichick "was the toughest coach I ever had by far. He wasn't only preparing us for football, but to be combat officers in the U.S. Navy."
Steve's only son was profoundly impacted by Academy discipline and drive and built his football teams around the notion that every minicamp session in the spring and every preseason game in the summer should be treated with the intensity of Game 7 of the World Series. That's why the Patriots are the Patriots. That's why Belichick has won as many Super Bowl rings as a head coach as Don Shula, Tom Landry and Bill Parcells combined.
This victory over the Rams felt like a culmination of something much bigger than the 2018 season, especially with Belichick spending the week in a relaxed, this-is-your-life mode. He spoke of childhood trips to the battlefields of Gettysburg and the monuments of Washington, D.C., and to the basement of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to review their archives of books on the game's enduring elders, such as Stagg, Walter Camp, Halas and Lambeau. Belichick spoke of his father's personal collection of about 4,000 football books. Steve Belichick was interested only in pre-1960 material, and when hunting with his son for that material in used-book stores or the Salvation Army, he didn't want to pay more than a dollar.
Bill Belichick spoke last week of a boyhood spent reading sports classics such as Jerry Kramer's "Instant Replay," George Plimpton's "Paper Lion" and Jim Brosnan's "Pennant Race" about five times apiece — and left out the fact that A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" was his favorite read in the early years. He spoke of his tough-guy high school coach, Al Laramore, and his current tough-guy assistant, Dante Scarnecchia — a former Marine sergeant who looks more like a boxer's cutman than the best offensive line coach in the game. He spoke of the lessons he learned about receivers' tendencies from Tom Coughlin, his Giants staff mate under Parcells, and about blitz pickups from another Giants staff mate, Tom Bresnahan, on rides into work.
And then he drew on all those lessons over the decades to beat the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. A year before his death in 2017, Hardin told a reporter that he would rank Belichick above his own former coach, Stagg, and Lombardi as the greatest ever if he won a fifth Super Bowl title. Now Belichick has won six, and the late, great coach who showed him how to snap a ball with conviction would have surely been proud.
You can certainly make a case that Belichick temporarily lost his locker room last year. He angered Brady by stripping team access for the quarterback's fitness guru and business partner, Alex Guerrero, and he angered the majority of the roster by benching Malcolm Butler in the loss to the Eagles. Brady and Rob Gronkowski and others acted out on social media platforms, and sources said in late March the quarterback was still considering leaving New England rather than playing for his head coach one more season.
Brady sent a firm message to Belichick by becoming the league's only starting quarterback to not show up for organized team activities. Deep down, after repeatedly saying he wanted to play until age 45 and after compelling the franchise to trade his would-be successor, Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady knew he couldn't walk away. He showed up for the mandatory portion of the preseason schedule, and people who know Brady and Belichick sensed a subtle shift in how the latter managed the former. Known for coaching his best player in a relentless, unforgiving way, Bill seemed to have taken a little off his fastball. Early on, Bill seemed to be going a little out of his way to praise Tom.
Pinpoint Brady-to-Gronk pass sets up TD
Tom Brady connects with Rob Gronkowski for a 29-yard gain to the Rams' 2-yard line to set up Sony Michel who runs in the only touchdown of the game.
Brady's father, Tom Sr., was asked the other day if he believed Belichick had gone a bit easier on his son this year. "I don't know," he said. "We don't really talk much about those things."
Asked if he felt his son looked happier this year than last year, Tom Sr. said, "Maybe. But remember, he had 12 stitches in his hand this time last year. I'm just happy he's healthy now. Everyone said Tom was falling off this year, but I didn't see it. We didn't have the fast receivers to make plays down the field, and the offense had to change, and Tom had to adjust to that. I just didn't see the drop-off. We could've been 12-4 without that [lateral] play at the end against Miami."
Belichick ultimately lost home-field advantage to Kansas City by putting Gronk on the field against Miami to defend a Hail Mary that was never going to happen, then made up for it by beating the Chiefs two weeks ago. Super Bowl LIII was Belichick's chance to make up for his Butler gaffe in Super Bowl LII. And wouldn't you know it, he went 2-for-2.
Jon Bon Jovi, Belichick's longtime friend, was standing outside the New England locker room Sunday night when he told ESPN.com he felt this year's Patriots team had better chemistry than last year's Patriots team. "The organization is just running well these days," Bon Jovi said. "Tommy is getting along with Bill, [Bill's] getting along with [Patriots CEO Robert] Kraft, and Kraft's being nice to him. It seems like they're peace-ing it out. Winning will do that to you."
Bon Jovi agreed this was one of Belichick's top two or three coaching jobs, right there with the 2001 season. "But geez," the rocker said, "it's apples and oranges, isn't it? He brought these guys together after five losses, the Miami little debacle and the loss to Pittsburgh. And it just seems Gronk got healthy and Tommy started playing the underdog, even if that was just in his head.
"He says, 'I suck. I'm old.' … If you want to think about it, everybody's a Monday-morning quarterback. Last year, it was just, 'Greatest, greatest, greatest.' What was your motivation? Philly came in and they were the underdog. This year Tommy says, 'I'm the underdog. I'm the underdog.' I think about all that now."
As the confetti fell following this victory over the Rams, the main characters from last year's soap opera were all seen embracing each other. Belichick hugging Brady. Brady hugging Kraft. Brady hugging Guerrero. Outside the Patriots' locker room stood Don Yee, the neighborly agent for Brady and the dispatched Garoppolo. Yee was another participant in last year's madness who wore a big smile on his face.
The Patriots tied the Pittsburgh Steelers' record for Super Bowl titles because Belichick and Brady, with a combined age of 107, outperformed McVay and Jared Goff, with a combined age of 57. They tied the record because de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores, from Mike Tyson's neighborhood in Brooklyn, KO'd the great Wade Phillips in a battle of suffocating defenses that at times felt like the Steel Curtain Steelers of the 1970s vs. the 1985 Chicago Bears. The Patriots prevailed because Belichick knows how to coach punters and knows how to turn a running quarterback from Kent State and the 232nd pick in his draft, Edelman, into one of the most prolific postseason players of all time. The Patriots prevailed because Gronkowski, a leaguewide laughingstock after his Miami follies, made the biggest catch of what could be his final game, because Jason McCourty made a ridiculous play to break up a Brandin Cooks touchdown and because a Belichick signing from Buffalo, Stephon Gilmore, intercepted a Goff pass near the end zone that all but killed the Rams' spirit.
Brady, Belichick embrace after Super Bowl LIII win
Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Julian Edelman embrace after the Patriots defeat the Rams 13-3 for the team's sixth Super Bowl win.
"I was just like, in my head, 'I know you didn't throw this right now. You see me looking at you,'" Gilmore said of Goff.
In the end, Belichick celebrated another magical moment with family and friends. The last time he beat the Rams in a Super Bowl, he embraced his daughter, Amanda, and sons, Stephen and Brian, on the field. He did the same Sunday night, though his kids are all grown up now. Amanda is the women's lacrosse coach at Holy Cross. Stephen and Brian are assistants on their old man's staff.
Belichick's Patriots might win another title or two before the coach, and Brady, call it quits. But even if they never earn another division title or playoff berth, they have secured their standing as the greatest American sports dynasty of all. They also have earned the right to be admired, unconditionally, from coast to coast.
It's high time for the other 44 states in the union to come around. Sunday night, the message from the Patriots was simple. Don't hate them because they're beautiful.