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Appreciating the Patriots

It is OK to appreciate the New England Patriots, even if you don’t like them.

I had a conversation with a friend the other week about how much an athlete’s likability influenced our ability to appreciate their skill. The conversation revolved around Kobe Bryant — one of the most polarizing and greatest NBA players of his generation — but you could easily insert a dozen different athletes (Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez, Cristiano Ronaldo, etc.) into the same conversation.

What is interesting is that even though Kobe Bryant is undeniably one of the best in his sport, people are still unwilling to give him even a shred of credit — my friend for example sees Bryant as his most loathed athlete ever. Bryant’s selfishness, poor treatment of teammates, and cheating scandal on his wife are enough to make people turn a blind eye to his accomplishments as an athlete. I don’t think this is a bad thing since I believe you should appreciate the person before you appreciate the athlete, but at what point should we not allow personal taste to override athletic accomplishments?

What if the same question were directed towards a sports franchise where a few individuals, fairly or unfairly, represent the franchise as a whole?

Let’s take, um, the New England Patriots as an example.

The Patriots are playing in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants on Sunday February 5th in Indianapolis and it would be fair to say that the Patriots have been the most despised NFL team during the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era that began in 2001.

During that time, Belichick has won 3 NFL Coach of the Year awards, Brady has won 2 NFL MVP awards, and together they have collected 3 Super Bowl rings. With these accomplishments, Belichick and Brady have assured themselves a spot in the Hall of Fame, but this won’t prevent people from actively rooting against them in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

This is because, during his time in New England, Belichick has been accused of running his team like a dictator, running up the score on opponents, and he was involved in the largest NFL coaching scandal of the past decade, notoriously known as “Spygate” (Spygate occurred at the beginning of the 2007-08 season when the Patriots were penalized for videotaping an opponent’s sideline signals despite warnings from the league).

For his part, Brady is the All-American poster boy who is married to a supermodel (Gisele Bundchen), has a rocky relationship history (he has a kid with actress/model Bridget Moynahan), and in the opinion of many, gets too much respect from the NFL (after Brady was injured in the first game of the 2008 season, the NFL instituted new rules to protect the quarterback which became known as the “Tom Brady Rule”).

I will grant that Belichick and Brady often give Patriot haters much to hate, but they also offer much to be appreciated.

First, despite how annoying this may sound, the Patriots must be appreciated for their ability to win. In an NFL climate that favours parity over dynasties, the Patriots managed to win 3 Super Bowls in 4 years from 2002 to 2005. The previous team to win 3 Super Bowls in 4 years was the Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1990s, a team that harbors a lot of haters in their own right. And even though the Patriots were accused of cheating in the Spygate scandal in 2007, their winning percentage actually improved after the Patriots paid their dues (loss of draft picks and $750,000 in fines) for the incident (.738 in the 5 years before the scandal, .800 in the 5 years following, best in the NFL). Foul play or not, their success demands appreciation from even the most vocal of haters.

The impressive part about the current Patriots is that they are positioned to make another run toward creating a dynasty. The Patriots currently have the most salary-cap room and first- and second-round picks of any AFC East team — a scary reality for a team on the verge of winning the Super Bowl.

Second, the Patriots must be appreciated because of their owner Robert Kraft. Kraft, a noted philanthropist, is one of the most respected owners in the league and played a principal role in the 2011 NFL labor disputes even though his wife of 48 years, Myra Kraft, died just 5 days before the final deal was announced. Jeff Saturday, NFLPA representative and Indianapolis Colts center, praised Kraft for his role in the negotiations, saying, “without him, this deal does not get done… He is a man who helped us save football.”

Lastly, the Patriots must be appreciated for the culture of excellence they instill. This culture allows them to take in NFL delinquents (Randy Moss, Chad Ochicinco, Albert Haynesworth) without worry of locker room division. No player is above reproach and all players are forced take responsibility for their mistakes, which is why the future hall-of-famer Tom Brady admitted he “sucked pretty bad” after the Patriots narrowly slipped past the Baltimore Ravens in last week’s AFC Championship game. The culture of excellence, also affectionately known as “The Patriot Way”, gives Belichick the freedom to be creative in his use of players without worry of player dissent. Belichick is famous for creative player formations where he frequently turns wide receivers into defensive backs (Troy Brown and Julian Delman), tight ends into running backs (Aaron Hernandez), and linebackers into goal line tight ends (Mike Vrabel). Recently, Charles P. Pierce even went so far as to say that “Bill Belichick is the NFL’s last real anarchist” in the No Fun League that desperately needs more of them.

So, do I think that everyone should become a Patriots fan? Hardly. Just like I do not think everyone should become a Kobe Bryant fan. We shouldn’t pretend that people are perfect when they aren’t. But, if we can’t at least appreciate what the Patriots or Bryant bring to their respective sports, then we are in danger of losing the thing we came for in the first place — the sport itself.

Flickr photo (cc) by Keith Allison