By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, November 1, 2007
I have a weakness for world conquest, which may explain my fascination with the New England Patriots. You can have the sentimental underdog; I'll take the dynasty or the empire every time. There's an imperial marching quality to the way the Patriots have trampled their NFL competition, which I frankly appreciate. This is a team that clearly wants to sweep the board, own everything from Egypt to Babylon. There are those who don't appreciate the Patriots, who find their dominance cold and unappealing. This is merely weakness, a common complaint from those whimperers and whiners who don't understand what dark beauty lies in dominion and the exercise of total power.
A football game is one of the few instances in which it's okay to guiltlessly enjoy oppression of the weak. Critics complain that there's no honor in the way the Patriots run up the score, but there's nevertheless something sort of magnificent in the way they crush opponents, in their hard quantitative search for total victory, while Coach Bill Belichick watches from the sideline with that expression on his face, part Lord Sauron and part Doctor No.
Anyone who complains that the Patriots are unsporting doesn't get what they're watching: an attempt at total mastery. Their quest for perfection makes for a good game of Risk, and some high drama, too: They're in position to go undefeated if they get by the also-unbeaten Colts this weekend, and no matter whether they accomplish a perfect record or not, the way in which they're attempting it is intriguing. The Patriots refuse to outwardly acknowledge what they're after, or to admit they're even thinking about it. Belichick stares blankly and mouths platitudes, while quarterback Tom Brady feigns modesty, and dimples as innocently as Shirley Temple. Meanwhile, every scoreboard shouts their obsession, their average margin of victory is 25 1/2 points, and they haven't scored fewer than 34 points in a game, or won by fewer than 17. No wonder some fans despise them.
To their critics, the Patriots are chilly practitioners who invite a visceral anger with their Thracian massacre-like final scores. Against Dallas, their last points came on fourth down with just 19 seconds to go. Against the hapless Miami Dolphins, Brady threw six touchdown passes and was still in the game in the fourth quarter. And then there was this week's game against the Redskins, when Brady was again on the field late in the fourth, and they went for two fourth downs despite leads of 38-0 and 45-0. It's an understandable gut reaction, based on the Golden Rule: Would the Patriots like it if another team did that to them?
But in a way, the discussion about whether the Patriots are running up scores is really about competing ethics. It's about gamesmanship vs. sportsmanship. The gamesman is exclusively focused on winning. Rules are something to be maximally exploited, and the final score is an expression of superiority. The sportsman is more focused playing the game the way it "ought" to be played, and is perhaps even willing to lose in the name of sportsmanship.
The Patriots are gamesmen, as they demonstrated with the overblown Spygate incident, when they were caught trying to purloin opponents' signals. Detractors called it evidence of both cheating and hypocrisy. But whatever advantage the Patriots gained was probably negligible, and what it really suggested was just how exhaustive they are in seeking any small edge.
The fact is, whether you like it or not, the Patriots have their own distinct ethic. It's based in the single-minded principle of all-out effort, and the self-interested pursuit of perfect excellence. They don't care what anyone thinks outside of their clubhouse, their motto might be Clark Gable's in "Gone With the Wind": "I believe in Rhett Butler. He's the only cause I know. The rest doesn't mean much to me." They're strictly interested in their own high performance, the tuning of a perfectly repeating machine.
"We play [until] the clock says zero-zero," Brady said yesterday, asked about running up scores. "That's an interesting question of scoring too many points. I don't know if that's ever been a problem here in the past. I think you just try to do the best you can do. As an offense, that's what we're trying to do. We're not trying to let other teams tee off on us, or let them get the best of us. If you call a play, we want to make it a great play. I don't think we want to come off the field saying, 'That was great. I hope they feel good about themselves. Because, you know, we just got the crap knocked out of us.' I don't think that's really the approach an offensive football team should take."
It's interesting that two people who defended the Patriots this week, and who seem to best understand them, are former Super Bowl quarterback Joe Theismann, and tight end Chris Cooley, who was the only Redskin to get into the end zone Sunday.
"If the Patriots want to play 60 minutes of football, good for them," Theismann told The Post's Mark Maske. "What happens if you play Tom Brady three quarters every week and you have your team used to playing three quarters, and then you go to Indianapolis and you can't get by playing three quarters?"
Cooley not only declined to criticize the Patriots, he was openly admiring. "We've had halftime leads, both times we lost, and it's a lesson that we can learn from those guys," Cooley said. "I think it's good they pile the points on. It teaches their guys to keep playing hard. . . . Right now they're killing everybody. I don't fault them."
The Patriots' philosophy is a lot more understandable -- and likable -- if viewed from the angle of what the alternative is. What should they do when the game gets out of hand? Let up? Pretend to play? Take pity? Eugene O'Neill said of that kind of pity, it's "the kind that lets itself off easy by encouraging some poor guy to go on kidding himself with a lie."
When you've already beaten a team so badly over the previous 45 minutes, why is it respectful to suddenly go easy, so they'll falsely feel better about themselves? What the Patriots are saying when they continue to go for the end zone is, "Hey, both teams out here on the field are pros, and this is what pros do." It would be far more demeaning to say, "We could score again, but we just feel too sorry for you to do it." When the Patriots score on an opponent, in an odd way, it's a gesture of respect. Albeit in a tyrannical, domineering, world-conquering kind of way.