February 5, 2008

Simmons On The Rocks

Now that the Patriots have lost the Super Bowl, I can go back to reading Bill Simmons' column. Since the heartbreak of the ALCS, and the start of the Patriots' remarkable run, and the Celtics fast start, I have steered clear of what was no doubt some quality writing by the Sports Guy, who is consistently excellent. I just didn't feel like hearing the perspective of a Boston fan for a couple of months, okay?

So now that his football season has ended much like my baseball season did, it's appropriate for me to read his stuff again. Especially this column. You'll want to read it all, but here's one of the eight things he'll remember forever about Super Bowl XLII:

4. For the rest of eternity, I will never understand why the Patriots -- a team that broke all kinds of offensive records by attacking teams with an aggressive, run-and-shoot offense that thrived on audibles, checks and the intelligence of the quarterback and his receivers -- became passive in the single biggest game of the season. It's one thing to change styles because it's 20 degrees and windy outside and you're worried about throwing the ball. But indoors? Only on the last drive did the Patriots look like the Patriots. I will never understand what took so long. Ever. I will never understand it. I wasn't even that depressed after the game, just confused. What happened to the remarkable offensive juggernaut from the first three months of the season? Where did their arrogance go? What happened to their swagger? Did the never-ending attention and nonstop pressure eventually get to them? For most of Sunday's game, it seemed the Patriots were playing not to lose. And maybe they were.

I will say this: Even though Friday's column will probably earn the No. 1 spot on the "Columns I Wish Weren't In My Archives" list before everything's said and done, Super Bowl XLII inadvertently proved my point. To finish 19-0, you really need a perfect storm of things to fall your way -- not just off the field when you're building the team, but for 19 straight games over the span of five months, and on top of that, the pressure builds every week because of the streak, so it's inevitable you'll wear down in the final two months. I don't think we'll ever see a 19-0 team. If this particular Patriots team couldn't pull it off, nobody's doing it.

Here's that Friday column Simmons refers to, in which he predicts a 42-17 Pats win. Oh well.

I didn't understand why Belichick passed on a 50-yard field goal attempt, at a time when it would have given him a seven point lead. It's not like Gostkowski didn't have enough leg. And he was indoors with no wind factor to speak of. Maybe Bill was guilty of a little overconfidence in both his offense and his defense and their ability to "finish", just as they had so many times this season.

On a related note, I heard Bernie Kosar being interviewed on a local sports talk station this afternoon. He was offering his analysis of yesterday's Super Bowl, and in that context he was relating a story about a meeting in 1998 when the new expansion Cleveland Browns were being formed. This was before their first draft, and before a coach was selected, and Bernie was being consulted by new owner Al Lerner, team president Carmen Policy and the rest of the management inner circle on various matters. The team was trying to reach out to former players with an eye toward the public relations benefits that having guys like Bernie and Jim Brown around would bring to the franchise.

Kosar recalled that Carmen Policy asked him for his ideas on who would be a good coach for the new Browns, and Bernie responded by saying (paraphrasing here) "you might think I'm crazy or joking here, but I think the right guy for the job would be Bill Belichick." Asked by the interviewer how that suggestion was taken, Bernie recalled, "Carmen Policy laughed in my face, and I was never taken seriously again...I was laughed right out of the inner circle." He went on to say that he also had opposed the selection of Tim Couch in the 1999 draft, recommending instead that the team trade down and take either Donovan McNabb or Dante Culpepper with the first round pick. Those two instances of candor by Kosar got him pretty much run back out of town by Browns management.

What is both remarkable about this story, and telling about Kosar's character then and now, is that Belichick had been largely responsible for ending Kosar's career in Cleveland, not only by benching him in '93 in favor of Mike Tomczak, and later Vinnie Testaverde, but by simultaneously trashing his ability to the press and the fans with the now infamous quote about his "diminishing skills." There were well publicized rumors during Kosar's last season with the team that he and Belichick had engaged in what was at least a shouting match, and at worst a fistfight in the stadium tunnel leading to the Browns locker room after a game. The story was never fully fleshed out in the media at the time, but the open conflict between Kosar and Belichick was a key to the hatred, and I do mean hatred, toward Belichick by Browns fans in general. Kosar was their hometown hero...the guy who said he wanted to play in Cleveland...at a time when star quality players who said those things were in short supply.

All that bad blood of course is the reason that Policy laughed in Bernie's face when he suggested that the team re-hire Belichick three years after Art Modell had fired him before he ever got a chance to coach a game in Baltimore as a Raven. There's just no way they could have considered Belichick for the new franchise given his history with the media and the fans in Cleveland. But the point is that the very personal ugliness that had transpired between them didn't stop Bernie from recommending him to the new owner, because he really believed he was the best coach available. Just because they took a couple swings at each other didn't mean Bernie had no respect for the coach's ability. Pretty amazing when you think about it.

A couple more things about Belichick, while I'm on the subject. I was never as down on the guy while he was here as most Browns fans and ticket holders were. He had inherited a horrible team from Bud Carson, one that was probably not as good as its 3-13 record sounded. Starting in 1991 Belichick went 6-10, 7-9, 7-9, and in 1994 he went 11-5 and won a playoff game over New England before losing to the Steelers. His teams were never blown out of games, always overachieving with the talent they had. I loved the fact that he used a lot of trick plays, which always worked, because they had clearly been drilled to perfection. It was also obvious that even back then he was a players coach. Almost to a man the players raved about him, and seemed to like playing for him.

But Belichick had come from New York, where he worked under Bill Parcells, a man who had a certain contempt for the media, and as a consequence Belichick arrived in Cleveland with a defensive, scornful posture toward the press, which was the only reflection that the fans were exposed to. The Belichick we saw after the game Sunday...the hangdog, mumbling, monosyllabic, dismissive jerk...was the Belichick we saw every day in Cleveland for five years. The "I'd rather be anywhere but here talking to you ignorant bozos" Belichick was the only Belichick we ever saw here.

Since that time, I have seen him lighten up a little bit and act borderline human, now that he has a couple of rings and the approval of at least some of the media people he held in such contempt earlier in his career. But there he was on Sunday after a disappointing loss, going back to being the mumbler. I would like to think he had changed over the years, but...

"I can only go by what I see."

Posted by dan at February 5, 2008 12:05 AM