FORT MYERS, Fla. - March Madness was once the domain of college basketball.
But a new March Madness dominated the conversation in the sports world - specifically those who concern themselves about the New England Patriots and the NFL. "Diaper Dandies," "One and dones" and "Bracket Busters" have been replaced with "guaranteed money," "salary cap impact" and Tweets from Adam Schefter [a former colleague who apparently never sleeps.]
The Patriots reached the "Final Four" of this tournament on the second full day of free-agency when they agreed to sign Darrelle Revis, he late of the Tampa Bay Bucs. The University of Florida is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, thanks in large part to the brilliant coaching of fomer Providence star Billy Donovan and a core of four seniors. The state of Florida, meanwhile, can't crack the field of 68 when it comes to NFL March Madness.
The Patriots and their arms race with the Denver Broncos has been the Final Four story line of this NFL spending frenzy. They appear set for their own national semifinal game in early 2015, a rematch of this past January's debacle only with bigger and better names on both sides of the ball.
The March Madness of NFL free agency reasserted/solidified the dominance of the Patriots atop the Boston sports pantheon. Once upon a time, Boston was a hockey town with a baseball team. Then, 1967 happened and the Red Sox began their surge back into New England's soul and sinew. The Patriots first owned the hearts and minds of our children and grandchildren with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft and a coach who combines the best of Dark Vader and Obi Wan Kenobe. Those three NFL titles didn't hurt either.
New England surfed the wave of a Decade of Dominance, looking down and laughing at the rest of the sports world along the way. Then, in 2013, the Red Sox gave those us who won't live to see 2113 the ride of a lifetime. A worst-to-first championship, pulled off amid the fallout of the Boston Marathon bombings, completed within the cramped, crowded, overpriced and beautiful walls of Fenway Park.
Mission Accomplished for the rest of our lives. The Red Sox cannot, thankfully, repeat 2013.
So what's next? Maybe Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were all on to something, spending. coaching and playing just well enough to bring the Patriots to the cusp of another championship.
Always leave 'em wanting more.
Patriots fans want a fourth title not just because they are greedy or spoiled, but because it the missing piece in Brady's Legacy. Watching Patriots' Dynasty week on NFL Network off and on the past couple of days, it seems too soon to believe that this story is over and that this part of their history is a closed book. Three Super Bowls is more than enough for most, myself included. But not for Brady, not given the way he and Patriots lost their past two Super Bowls to the Giants.
Millions have followed the Patriots through their days at Fenway Park, the Rod Rust Error, Super Bowl XX, Irving Fryar's fork in the road, "roughing the passer." Sullivan Stadium, Victor Kiam, Lisa Olson and their moves to St. Louis and Connecticut. The Brady and Belichick show is like having cake for dinner and Dunkin' Donuts for dessert. A year or two in Salary Cap jail at the expense of going all out for Brady in his final productive days is a welcomed deal. The DVDs will get us through it.
March Madness, surrounded by the gongs of Brady's Biological clock and the noise Peyton Manning's ever-creaky neck, carried far more importance and urgency than any college basketball tournament for football fans in New England. The region boasts four teams in the NCAA tournament this year. Harvard, Providence, UConn and UMass. According to the "experts and insiders," all have a reasonable chance to advance at least once. As a Marquette grad, my college basketball cred and interest comes with a diploma awarded by the university that employed Al McGuire and graduated Doc Rivers.
But March Madness in 2014 is the Patriots losing Julian Edelman, watching with jaws a gape Aqib Talib jump ship to the Broncos, landing on Revis Island, seeing Vince Wilfork have the audacity and nerve demand that the team actually honor a contract they signed, grabbing Brandon Browner and eventually bringing Brady's Binky back home, all in the span of five days.
The Patriots will officially announce Revis' official signing on Monday after he takes and passes his team physical.
Those player moves and the emotion, analysis, anger, joy and travel plans to Arizona in February they triggered dominated the front page, home page, talk shows, sports updates and much of social media. The Bruins winning their 6th, 7th and 8th straight games; the Celtics marching toward Tankapalooza success in their new jerseys and the World Series Cup champions struggling to hit the ball here were all subjugated to moves that were once the domain of the "Transactions" listing on the agate page. It's enough to make the rest of the sports world green with envy on this St. Patrick's Day.
The Red Sox and Cardinals have a mini World Series rematch Monday here, assuming the rain holds off to get in enough innings not to refund our tickets. The games Saturday night at jetBlue Park and Sunday in Port Charlotte were mobbed with Boston fans. Sunday's game set an all-time crowd record for the Rays' spring training park, which is conveniently located in the middle of a field six miles away from nothing. There's plenty of interest in these Red Sox. That's no different than any spring in the past 45 years.
But the buzz, around these parts and elsewhere where anyone sports a "B" - script, spoked or otherwise on their hat - was all about the Patriots. NFL free agency used to take place in the middle of the night, with work leaking out of moves slowly over the course of days. Now, its arrival carried all the anticipation of the NCAA Tournament. Of course, you can't win a billion dollars picking all the winners in NFL free agency. But you might get to enjoy another Super Bowl in Foxborough if Belichick hit the jackpot with these moves [hopefully more to come].
Selection Sunday has been trumped by Collection Tuesday. The NFL draft has been moved back to May 8-10. The Patriots report to training camp in July [don't forget those OTAs and rookie camp, too] and the season begins the weekend after Labor Day. If the new March Madness is any indication of what we can expect, be prepared to be footballed-out by the time the games actually begin.
Hopefully by then, there will be a Red Sox playoff run to steal our attention.
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