Touching All the Bases

If Patriots Won't Embrace Villain Role, Then Let Tom Brady Do the Explaining

I suppose this following should be an if, but given the Patriots' history of torch-'em-all vengeance after overblown cheating allegations, I'm calling it a when.

So when the Patriots defeat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, earning their fourth and hardest-earned Lombardi Trophy in an extraordinary 15-year run, it will secure Tom Brady and Bill Belichick's place in history individually and as a coach/quarterback tandem.

Nobody -- nobody -- will have done it better in the Super Bowl era.

Of course, expecting them to get their due historically in the immediate aftermath of the game will be dependent upon the rooting interests of who is doing the ranking. The ridiculous debate over the inflation of #**@&$ footballs has provided yet another opportunity for those whom the Patriots have systematically vanquished and vanquished again.

They will be called the Cheatriots. They will be slapped with the "yeah, but" asterisk. They will give -- and have given -- the haters a chance to hate them just a little more.

This does not diminish what they have accomplished, not if you have any sense for the shenanigans that used to be a celebrated part of NFL lore. Football has never been fair or square among men so obsessed with winning and so successful at doing so that they rose all the way to the sport's pinnacle.

Remember how the Houston Oilers stole the Air Coryell Chargers' signals in the 1979 postseason, leading to a four-interception performance by an obscure defensive back named Vernon Perry? Yeah, didn't think so. That's when a sport was a sport and gamesmanship was admired. Then everyone forgot about it, probably because it made for a great tale and Oilers coach Bum Phillips was a media charmer.

Belichick, who is more engaging than he gets credit for when the topics interest him but has no problem dismissing questions he does not care to answer with a personal Morse code of snorts and grunts, is never going to get the benefit of the doubt from the national media on anything. He didn't during Spygate when fellow coaches -- Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Jimmy Johnson -- all acknowledged that taping an opponent's signals was common practice. And he won't now, even as the anecdotes about quarterbacks -- Aaron Rodgers, Brad Johnson, Eli Manning -- doctoring the ball like Mike Scott in '86 to fit their personal preferences keep flowing. Did you catch Scott Zolak talking about putting footballs into industrial-sized dryers in the '90s? This stuff happens. It always has.

I almost wish Belichick would go full-heel. His team feeds of the hate -- the 2007 fireworks came after the story of taping the Jets' signals broke -- and it certainly wouldn't be difficult for him to embrace the villain role. The next time he is behind a podium, when the parochial, pandering grandstanders who are suggesting he be suspended from coaching next Sunday if not outright fired are peppering him with questions, here's to Belichick stepping to the microphone, snorting, grumbling, and offering this:

"Well, we cheated the hell out of this one in all three phases.Tom had sandpaper and a thumb tack on his glove. Ernie Adams commissioned the one-of-a-kind industrial ball deflator that you saw on the sidelines there. Really good work. That football was flatter than Johnny Unitas's crew cut. Anything else? OK, [bleep] the shield and kiss my rings. Oh, and PSI? It means pound sand, idiots. Ernie stole all of your credit card information, and I have your internet search histories right here. Don't mess with the king. Belichick out."

Yeah, I suppose that isn't happening. And the pending reality doesn't bode well. This was not a good time to cross Roger Goodell, who is searching for the redemption that Peter King is already ascribing to him and surely will seize the opportunity to prove he's worthy of his homemade badge. Someone with the league told designated scrivener Chris Mortensen that the NFL is distraught over the findings.

That is not a good omen, even if an argument can easily be made that Belichick is not the most disingenuous coach in this Super Bowl. It has become a big deal, and the lingering question is a legitimate one: why does Belichick need to seize every small possible advantage -- something Goodell will surely call a "pattern of behavior" -- when the risk of substantial fallout is much greater than the gain?

I suspect what the Patriots will do in the coming days ... well, nothing. They will close ranks and prepare for the game of their lives and let the maelstrom swirl outside their windows. They will do their best not to let the distraction reach them. I'm not sure that is possible given the magnitude of the game and the weight of this story. But they will try.

Here's what I wish they would do: Put their best face forward. Send Tom Brady out to talk about it as soon as tomorrow, before Goodell drops his ball-peen hammer of justice. Have Brady talk with candor and charm about the history of quarterbacks manipulating footballs as he knows it. Chances are he's liked the football a certain way for a long time. Maybe he has a story to go with the context: "Yeah, I learned it from Brian Griese at Michigan, who learned it from his dad who ... Let him smile through the absurdity. Have him defuse it with the truth: that this is not a big deal among quarterbacks. It's a big deal among those who have never been a quarterback.

After all, this is kind of on him. I say that with facetiousness, but we'd probably never know about any of this had he put enough air under that intercepted throw to Gronk. He indirectly spurred the controversy. He could be just the one to -- I apologize in advance -- deflate it.


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