Déjà blue — or seeing red?
With the 2013 NFL Season now upon us (and today being the New England Patriots‘ first game) I felt compelled to look back at how the team did last year and discuss how they might fare this season. My big question: will their good or bad history repeat itself?
As you might recall — or, if you’re a Pats fan, as you might like to forget — last season the team lost their first home opener in 10 years to the Arizona Cardinals. This after having looked like the class of the NFL the week before when they handily beat the Tennessee Titans on the road.
It was an awkward reminder of their most recent Super Bowl loss, which in itself was a bizarre replay of the one they had lost four years earlier. Lately, being a Patriots fan has some striking similarities to the date made famous by Punxsutawney Phil: Groundhog Day.
As a Patriots fan, the proximity of the Groundhog Day holiday and the 1993 movie of the same name to the Super Bowl has a unique significance: Just like how in the movie the same day happens over and over again, on Sunday, February 5, 2012 the Patriots fell to the New York Giants in Super Bowl 46 — their second championship loss to the same team in four years.
Although disheartening, the Patriots’ Super Bowl 46 loss was nowhere near as gut wrenching as their Super Bowl 42 loss to the Giants. That failure also ended the Patriots’ quest for a perfect 19-0 season.
While emotionally I wanted the Patriots to win Super Bowl 46, rationally, I had my concerns throughout the season as the team somehow stayed alive with a patchwork defense and an inconsistent offense.
Despite being disappointed by the Patriots’ inability to bring home a fourth Lombardi Trophy, I realized failure presents pathways to personal progress and, in response, devised the seven introspective insights below — one for each of the New England Patriots Super Bowl appearances:
1. Expectations Undermine Attitude: When you feel entitled to something, that expectation creates an assumption that you will get it because you “deserve” it. Generally, when this occurs, you become complacent and assume the outcome is inevitable. This is a recipe for disaster.
During their (almost) perfect season, despite claims of “humble pie,” there seemed to be an expectation that the Patriots would win Super Bowl XLII and make NFL history. Brady was even dismissive in response to then New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress’ prediction that the Patriots would lose 17-23.
Ironically, the Patriots would actually only score 14 points in their 14-17 loss to the Giants (though they did score 17 points in Super Bowl XLVI, but once again the Giants outscored them with 21 points — cue sad trombone).
2. Junkyards Don’t Always Make Juggernauts: No team has done more with less than the New England Patriots. Since the beginnings of their dynasty, the Patriots built from the draft and reformed players like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss who had lost their way with other teams.
Former Patriots Director of Player Personnel Scott Pioli is famously quoted as saying “we’re building a team, not collecting talent.” This is a philosophy similar to that portrayed in the recent Brad Pitt film Moneyball (affiliate link) which is ardently embraced by head coach Bill Belichick.
While this Moneyball inspired approach might’ve brought the Patriots success, two successive Super Bowl losses and a string of post-season upsets call that into question. Realistically, Moneyball never lead to any World Series wins for Billy Bean’s Oakland A’s.
The Patriots are notorious for collecting picks in each year’s NFL Draft, but then “trading down” with other teams to pick later and pay their players less. Notably, in an article titled The Clutch Enigma: Tom Brady the author argues “It’s not that Brady has lost his ‘clutchness,’ it’s simply that the Patriots’ teams (namely the defenses) have gotten worse, and Brady has become the focal point.”
Miraculously, the team traded up in the 2012 draft to select Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. In Week 1 of the 2012 season Hightower and rookie Defensive End Chandler Jones demonstrated the potential immediate impact a top tier player can offer.
Certainly signing high profile players is no guarantee: see Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco — and also consider former Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick’s warning “…each free agent should come with a warning label stamped to his chest. What should that label say? Buyer beware.” At the same time, asking players to continually do more with less is more of a weakness than a strength.
Fortunately, the 2013 Patriots rookie class is off to an impressive start, adding youth and optimism to the team — so maybe this year’s draft will bear championship fruit.
3. Win or Lose, Players Get Paid: As a fan of a sports team, there is a good chance you are more emotionally invested in the success or failure of your teams than the payers. As Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plashke pointedly explains in his February 9, 2012 article For the pro athlete, it’s just a job, “The players don’t care as much as you do.”
Even Chad Ochocinco — with his abysmal record with the Patriots of 15 receptions for 276 yards and one touchdown — was still paid (I am reluctant to say earned) a base salary of $6,000,000 for tweeting and updating his Facebook status all season instead of contributing to the team!
And, if you’re curious how much your favorite player gets paid, have a look at this interactive infographic that lets you see the 2013-2014 season salaries of each NFL player, by team and position. I’ve set it to Pats on both sides, because if I don’t it defaults to Ravens and Broncos (shudder). Make it rain!
So, since playing is a job for the athletes, does it really make sense to so heavily invest ourselves emotionally in their performance?
4. Failure is a Launchpad for Learning: When failure occurs, it is human nature to look for a reason — a scapegoat — to explain why that which was never considered possible has now become reality.
Arguing over whose fault it was is relatively meaningless: in my opinion you can win a game on one dramatic play, but losing a game is the result of an accumulation of errors.
This occurred after the Patriots’ loss in Super Bowl 46, where pundits pondered whether Wes Welker dropped what could have been a game winning catch or if Tom Brady threw an inaccurate ball. The argument can be made that consistency kills competition, and the Giants were the more consistent team that day.
This is not easy to do, but the upside is excellent if you can turn adversity into opportunity. Regardless of the reasons for failure, if you treat it as a learning experience, you never really lose — at least philosophically; I realize they keep score in sporting events!
5. Family — not Football — Comes First: I was most concerned about my younger son, Max, when the Patriots lost Super Bowl 46. When he went to sleep just before half-time, the Patriots were rolling. The next morning he awoke to reality, but he just brushed it off and was on to his next adventure.
He took their loss to the Ravens in last season’s AFC Championship Game harder (likely because he watched it unfold in real time), but again by morning the sunrise had dried away the tears.
It’s amazing what adults can learn from kids if we pay attention. It’s also amazing what a good night’s sleep can do!
Poignantly, following the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox — the teams my Dad grew up with — was a way for me to maintain a connection with him even during a long period when we were estranged.
Having that unique shared interest with Max (my older son, Jacob, has little interest in sports), creates a similarly compelling connection.
Talking about Boston sports teams with him and having been able to attend a Red Sox/Dodgers game last month is priceless Father/Son time. A trip to Foxboro is in our future.
Notably, in a touching Los Angeles Times article published four days after Super Bowl 46, Chris Paul shares lessons on the importance of family in his life – in a very similar way as I wrote about my maternal grandfather, Papa.
6. Being with Friends Lessens a Loss: The next best thing to family are friends, and through a mutual love — or is it obsession? — of the Patriots I’ve found my way to a great group whom I would have otherwise never known.
Both virtually (via Facebook or a fan message board) and personally (at TGI Fridays or an equivalent place to watch a game), I’ve connected with a network of fans who are also friends.
Many of them have been there for me during challenging times and moments of celebration as well.
I’ve spent Thanksgiving with some of them and shared my first time watching a Patriots game with my younger son, Max, with the same “football friends.”
While I hope to never watch the Patriots lose another Super Bowl, watching it happen at the home of my friends Tom and Coni made the loss less significant because my friendship with them and their family is so significant.
7. There’s Always Next Year: Many Patriots fans didn’t expect the 2012 team to get as far as they did; so any of the wins after the regular season felt a bit like bonus content on a Blu-ray DVD. Despite that, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment and start believing (but see “Expectations Undermine Attitude” above).
On the bright side, the team “almost” won the Super Bowl with marginal talent in key positions. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick remain a powerful pair and, if they can finally add a deep threat receiver (or two) and actually field some quality defensive backs, who knows — they could make an eighth trip to the Super Bowl this season.
Rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins already seems to have the makings of the next Randy Moss — let’s hope without the drama. Perhaps there is hope for #85 to rise from the ashes of Ochocinco? [Update after the game: put that hope on hold -- with a dash of optimism]
To summarize the seven points above:
- Expectations Undermine Attitude
- Junkyards Don’t Always Make Juggernauts
- Win or Lose, Players Get Paid
- Failure is a Launchpad for Learning
- Family — Not Football — Comes First
- Being with Friends Lessens a Loss
- There’s Always Next Year
Given all the insights above, the one remaining question: should the Patriots replace Tom Brady with Punxatawney Phil? More importantly, will the Patriots return to — and, if they do, win — the Super Bowl this year?
- January 19, 2014 Update: One game away from returning to the Super Bowl; a good run for a team with so many injuries and off-field issues. I am proud of what the Pats were able to do with the limited resources they had. And, of course, there’s always next year!