Thursday, October 7, 2010

Return to the Wilderness

Since 2007, Bill Belichick has represented something of a devil for me as a football fan. Everything about his team seemed to radiate from him as a coach; the Pats were entitled, utterly unaware of their negative qualities, and joyless. This has resulted in something of a crisis of conscience for me this season, when the team has brought in talent I genuinely like, and has taken a very different tone in their play. Monday night, however, I realized that the river may, in fact, have been flowing in reverse for the last few years, showing me how I could finally resolve my love of Belichick as a football strategist with the years of dislike of him as an emblem of his team. Watching him celebrate openly with his Patriots as they won a divisional battle against a hated rival, the bloodless, stoic expectation of victory was replaced by a coach who seemed to genuinely enjoy being surprised by his team. That, then, is the difference; these Patriots are something of a return to happier, if less easy days for Bill Belichick, letting him finally enjoy the thrill of becoming great through your own, long work, instead of the less satisfying condition of greatness by instantaneous partnership.

That’s a long, convoluted way of saying that the Moss-Belichick partnership was both incredibly profitable and incredibly uncomfortable for Bill Belichick. Here was a man whose whole rise to prominence was the result of making smart personnel decisions to find hidden gems and fitting role players perfectly into a system tailored to maximize their strengths. In Moss, however, he had something he’d never had before: A ready made superstar, one that had nothing to do with Belichick’s scouting, coaching, or scheming. The crazy thing was that it fit perfectly. The one thing Belichick never had, not even during his dynasty years, was an elite talent at wide receiver (Branch was good, but unquestionably a receiver that Brady made great). Now, Moss, along with a beautifully crafted offensive system by Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady at quarterback, allowed Belichick to coast, something that hadn’t previously been the case.

The problem is that coasting comes with expectations. Whatever rush there had been to arrive at the top of the NFL was now replaced with a weight, the knowledge that every victory would be less thrilling because it was supposed to happen. The result was a coach too smart to show when he was upset and too proud to show when he was happy with the results. All of this made Monday night’s outgoing show of joy that much more interesting. With a team filled with youth, and more on the way, Belichick seems to be getting back to his roots, creating in his own vision rather than building on that which has already been realized.

The result is the Randy Moss trade. Nobody will argue that the Patriots won’t suffer in the short term for losing Moss, who is still one of maybe two receivers who can make the catches he does while still blowing teams away with his speed and agility (Megatron, the spotlight is yours now). Still, watching Belichick laugh and slap the helmets of his young, much maligned defenders, it’s hard to not think that if the team has become a bit less imposing (again, in the short term), it has also become a bit easier to relate to. Since 2007, the Patriots have felt like they’d “arrived”, which is much less interesting than watching a team that isn’t fully formed find its identity. Now, with a group of still-forming athletic talents, a couple of old veteran role players (Welker could be more, but I think he becomes more limited without Moss), and the one constant that has been there the whole time (if he and Brady don’t give each other’s hall of fame speeches, I’ll be stunned), he’s free to create a new chapter to his legacy. In essence, he gets to showcase how hard he works, and how brilliantly he schemes, instead of having us all just take it for granted thanks to a fully formed, dominant team. We have come to mock Parcells for his inability to remain in any one place, but maybe we’re seeing in Belichick something of the constant need for validation, a feeling that is much more relatable than we care to admit, that has driven both student and teacher to their respective points. It’s a return to harmony, something that gives a shibui resulting from understanding to Belichick’s disciplinarian demeanor.

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