Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is It Defending Non-Champions, or Non-Defending Champions?

In July, no one can remember February, and no one really thinks next February will ever happen. This is a universal truth of human nature. It goes for you, me, and, more relevantly, for the New England Patriots.

The opening of Patriots' training camp was accompanied by bold noises from all concerned that the painful outcome of Super Bowl LXII was forgotten, or, if not forgotten, transformed into a motivational goad for success in the 2008 season. The Pats who said this were sincere. They believe they believe it. Trouble is, they won't know if they're right until next January.

In July, when optimism comes easily even in forlorn NFL outposts like Arizona and New Orleans, it's nothing for the Pats to ignore their unique situation. They are the first Super Bowl LOSER who'll spend the summer being asked "what will you do for an encore?" Today, that's an occasion for a rueful laugh. As the season progresses, the laughs will be more forced. By Election Day, they will have disappeared.

Yours truly has since childhood been an aficionado of summer pro football preview magazines (Nowadays, alas, most of them are just fantasy tout sheets). Still looking for the first of this summer's editions which picks the Giants to repeat, and don't expect to find it. Of the approximately 12,985,342,101 Super Bowl predictions that will be made between now and the start of the regular season, my guess is over 60 percent will pick the Pats to win the NFL title. At least one talk show host/guest will make the Freudian slip that he picks New England to "repeat" as champs.

There's the rub. The Pats remained the league's royalty after the Super Bowl even though they lost it. That's not normal. Favorites who lose the Big One usually get abused until they redeem themselves or pass into history. The Pats' critics are still focused on Spygate, which had no relevance to the team's inability to block Justin Tuck on February 3. No one is overanalyzing the loss to the Giants seeking New England's hidden flaws.

That absence does the Pats no favor. It is very difficult to say, "Oh yeah, we'll show you!" if no one is saying, "so show me something" in the first place. Fans may think the Pats get too much press criticism from the outside world, but aside from Spygate (again, not relevant to this discussion), their reviews remain positive to the point of fawning. They are still treated as the game's reigning dynasty, even though they have been dynasts in exile since 2005.

How does one approach the experience of what was either the greatest lousy season or lousiest great season in football history? Beats me, and I'll bet it's a stumper for Bill Belichick, too. Being a devoted NFL historian, Belichick may have come to the academic conclusion that 2007 was SO odd, such an anomaly, that it offers no point of reference for his team, or any other team. Therefore, he'll forget it.

Academically speaking, Belichick is right. Pro football, however, ain't academic. It is played by human beings who must for professional reasons spend their working lives in an overwrought emotional state. When the mind is in turmoil, suppressed memories are more likely to bubble to the surface. What's easy to ignore in July will be less so in January.

We all know the Pats, barring an injury plague, will be back in the playoffs. If they were replaced in the AFC East by USC, the Trojans would win the division by three games. That's when the effects of 2007 will apply, if they do, not in training camp.

Why sugar coat history? In the past two seasons, the Patriots were eliminated from the post-season in games where they blew a lead in the last minute of play. That's not very dynastic. The major edges dynasties have is their self-confidence that all will be well in the end, and, just as important, their opponent's self-doubts. Once this advantage is lost, it's hard to get back. Ask the New York Yankees.

The Pats remain a marvelous team. They could be champs this year. Beaten favorites come back. The Colts lost Super Bowl III, and came back to win V.

But the Pats are made of flesh, blood, and brain. Anyone who says they won't be forced to conquer self-doubt more than once this season must think this team is composed of Marvel Comics superheroes, not humans.


At 1:40 AM, Anonymous howard said...

michael, fwiw, even I don't pick the giants to repeat, although i don't rule it out altogether....

At 5:39 AM, Blogger Chris said...

I can't believe I'm actually wishing this, but I hope the Pats lose a couple meaningless (read: away, NFC) games this year just to get the bloody media spotlight off us. I'd rather slide in under the radar and take home the Lombardi Trophy than to do what we did last year.


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