For those that have lived with watching football without rooting for Tom Brady, it’s difficult to describe the shock that many Patriots fans, especially the recently minted ones, will go through these next few weeks as they realize that all of their old assumptions about how to feel, act, and think during a football game will be shaken. During the Tom Brady era, to watch all but the most important playoff games was a sedate, reassuring activity. Every time Brady dropped back to pass, you knew that if there was way to find the open receiver, he would somehow do it. If there was an important third down to convert, the pass would get to the open man past the yellow line and the drive would go on, until, almost inevitably, a ball would sail into the hands of a receiver in the end zone. It happened so often that success became an expectation. And when the big play wasn’t made, it was jarring. I actually remember thinking, when an important third down wasn’t converted late in the game, “that must not have been the real important one,” as if Brady had some Tralfamadorian ability to see through time and sense which play was really critical for him to convert and which would simply have ruined the suspense.
For this season, at least, things will be different. Our quarterback will be some schlub who will hopefully throw more touchdowns than interceptions. Games will be tense, and whenever the quarterback drops back to pass on a big play, we’ll get that same feeling in our stomach we always used to get during Red Sox playoff games. You know, that tortuous mix of dread and excitement, where you don’t know if something very good or very bad is about to happen.
And I’m not sure that's a bad thing.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t very excited for this upcoming season. The whole air around the team was extremely deflated, and I wasn’t looking forward to another season of them with so much pressure to win on each game, and so many talking heads pontificating about what their success meant to society. Last season was fun for a while, but all the resentment and bitterness at the end from all other corners of the league ruined it for me, and I spent much of the summer dreading the start of the NFL season. How could you possibly top the 19-0 season that they let slip away? Would even a Super Bowl victory feel like an anti-climax?
Now, however, the Patriots suddenly find themselves in the role of underdog once again. Uncertainty and perhaps even dysfunction are on the horizon. Columns on the Patriots, which have recently become tiresome odes to their greatness, will be flush with drama. There will be questioning of the quarterback, of the coach’s strategy, and of whether the Patriots have the juice to get into the postseason. When the Patriots beat a pretty good team the fans will all go crazy again, rather than letting out a muted “yay” as they get back to the Sunday paper.
It will, in short, be kind of like the old days. That long ago time when we had the great Bledsoe at quarterback. He was a true tragic hero, who had a rocket arm but always seemed to make exactly the wrong decision at the wrong time. Strange as it may seem, even as I reveled in their greatness last season, I secretly wished we could give it one more go with Bledsoe. Back when he was around, I at least had someone to defend, and even more importantly, someone who needed defending. The Patriots of Belichick and Brady almost made me feel like they didn’t need me. They attracted the cheap love that rock stars get, where people admire them for their accomplishments and talents. With Bledsoe, I felt like I was on a journey with him, I shared his hopes and dreams and, most importantly, his disappointments. While Brady is an iconic figure, Bledsoe was one of us. And the one real advantage that that long ago unsuccessful era had on this successful one, is that while today fans root for the Patriots, it seemed like back them we rooted with the Patriots.
And so, it is that promise of the return of that familiar foxhole mentality that has me somewhat interested in this season again, despite the bad news. I’m excited for next week’s game against the Jets, where, doubtless, the Patriots will be declared hopeless underdogs by the media, and the fat, loathsome Jets fans will make their reappearance, like front-running swallows returning to Capastrano. I will yell at people to defend the competence of the Patriots and the quarterbacking skills of Matt Cassel, and, if it isn’t as good as thrashing the Jets by 89 points, it will, at least, be fun.
And who knows what will come out of this season? We still have Belichick, a great receiving corps, and at least a few players who have done the impossible before. After all, the last time the Patriots lost their starting quarterback to a horrible injury, they won the Super Bowl. And wouldn’t it be just perfect, if, after being counted out, the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl just like they won their first? Except this time, the image of the Super Bowl celebration will not be the exuberant Brady raising his arms at the unexpected triumph, but the sly cynical Belichick, smiling like Voltaire, and saying, with a note of condescension: “nobody believed in us but ourselves.”