Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Russ Roberts on his unabashed love of the Patriots

rivaling only the passion of Maria Menounos:

I remember the first Patriots championship appearance. It was January 1964 and I was nine years old. The Pats suffered a 51-10 blowout at the hands of the Chargers. The next championship game was a 46-10 shellacking by the Bears, at the time, a Super Bowl record for the largest margin of defeat. Then in 1997, a loss to the Packers gave the Patriots a perfect record in championship games -- 0-3.

OK, the Pats are no longer the Patsies. They've won three of the last six Super Bowls. But thinking historically, a victory on Sunday will merely push them over .500 for the first time.

But that's my perspective. Yours is different. Even my friends confess they're rooting for the Giants. Some are Dolphin fans hungry for Schadenfreude. Some just hate the Patriots the way any morally upright, decent human being hates the Yankees. And when you add in the recent success of the Red Sox and the Celtics, it's an embarrassment of riches for Boston sports fans. The Patriots seem perilously close to becoming the Yankees of football.

But not really. First of all, no Yankee fan is ever embarrassed by the riches of those 26 titles. An embarrassment of riches is an oxymoron for a New Yorker.

But the real reason to root for the Patriots is the triggerman of the greatest offense in football history, Tom Brady. Maybe his girlfriend is a little more attractive than yours, but put that aside for a moment. Brady is Joe Pendleton in "Heaven Can Wait." If you're unfamiliar with the movie, Joe Pendleton is the quarterback mistakenly taken before his time by an overeager angel. He gets put back in the dumpy body of Mr. Farnsworth, an unathletic businessman. Through an incredible training regimen, passion for the game, and his innate football smarts, Pendleton manages to take his team to the Super Bowl, Farnsworth body and all.

Isn't that Tom Brady all over? He's a sixth-round draft choice who didn't always start in high school or at Michigan. His 2000 combine workout video surfaced this year, and it showed he had a lot of Farnsworth in him -- an unimpressive physique and a sloth-like 40-yard dash. His high-school coach says "I've had better natural athletes than Tom Brady," and you have the feeling he's being kind.

Tired of hearing about the 50 touchdown passes? Then think on this: Last year, Brady's top receiver was Reche Caldwell. The year before? Deion Branch. The year before that? David Givens. None of those guys are going to the Hall of Fame. Their production dropped -- plummeted, sometimes -- after they left the Patriots.

In 2005, Brady signed a long-term contract for less money than he could have received on the open market, in hopes of helping the Pats sign a better supporting cast. When the team then signed bargain-basement receivers, he didn't complain. While Peyton Manning was throwing to Marvin Harrison and Wayne Clark last year, Brady was throwing to Caldwell, a 35 year-old Troy Brown, and Doug Gabriel. But Brady kept his mouth shut, did his job and came within four points of going to the Super Bowl.

There are other nice stories on this team. There's Wes Welker, the undrafted wide receiver who has flourished. Tedy Bruschi, the stroke victim who still plays the game he loves with élan. Brown, who played defensive back when the team needed him to. (I just have a feeling Troy will contribute somehow, on Sunday.) How can you not like those guys?

As for the humorless guy in the hoodie, I even like him too. (Sorry.) I like his injury reports: Brady's injured shoulder makes him only "probable" week in and week out. I like his sartorial splendor. I like his no-nonsense commitment to excellence. I like that he's been successful even as his assistants come and go.

Is Bill Belichick a cheater? Well, I'd like to know if he's the only coach to tape another team's signals -- or just the only coach to get caught. I'd like to know if it helps a lot or a little to have video, rather than the legal photographs. Either way, he broke the rules. He has paid -- and will pay, via that lost draft pick.

Besides, Belichick majored at Wesleyan in my favorite subject -- economics. And no one understands one of the fundamentals of economics -- the importance of tradeoffs -- better than Belichick and his partner in playing the salary cap, the unsung but essential VP of Player Personnel, Scott Pioli.

In today's WSJ.

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