January 5, 2006
New England Dangerfields Say They Get No Respect
By JUDY BATTISTA
FOXBOROUGH, Mass., Jan. 4 - They are the put-upon, the runts, the slighted.
Ignore the stadium-high posters of the three Lombardi Trophies. Those enlarged pictures of the newest diamond-encrusted Super Bowl rings propped in their lockers? Pay them no mind.
These are the New England Patriots. And they say they get no respect.
Four days before the Patriots begin defense of their back-to-back championships with a game against the wild-card Jacksonville Jaguars, the Patriots have decided that nobody believes in them. Their head coach, Bill Belichick, is compared to Vince Lombardi. Their starting quarterback, Tom Brady, is likened to Joe Montana. The franchise evokes comparisons to Lombardi's Packers. But it is tough to be a Patriot these days.
"I think we've been probably disrespected more than any team in the league this year," Brady told reporters this week. "I think we've been given up on by a lot of media people, a lot of fans - our own fans - other people around the league. And if there's one team that feels like they're disrespected, it's us. I don't disrespect Jacksonville. How can you disrespect a team that's 12-4? If we were 12-4, it would be different. I think people gave up on us a long time ago."
Brady's remarks came in response to a question about whether feeling disrespected - like the Jaguars do, by the way - can fuel a team.
Since Sunday, speculation has centered on whether the Patriots (10-6) lost against the Miami Dolphins because a victory would have vaulted them into the third seeding of the American Football Conference playoffs and forced a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the A.F.C.'s other wild-card entrants, who are perceived as a more dangerous opponent than the Jaguars. The Jaguars might feel a bit insulted by the suggestion that the Patriots lost on purpose just so they could play them. But the Patriots?
"If there was any team that was counted out to not to do anything or was not to make the playoffs, I think it was us," Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest told Jacksonville reporters in a conference call Tuesday. Then, about the Jaguars' feeling disrespected, he added: "Maybe they are using that as a motivation factor or to get guys revved up to go. But if anybody deserves to be in the playoffs, Jacksonville definitely is one of the teams that deserve to be in the playoffs."
The Patriots would never admit to using the oldest clichÃ© in the coaching book as inspiration, but there is little doubt that it is what the hurt feelings are about. With three rings on their fingers, players and coaches will grasp at any shred of criticism as evidence of public opinion gone astray. It is persecution complex as motivational technique.
For people who follow the team, this has a familiar ring to it. Usually, it is safety Rodney Harrison who will take on the job of rallying the Patriots by turning a real or perceived slight into bulletin-board fodder. But Harrison was lost early in the season to a knee injury. So Brady, who is among the biggest stars in the N.F.L. and a leading most valuable player candidate, has embraced his inner Rodney Dangerfield.
It is hard to imagine a team in the league that engenders more respect. The last time the Patriots were perceived as true underdogs was before they faced the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl in the 2001 season. Back then, they were playing with a quarterback (Brady) who had less than a full season of professional experience and against an offense that was called the Greatest Show on Turf. But winning three of the past four Super Bowls has made the Patriots the gold standard for personnel and salary-cap management in the N.F.L., the franchise others try to emulate.
Sure, they have lost more games this season (six) than they did in the two previous seasons combined (four). And their beat-up secondary is not nearly the force it was when Harrison was healthy and Ty Law was on the roster.
When they lost to the Colts on Nov. 7, in particular, it provoked a sense that the A.F.C. torch might finally have been passed to Indianapolis, which had lost to the Patriots in the playoffs the previous two years.
But when the Patriots embarked on a monthlong winning streak behind a revived defense, it set off a wave of commentary that they were back and perhaps the most dangerous team entering the playoffs. They ended up winning the A.F.C. East.
Even opposing coaches, like the Jets' Herman Edwards, quickly acknowledged that the other teams in the playoffs were keeping one eye on the Patriots because of their postseason history.
That news, apparently, did not reach Foxborough.
"I think it's just a statement of fact," Belichick said Wednesday, when asked about Brady's sentiments. "I agree with it. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Nobody is holding any grudges on it. But I think that opinion has been expressed far and wide. I'm not really losing too much sleep over it. It doesn't really matter what anybody else thinks about our team, or thinks about us."