Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Sum Of Its Parts

I still remember the announcement, sitting in my chair with my pretzels, as the Patriots ran onto the field. They had just gotten done announcing the starting lineups for the “Greatest Show on Turf”, with superstars like Kurt Warner, Issac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Marshall Faulk all getting a turn to bask in their own, individual moment of glory.

I remember waiting for the Patriots to be announced, almost snickering at the bunch of no-names that the Rams were going to steamroll for their second Super Bowl in three years. Who were these guys? Who was Tom Brady? I didn’t know a soul on the defensive side of the ball…and for that matter, if they hadn’t already been hyping up Brady as the guy who replaced Drew Bledsoe, I wouldn’t have known a soul on their offense, either.

But, it didn’t matter. “And now, being introduced as a team, the New England Patriots!!!” (see vision of entire team, offense and defense, running out as one mass onto the field).

Ha. Ha ha.

That’s not supposed to happen. I’m supposed to see chest-thumping and wild dancing. I’m supposed to see Ray Lewis do his little dance, or Terrell Owens mocking it. I’m supposed to see a face to go with each of these superstars’ names.

Ha. Funny Patriots.

As the game went on, I not only found myself rooting for the Patriots because they were underdogs, but because they played so well. I saw them stymie the vaunted Rams into a 14 point deficit. I saw Ty Law pick off a pass and return it for a touchdown. I saw a young, efficient quarterback pass for only one touchdown and 147 yards.

And then, as I feared, I saw the Rams fire back, on the arm of a former MVP named Warner.

And I saw them fall short. Glitz and showmanship and high-powered offense lost the battle to hard work, selflessness, and a stout defense.

I was almost insulted when Tom Brady was named MVP of that game. The whole team should have been named the MVP.

I heard the saying reverberating in the echoes of 9/11….”We’re All Patriots”.

Since that day, the New England Patriots have become an odd measuring stick for the rest of the NFL, and naturally, the Green Bay Packers. How can’t they…they’ve won 3 out of 4 Super Bowls. Every team wants to be in that position.

But how do you copy the blueprint of the Patriots? Spend a sixth round draft choice on a quarterback? Find castoff running backs to come in and be your runners? Have no-name wide receivers come in and play? That’s not sexy. That won’t bring in the fans. Randy Moss will sell more jerseys.

At the end of the Super Bowl, we once again found ourselves wondering… “Who the heck do you give the MVP award to???” Again, they played flawless, if unspectacular, football. The Eagles, again, had the sexy name players that got all the individual attention: Terrell Owens, Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Kearse, Trotter, Simon. And, again, they tried to come back at the end of the game, and the Patriots turned them away.

Again, Brady passed for a modest 236 yards and a couple scores. No interceptions. Donovan McNabb, like Warner, passed for 350+ yards, but turned it over to a great defense too many times.

The Patriots can’t give credit to any one position, any one squad for their success. They play with complete team ball. Freddie Mitchell disses one Patriot, the rest come together and shut him down. The defense is great. The offense is efficient and nearly error-free. Adam Vinatieri is ice-blooded. And the coaching is the best in the league.

They’re so efficient, they are almost boring. Bland. Old-School.

And they are everything right in sports. Perhaps the only thing. We live in an era of me-first, me-shawn, me-pumped up sports that are turning people away from our favorite past times. The NHL is on the verge of shutting down because of greed. The NBA has become a showcase for street thugs who never had to go to college. MLB has become a travesty of itself, embroiled in steroids and an unlevel playing field that has turned half the teams into AAAA farm clubs.

Even the NFL has approached these “new norms”, with players like TO, Randy Moss, and Mike McKenzie threatening the fabric of the game.

But the Patriots are the epitome of teamwork. If “Hoosiers” were a football team, it would be the Patriots.

Synergy is the intangible effect of great teamwork, where the overall team becomes more than a sum of its parts. The old story of 1+1+1=14 can easily be applied to New England: average players and late-round picks buy into the team concept, and work to their ability in a selfless way that makes the whole team more successful, and more successful than any other team in the league right now.

Forget those position-by-position matchups that the media likes to do. It doesn’t apply to the Pats. They’d probably lose every single battle, but they win the war.

Our Packers, unfortunately, are becoming the anti-Patriots, and I don’t believe that’s a good thing. We see talent at nearly every position, and we constantly fret about how they are underachieving. Favre has taken heat. Green has taken heat. Hunt is in the oven with the setting on “high”. Sharper, Carroll. Even the players who are actually playing well are getting criticism, like Barnett and Harris and Driver. Oh, don’t forget the criticism of the coaches. Burning effigy of Mike Sherman, anyone? The Slowik effigy has finally burned out.

As the media and fans search to find a formula that explains our problems, it becomes painfully noticeable that two things are prevalent:

a) nearly everyone boils the problem down to one person or player on the team;


b) nearly every person or player on the team has had a finger pointed at them by somebody as being the problem.

Not good. The critics of the team have focused so much on their “pet problem”, without realizing that each my simply be a symptom of a greater problem.

Teamwork. Synergy. Playing together on the same page. Team first, me second. Goals. “Super Bowl or Bust”.

I am in full awareness that there are many people who are more qualified than me to evaluate players and their performances. Not being a scout and having limited statistical experience (though I did get an A in Stats in college), I know that many here have leads and information I can’t have access to.

So, I approach this from an introspective fan’s point of view. Perhaps all of our arguments, from the Turnover Cultists to the Favre Apologists, from the Coaches-Fault to the Players-Fault, from the Cut-em-all-and-take-the-hit to the We-must-resign-Wahles…each of these are just symptoms, that benching Favre or cutting Sharper or going to a 3-4 defense or getting rid of Sherman won’t solve.

Sherman received high praise his first season for taking the boys on a bus to go bowling during training camp. It brought a sense of relaxation of comfort with the team. I’m sure he was pretty popular for a day or two, also.

With Sherman planted back in his position as coach, perhaps this is a good step towards building back that environment, where slackers like Antonio Freeman aren’t tolerated, where the W is the only stat worth caring about, where the Head Coach is the General leading you into battle, and everyone else falls into ranks and blindly battles for the cause. Bellichek falls into that category, for certain.

Perhaps Thompson is another step towards regaining this feeling. Perhaps Jim Bates will bring that discipline to the defensive side of the ball. You respect a guy more when you don’t feel he’s the “Coach’s Favorite Buddy”.

Obviously, there hasn’t been a sense of such synergy in Green Bay since the 60’s, when a bunch of good athletes got together and played blindly for a guy named Lombardi.

There are many symptoms that need to be treated: deciding who to resign, deciding what schemes to implement, planning for a quality draft.

But a lately-much-maligned GM by the name of Ron Wolf walked into Green Bay in 1991, looked at the roster, and said there weren’t many players here than would still be here a couple years from then. And he was right. Only a couple of guys like Butler, Jacke, and West remained Packers when they won the Super Bowl.

Wolf established an attitude of “You’re only here as long as it takes us to find someone better to replace you”, and the players jumped on board. They knew who was in charge, and trusted that direction.

Some may suggest that Mike Holmgren was a part of that philosophy, until perhaps his own ego got in the way following the Super Bowl victory. Such, also, will eventually happen to today’s Patriots.

But for now, the Patriots have written up a blueprint with no directions, a pattern to follow with nothing to prove it except their record. Dynasty talk aside, they are the ONLY team in the new era of free agency to have consistent, lasting success.

But it isn’t the schemes. It isn’t having a marquee player at every position. It isn’t doing a personalized dance in the end zone.

It’s introducing yourself as a team. It’s playing defensive back when you’re a wide receiver, and enjoying it. It’s standing up for your teammates, instead of standing around when your lineman is cheap-shot, and only having the coach actually go get in that player’s grill after the game.

The Packers finished the season as a bunch of individuals, with their fingers pointed at each other. The Patriots finished as a team, with their fingers pointed in the air.

Where’s your finger?

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