Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Truth Behind the Vendetta Offence

First of all – it’s entirely possible that what I’m about to get into is a common theory being screamed across desks all over the television landscape. Generally I can’t stomach talking head shows – unless it’s Max Headroom – so I avoid them like late-night traffic stops. So I’m operating under the impression that my theory is original, or at least not widely held – I know I’ve never heard anyone else make this case. Or maybe this is just common sense, who knows.

As much as it pains me to say (and you have no idea how much it does) - the current incarnation of the New England Patriots and their Vendetta Offence is good for the NFL. In fact, I think the Patriots are in the process of saving the NFL. I realize that it’s going to be very difficult to make a case that the most popular sport in North America is in need of saving, but I think I can try. Let me start by talking about golf.

Yes, golf.

Do you remember what the PGA tour was like about 12 years ago? Probably not because there wasn’t anything memorable about the Tour. It seemed to operate like an Old Boys club, where a bunch of guys got together four days a week to play some golf. Of course all the players wanted to win every week – but they didn’t need to win every week. From my vantage point (in front of the TV) it never seemed like there was anybody more dominant than anyone else. Players went about their business, week after week, and never felt they had to push themselves.

Then came Tiger Woods.

When Tiger blew the doors off the Masters in ’97 – winning by a ridiculous 12 strokes – the soft and flabby Tour was exposed. Before Tiger came along, the Tour Money List seemed to be what golfers were judged by, but Tiger didn’t care about money. Tiger only wanted to win. And Tiger’s incredible desire to win pushed everybody else to get better and those that couldn’t compete fell away – and while that might seem tragic, this is professional sports, where only the absolute best are able to compete. Because of the way Tiger played, the entire sport of professional golf improved. Players now know that they have to give it absolutely everything they’ve got every week. They know that they can’t take a hole off – every swing always counts. One mental lapse could ruin four days of hard work.

And you know what, that is great for golf – especially fans of golf. When players always have to be at their best, it’s the fans that benefit. I’d much rather watch golfers at the absolute peak of their games than hung-over and hacking it around on a Sunday afternoon. Tiger’s ability to dominate changed the way golfers approached the game – it was now win or go home.

By now I’m sure you’ve guessed where I’m going with this. The Patriots are head and shoulders above every other team in the NFL - and it’s scary - but it's also going to force all the other teams to catch up. And as much as I hate watching them toy with opponents every week, I’ve come to accept that it is a good thing and even necessary for the NFL.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but lately there have been a lot of below average teams in the NFL. Ok, they’re bad – I admit that I was trying to sugar coat it. It’s the old parity/mediocrity argument. To me parity means a league of talented teams playing at a high level. Parity does not mean a league of mediocre, flawed teams.

The Patriots have exposed just how mediocre the NFL is right now – players, coaches, general managers, and owners alike. New England is playing the game of football as flawlessly as I have ever seen, throughout the organization – and I will grudgingly admit that it is impressive to watch. I will also concede that it is not their fault that opposing teams cannot stop them from scoring. They are out to dominate on every play, not simply going through the motions - and isn't that the way it should be?

So what does this mean for the NFL?

Well I’m hoping that we see a serious improvement in the on-field product. New England is going to be the team to beat for the next 2-3 years, barring any serious injuries – and they are going to have a Rosie O’Donnell-size target on their backs. Any other team in the league that is a contender or wants to be a contender is going to have to be built to beat New England. If owners are committed to winning a championship, they are going to have to make sure the absolute best coaches and general managers are in place. And then the coaches and GM’s have to make sure they find players who are willing to put selfish pursuits aside for the good of the team – and give their all, not just every game but every play.

It’s not just about talent, because there are a lot of talented teams in the NFL, it’s more about accountability. Players and coaches are going to have to be accountable for everything that happens on the field. When Patriots’ linebacker Mike Vrabel is lining up as a tight end near the goal line, I, as a viewer at home, know that there’s high probability of him catching a touchdown pass (he has 2 receptions for 2 touchdowns this year) – or at least there is the possibility of that happening. However, most teams react as if they’d never seen the play before, as Vrabel is usually wide open.

What I’m talking about sounds an awful lot like perfection doesn’t it? And of course everyone says that perfection is an impossibility – but I will counter with this: Have you seen the New England Patriots play this year?

Unlike professional golf, which started Tiger-proofing courses, the NFL is not going to change anything fundamental to the game to slow the Patriots down - defences won't suddenly be able to play one more man than the offence. It’s going to be up to the other teams in the league to step up and answer New England’s challenge. If that happens and a handful of teams can elevate their play (let’s be honest, not every team in the league is going to change overnight – football isn’t an individual sport like golf, there are a lot of moving parts), it’s going to be the fans that benefit.

As much as I enjoy watching teams like Atlanta, Kansas City, Oakland and Cincinnati, et. al. play every week like they're in a meaningless pick-up game – I really, really want to see more teams who know what they’re doing. Even if it means New England dominating for a year or two (or more, if it comes to that). After all, it was a solid 4-5 years before the rest of the Tour even came close to catching up to Tiger - and there's a case to be made that there's still nobody that can hang with Tiger when he's on his game.

If the next few years in the NFL are solely about teams taking shots at New England to see who can knock them down, I'm ok with that. Because that's going to mean intense, furiously contested games - with every player putting everything on the line. And as football fans, isn't that what we want to see?


Jeff K said...

Translation: I (Luke) secretly love Bill Belichick. He is my hero.


Luke said...

Was it that obvious? I was hoping the back-handed compliments would hide it.