Super Bowl Patriots: A New Dynasty?

Culture Watch

Mr. Catsam is a Research and Writing Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville. He is currently finishing up his manuscript on the Freedom Rides (Forthcoming, LSU Press 2004), basking in the glory of the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory, and is counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

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It is almost as if they are the anti-Red Sox, these Patriots from New England . Led by their matinee idol quarterback with the Joe Montana bearing, and relying on their indomitable defense, opportunistic special teams, and guru-stocked coaching staff, the Patriots took out the upstart (but very game) Carolina Panthers 32-29 in a Super Bowl destined simultaneously to go down as an instant classic in the realms of sport and smut.

To be honest, in this day and age, a singular bared breast is a bout as titillating as a missed extra point, but the self-proclaimed guardians of morality have to put on their poses, even while they wish there was a new sequel to the supermodels mud wrestling over whether Miller Lite tastes great or is less filling. Hopefully, however, this crisis du boob will fall into pop culture obsolescence leaving us with the aftertaste of what will have to go down as one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time.

Super Bowl XXXVIII (say that ten times fast; no wonder the Roman Empire crumbled) started with a defensive slugfest (those who claimed the first 26 minutes of the game to be dull are exactly the lackwits for whom the XFL was intended – though He Hate Me's revival has to be among the most heartwarming tales of this new year) that turned into a pyrotechnic display of dueling offenses. Hearthrob Tom Brady time and again matched the exploits of Jake Delhomme, a Cajun with all of the cache (and gravitas ) of Bobby Boucher of Waterboy fame prior to the playoffs. The defensive genius of Bill Belichick and John Fox gave way to the offensive genius of, well, Bill Belichick and John Fox, and of course their respective staffs. When Ricky Proehl caught the touchdown pass to put Carolina into a 29-29 tie, things seemed eerie, as it was Proehl's catch in Super Bowl XXXVI that tied the Rams and the Patriots, setting the stage for Adam Vinatieri's exploits. And wouldn't you know – once again after Proehl's game-tying grab, Tom Brady marched the Patriots down the field with little time remaining, and the game came down to Vinatieri's now venerated right foot.

There are those who do not think of kickers as football players. Garo Yepremian in Super Bowl VII probably sealed that deal with his ill-fated pass attempt after a botched snap brought him into the annals of Super Bowl infamy even as the Dolphins went on to cap the only unbeaten season in the Super Bowl era. But Adam Vinatieri is different. When he was a rookie he chased down the great Herschel Walker to save a touchdown on a kickoff return. From that point on he had the respect of his teammates. His 2002 Super Bowl kick topped as clutch a run as any athlete has ever had. And here he was, 8 seconds to go in Super Bowl XXXVIII, 41 yards away. Those of us who are Patriots fans could feel confident. Adam does not miss clutch kicks. And he did not. As soon as he hit the ball, he knew it was good. It would have sailed through from 57 yards. After a final kickoff (He Hate Me? They Tackle Him) the Patriots were once again champions of the National Football League.

Sports championships, however glorious, are also temporal inasmuch as almost immediately thoughts of every team but one turn to next year. But as temporal as they are, championships also belong to history. How will history assess these Patriots?

The author's clear and present bias notwithstanding, a good case can be made for this Patriots team and its place in the annals of the game. We no longer live in an age when teams are likely to run off three Super Bowls in four years, as did the Dallas Cowboys from 1993-1996, or four Super Bowls in six years as did the 1970s Steelers. Free agency and the burdens of the salary cap mean that it is nearly impossible to keep even the nucleus of a championship team together for long stretches of time. Within that context, these Patriots seem to be well on their way to building a dynasty for the new century. They have won two Super Bowls in three years. They have salary cap room for next year and four draft choices in the first two rounds of April's draft. They have Belichick under contract, and due to the onerous (if for Pats fans fortuitous) tampering rules in the NFL they also have their two coordinators, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, on board as well. Tom Brady looks set to be the face of the Patriots for a long while. (I remember when that tough hombre Steve Grogan, wearing his “Pat Patriot” getting-ready-to-hike-the-football logo was the face of the Patriots. We live in a different world indeed.) They have the best defense in football (time out for a rant – why is it that the “total defense” statistic ranks teams by yards given up? The point, as far as I know, is still to score more points and give up fewer than the other team. This isn't figure skating – there are no style points here, folks.) And, oh yeah, they have Adam Vinatieri.

But that's the future. What about the past? At first glance, this seems like an underwhelming Patriots team. They rarely destroyed opponents. Good as the defense was, it did not inspire fear along the lines of the 1985-1986 Bears. The offense, while functional and efficient, did not run roughshod over defenses as did, say, the Smith-Aikman-Irvin Cowboys. And yet that said, as if taking a page from the Al Davis playbook, they just won, baby. They won fifteen in a row, in fact, a number matched only by the aforementioned Dolphins of 1972-1973. And in that run, the Patriots went 8-0 against teams with 10 wins or more, and the winning percentage of their opponents approached .600. The 1972 Dolphins? Their opponents had an aggregate winning percentage well less than .500. Further, only ten teams have won as many as two Super Bowls. (And only nine franchises have even been to four.) In sum, the Patriots have built up a program not only worthy of respect this year, but one worthy of respect in the context of history. They have won two of the greatest Super Bowls ever played, they look poised to continue to be a factor, and no team in any sport plays better when the game is on the line.

Yes, for now anyway, they are the anti-Red Sox. But pitchers and catchers report in 16 days as of this writing. This is the year the Sox are going to do it. But if in some cruel twist of fate they do not, those of us in Red Sox Nation can look to the Pats and know that somewhere, Pat Patriot is smiling. Greatness, historic greatness, resides with a once-maligned football team that plays its home games down in Foxboro.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 2/22/2004

Ahhh, good to see New England college track results, but what are we looking for here? Wesleyan is one of my college's two main rivals, and I competed there a handful of times. If I'd had an even decent day I'd have swept the three jumps at this meet back in the day. Nice to see!

Brandt Driscoll - 2/22/2004


Brandt Driscoll - 2/22/2004


Derek Charles Catsam - 2/22/2004

The 1968 Olympics were remarkable, both for the politics and the sport -- keep in mind that not only was beamon's record astounding (perhaps the most remarkable single performance based on its improvement over the previous record in the history of sport -- I am a former college long jumper, so that is a seminal moment in my mind) but it also saw the setting of a 400 record that lasted more than two decades.

Brandt Driscoll - 2/22/2004


Another link that explicates it further. It should be noted that the white silver medalist from Australia also wore the OPHR badge, Olympic Project for Human Rights.

Brandt Driscoll - 2/22/2004

Dear Adam er Derek Catsam.

I link this picture of the great African American track stars Smith and Carlos who courageously and brilliantly protested the racism and Jim Crow tactics during the 1968 Olympics.

Let me say that when the routinization of sport is interrupted by such heroism, such grandeur, such courage, the issue of justice is served! Its impact is to interrupt the vile nationalism of sport and exposes the evil impulses that lay behind it.

While many will allege that the 22 year old Bob Beamon's long jump was the single greatest moment in sports history, (it's still shockingly is the Olympic Record) I think this act of courage is equivalent in stature and majesty.


Brandt Driscoll - 2/21/2004

Very good sir. I enjoyed this exchange with you.

Brandt Driscoll - 2/21/2004

Very good sir. I enjoyed this exchange with you.

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/21/2004

Brandt --
Good points all, of course. And I certainly would not even deny that the spectacle of the Super Bowl itself is often freighted with politics. But that was not my interest in this case. It may be more prosaic, but my article was simply about the game qua game and the historical place of my Patriots. I have written about sport more along the lines of what you seem to find interest in, including a paper a while back on rugby, race and nationalism in South Africa since 1994.

Brandt Driscoll - 2/21/2004

By exaggeration I did not mean to minimize the interest in the contest but the intrinsic value of the event.

No, I think there is quite a literature on the role of sport as a manifestation of nationalism, Berlin Olympics, the Soccer War in Central America, the rioting in football matches in the UK and elsewhere, and the violent political undertones to some competition.

Therefore, I think it is appropriate to validate and even admire an individual who is subjecting your article to a more nuanced interpretation that challenges a more revisionist outlook to the role of sport in America.

It is obvious he is preoccupied with politics and sees more than a kernel of it in American sport. Not a bad idea for a future article much less a book.

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/21/2004

But what do you think the relationship is between the two? I see no links whatsoever. the NFL is popular among liberals and conservative, lefties and righties, even some pacifists who realize that comparing the rules of a game that inviolve collisions but within a framework of rules has nothing to do with other forms of violence. Surely you an't be ascribing political values to particular games and sports, can you?
The "drama" was utterly banal and unrelated to the article at hand.
What is the "much exaggerated" sporting event you mention? You can't possibly be talking about the Super Bowl, which just about every year is the most watched show on television by millions. In fact, of the top 50 television broadcasts of all time, the Super Bowl takes 20 slots, 4 of the top ten (and other sports broadcasts are in there as well).

Brandt Driscoll - 2/21/2004

I like the idea of positing questions about the relationship between violent sport and violent nationalism. There is a sociology and a psychology to sport that perhaps might have more relevance to an academic website than a mere depiction of a much exaggerated sporting event.

I think the 'drama' was rather arresting and frankly interesting in posing these issues with, I might add, some humor.

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/17/2004

Carl --
Again, what does this have to do with the article at hand?
I went to Williams, so I'll throw my liberal arts pedigree up against your Oberlins or Antiochs any day. What is noisome is that this has nothing to do with anything.
As for whether football is not athleticism, I tell you what, pick the time and the place, and this old football player will line up in any sprint, dunk contest, wrestling match, home run hitting contest, powerlifting competition, game of HORSE or anything else that you would like.
And what on earth does Bob Jones have to do with anything? My God, I am a liberal academic. I am hardly supportive of a place like that.

Carl Roesler - 2/17/2004

Final Scene II

Emma is now 18 and is about to be driven to the airport as she begins her first year at Bob Jones University. Emma Goldman Fractus was valedictorian of her class and was the youngest to have two op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal at age 11.

Historian: Well as you know I am so proud of you and that you are getting a full scholarship at BJU.

Emma Goldman Fractus: Yes it has been quite a journey for me since my grammar school days.

Historian: Yes it has!

Emma Goldman Fractus: I love the fact that you taught me to love America, to worship its power and its impact on global culture. I remember when I was a little kid Che and Karl and my playmates used to taunt me that you were merely a myrmidon for a violent country that adores sports as an extension of its vile expansionist mission.

Historian: Let's not go there honey. We really need to go to the airport!

Emma Goldman Fractus: Oh sure, that is in the past as I merely recollect how wonderful a model you have been for me. I remember one day when some Tampa Bay person dismembered a Green Bay Packer offensive lineperson, you said to me, "Wow what a hit!" and I said yes, but are we merely glorifying violence through team sport and does not this reflect a rather base and vile streak in America...

Historian: Yes and I TOLD you we switched you to Lipset and everything worked out well did not it?

Emma Goldman Fractus: ...and unlike football in other parts of the world, soccer is not so predicated on violence as this revolting and racist country commercialises violence. Are we really more concerned about the baring of a CHEST during the Super Bowl as opposed to the ceremonial worshipping of a nation of violence that is SUPER and destructive. The strongest meet in combat on that grand day in enclosed 72 degree comfort so corporate America and its corporate media can cover war from the comfort of a seat.

Historian: Oh my God!

Emma Goldman Fractus: Is not football a disgrace and an evil manifestation of not sport, not athleticism but baser human instincts to kill, torture, control and smash others.

Historian: What is happening! What am I to do!

Emma Goldman Fractus: Send me to Oberlin or Antioch or Madison or Berkeley. I won't go to Bob Jones. I won't. I can't.

The two walk toward each other and merely stare. Light fades and an image of Adolph Rupp with his all white Kentucky team seen defeated by UTEP in the 1966 NCAA championship.

That's it America!

Jerald A. Hibberd - 2/16/2004

This is too much. Who is that child Bobby Fisher?

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/16/2004

Carl --
As I expected, you are not much of a writer. Since this is posted as a comment on my article, I need to ask -- have you not read my pieces on civil rights or other issues here where I am quite critical of aspects of America or its leaders?
And do you know what a court historian is?
Why the personal animus Carl? We disagree on political issues. I don't warrant this vitriol, but I'll play ball if you want.

Carl Roesler - 2/16/2004

Scene I

The woman historian is driving her child to Fidel Castro elementary school in their Cadillac Escalade. The child is
openly weeping and the driver is darting her eyes from the road to the rearview mirror as she tried to console the child.

Historian: Emma what is bothering you?
Child: Mummy, they call you a court historian at school and tease me all day long.
Historian: Who does?
Child: Jackie and Ho and Karl and Che and so many others.
Why do they call you that?
Historian: I don't know. I don't think I write in a noncritical manner about American culture.
Child: They tell me you like violence, such as football, and support American imperialism.
Historian: Is this what you are learning at school. Football is not at all related to imperialism. It is based upon cooperation, male bonding and the respect of others.
Child: They tell me mummy that the bomb is a long pass; defence is like war; offense is like war; uniforms are for combat.
Historian: Oh sweetie, it is perfectly appropriate to have sport that does this as long as it is not for real.
Society needs to have diversions such as this so it won't go to war and hurt others.
Child: But my classmates tell me we do go to war and the crowds in the games are rooting for their gang or violent partisans to win. Is not it really like war?
Historian: How dare you disagree with me. Where did you learn such unpatriotic and UnAmerican thinking. How can you not appreciate your country and how it is the leader of the free world. [child is now wailing] You can wail all you want, I insist that you grow up understanding the CONSENSUS that binds us together.
Child: All I know mummy is what I am told. They tell me that you are a court historian who cannot see sports as a miniature expression of evil nationalism predicated on violence and domination.
Historian: Who taught you to speak like this. How can you speak in such lofty and frankly frightening terms.
Child: Well mummy, we are learning about the generation gap at school during Vietnam. The gap between court historians and the new left revisionists.
Historian: Quiet! I will be transferring you to Seymour Martin Lipset school next term!
Child: No you won't mummy, I won't be allowed to think freely.
Historian: Oh my Lord, where did I fail!!!
Child: You failed but my school succeeded.

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/15/2004

Carl --
What does an article on Israel have to do with on eon the Super Bowl and football? Are you so personalizing these discussions that you are incapable of realizing that people pursue different interests and that they might not be relevant to, say, the issue of Israel? Do you have anything germane to say about this particular article? Do you have any contribution to make than to list a link to a cite you've already linked elsewhere? Do you really have this little imagination, this much time, and this much of a personal issue here? When I next post an article on race in the US or South Africa, are you going to also make it about Israel and our disagreements? What is your problem, Carl? You whine about professionalism, and then you pull a stunt like this. Unbelievable. And yet with you, somehow I am able to believe it.

Carl Roesler - 2/15/2004


Ralph E. Luker - 2/15/2004

I have virtually no interest in professional football, but the feisty friendship between Bill Heisler and Derek Catsam is a delight.

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/11/2004

Bill --
Thanks. I am a bit surprised that you are not a football fan. Not to engage in stereotypes (well, ok, I'll engage in a stereotype here) you seem like the type. We'll gladly accept another fan onto the bandwagon.

Bill Heuisler - 2/11/2004

Professor Catsam,
Your writing is becoming even better (if possible) fluid, conversational, crackly-quick and yet cut to the bone. As a fan who lost interest in football when Mean Joe and Lynn retired, you managed to grab my attention, keep it and instill enthusiasm. Maybe I'll become a Pats fan.

Derek Charles Catsam - 2/10/2004

Jesse --
Thanks for the comments.
I do not know if Grogan returned kickoffs or punts early in his patriots career -- I do not think so, as they were grooming him to be starting qb, but then he was a tough sonofagun.
Yes, obviously I am using "dynasty" loosely, in the context of contemporary sports rather than in any sort of literal usage. "Dynasty" seems to be the lazy journalistic shorthand for what we are really trying to do, which is to gauge relative greatness. And of course I picked up on it a bit, because there is something to be said for lazy, journalistic shorthand!
I think I would agree with you on the Pats-Rams Super Bowl, and also one would have to consider the Niners-Bengals Montana comeback game, and of course Bills-Giants wide right was compelling if macabre drama (docked points because the final play lost rather than won the game) and Rams-Titans, though that one suffered from actually being a bit dull in the first half.
I could go wityh Vrabel for MVP, though I also like Tuesday Morning Quarterback's (do you read him? It is a must for any fan -- seriously. It is Gregg Easterbrook of thw New Republic, Great stuff. Smart as a whip and insightful.) non-QB-RB MVP choice of Tom Ashmore.


Jesse David Lamovsky - 2/9/2004

Good work, Mr. Catsam. A few thoughts, if I may,

The scoreless portion of the Super Bowl was, indeed, the most compelling part of the game. I actually thought the 37-point fourth quarter was rather ragged and poorly played; the tackling and pass coverage was almost shockingly bad, particularly on the part of the Patriots (it looked as if both teams were having a tough time with the footing in the second half, probably caused by all the crap they put on the field at halftime, and that may have contributed to the ragged nature of the end of the game). As for it being one of the greatest Super Bowls, well... it was a good game, a damn good game, but it was just too sloppy to qualify for greatness. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, the New England-St. Louis tilt was better, and so were several others.

(A personal note: Mike Vrabel was a high school contemporary of mine, when he was an all-state linebacker/tight end at Walsh Jesuit in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and I was a third-string "monster back" at Theodore Roosevelt High in Kent, a few miles down the road. We played Vrabel's Walsh team twice, winning once and getting stomped my senior year of 1992, when Vrabel was Ohio's "Mr. Football". He was a badass then; oh boy, was he. Still is. Should've won MVP of the Super Bowl, actually.)

The term "dynasty" is defined pretty loosely in sports. If we're going to define the word the way it's used in terms of political dynasties (the Ghandis, the Bush's), than we need to talk in terms of dominance that spans multiple generations. Under this definition, the only real sports "dynasty" is the New York Yankees, who won twenty-nine American League pennants from 1921 to 1964 (an argument can be made for the Boston Celtics of 1957-86, or the Los Angeles Lakers of roughly the same period). Two Super Bowl titles in three seasons are impressive (especially for a franchise that might have played the worst Super Bowl ever, in '86 against the Bears), but the Patriots are going to have to play top-notch, championship-caliber football for the rest of the decade to be spoken of in the same breath as the '70s Steelers or '80s 49ers, or even the Raiders and Cowboys teams of the same era.

A last question, to which you may know the answer: didn't Steve Grogan run back punts and kickoffs early in his career?