SOMEBODY FINALLY stood up to the New England Patriots, which at least temporarily silenced the poor sportsmanship debate. Apparently the Pats only pour it on when they can, which is unfortunate because I myself was looking forward to another entertainingly lopsided affair when the Philadelphia Eagles visited Foxborough on Sunday night. But if a mediocre team like the Eagles can come to town, avoid ritual humiliation and only lose by a field goal, it might not be necessary to enact a tinkerbell rule after all. The best recourse when it comes to bullies might not be all this complaining but rather, as the Eagles showed, a good pass rush and a lockdown secondary.
Am I the only one who feels neutral about the Pats but finds New England's butchering of opponents great theater? Until the Eagles slowed them, Belichick's Bruisers were not only winning but also demonstrating their singular superiority with a glee many find inappropriate. Two weeks ago they beat the Buffalo Bills 56--10, and three weeks before that they beat the Washington Redskins 52--7. Now, unless you have something invested in the dignity of the loser (you're a fan, you thought they'd cover, you're a network executive), this ought to be recognized as good clean fun, perhaps even must-see TV. After all, this is the NFL, and perhaps the best team ever assembled in it. If the sublime execution of a craft can't be reveled in at this level, where can it be?
And yet people jump on the Pats for "disrespecting" the game. When Bill Belichick put Tom Brady back in with his team leading the Dolphins 42--21 in the fourth quarter, Miami's Chris Liwienski registered nothing but disgust. "Everyone was disappointed with the lack of respect," he said. "It's a kick in the teeth and lacked some class." Same thing when Belichick went for it on fourth-and-close—twice!—in the Redskins rout, a trick he repeated against the Bills. "You need to show some respect for the game," said Washington's Randall Godfrey. "You just don't do that."
Now, Belichick might have his own motives for rubbing it in (the penalties and embarrassment from the illegal sideline filming earlier in the season perhaps have occasioned some sense of vengeance), but, in any case, it's hardly his job to stop Brady and Randy Moss. What is more disrespectful—the Pats going all out against you, no matter the score, or Brady taking a knee play after play because you're not quite up to the job? If Liwienski and Godfrey are aggrieved by the final score, they surely would be even further insulted by the tender of mercy. (Here, maybe you can handle our third-string QB.) They ought to be.
Running up the score is something that happens in Pop Warner leagues, not the NFL. We are taught early on that it is a form of cruelty to exercise a huge advantage in talent and resource. It is at least impolite. That's why there are tinkerbell rules at the lowest levels of sport, in which fairness can't be guaranteed. But past the age of 12, or whenever play becomes competition (or whenever coaches no longer take the team out for ice cream after the game), the necessity for restraint in the face of weakness fades. Competitors owe nothing to each other but honest effort—particularly in the NFL, a league whose working parts are so interchangeable that only the mascots can readily be told one from another.
That's not to say one side's passion has never gotten out of hand. To this day, nobody knows what John Heisman was thinking when he coached Georgia Tech to that 220--0 win over Cumberland, back in 1916. Probably, recognizing some form of inequity that was unique to that game (did Cumberland have fewer scholarships, stingier boosters, a smaller weight room?), he could have substituted more freely. But generally if a team doesn't truly belong on the same field or court as another, that's a game that shouldn't have been scheduled. Beyond that the coach has zero obligation to hold the score down. As Billy Tubbs used to say when he was coaching basketball at Oklahoma (and occasionally ringing up U.S. International, 173--101), "If they don't like it, they should get better."
If we are affronted by Belichick's willingness to step on a competitor's neck, it is only because we still operate by Pop Warner rules in many other parts of our lives. It's good to be nice! But in the most important areas, in which we deal with survival and getting the best table, we behave with just about the same ruthlessness. Which one of you has enough money? Who's taking a knee when it comes to getting what he really wants?
In other words, there is no moral duty to run out the clock, no matter what your lead. It is not poor sportsmanship to try as hard as you can for as long as you can, even in the face of inferior opposition. If you don't like Brady and Moss hooking up for 38-yard pass plays late in a long-decided game, bat the damn ball away. That's what the Eagles did when they smothered Moss (five catches), sacked Brady three times and exposed the weak spots in the Patriots secondary. ( A.J. Feeley, making his first start since 2004, threw for 345 yards.)
Let's hope the Ravens and the Steelers, the Patriots' next two opponents, weren't watching, lest we again be denied the pleasure of seeing the Patriots at their merciless best. Either way, there is always the rather exciting possibility of payback. Any coach or player—or fan—who is honestly aroused by the Pats' refusal to give quarter should simply shut up and stay put. Sports lore is filled with revenge—Boston College costing Notre Dame a chance at the championship in 1993, the year after Lou Holtz used a fake punt in a 54--7 stinker—and there is little that is more fun than a nice comeuppance. Brady won't always have Moss to throw to, Belichick won't always have Brady to send back in during the fourth quarter. If, after all this, you still believe that putting up points seemingly at will is poor sportsmanship, all I can tell you is, just wait.
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