And this is the best part: In an age of narcissism, the Pats have embraced the sweet old concept of playing as one. Now they close in on the '72 Dolphins and roll inexorably toward Super Bowl XLII. And if they should win the championship in Arizona and stand beneath a shower of confetti falling from the night sky, perfect in every way, all the game will be better for having witnessed their journey.
Happiness Is Being Young and Gifted
FOR ALL the momentous news—good and bad—that reverberated through the NFL this year, the game still comes down to something as simple as this: the joy on the faces of the league's rising young stars. Players such as Buffalo Bills rookie running back Marshawn Lynch, who was miked at midseason by NFL Films and practically giggled his way through the game, and Cleveland Browns third-year kick returner Josh Cribbs, who says the only way he can play to the max is to be openly happy in his work. "It's a game," says Cribbs, who after 15 games had two kick returns for touchdowns and a 30.7-yard average (second best in the league). "If you don't have fun, why are you playing? You know what puts a smile on my face? When fans meet me and say, 'We don't go to the bathroom on kick or punt returns anymore, because we have to see you.' I live for that."
Last year when Tony Romo, then the Dallas Cowboys' new starting quarterback, was chatting up singer Carrie Underwood on the sideline before a game, smiling and laughing, you could imagine NFL traditionalists cringing. One former coach, who saw the scene on television, said, "He better hope [then Cowboys coach] Bill Parcells didn't see that." This year Romo threw four interceptions in the first half of a game at Buffalo that Dallas had no right winning; but afterward, while flashing a big grin, he said, "Really, it was four? I thought there were about seven." At least three or four times a game, it seems, the camera will catch him, on the field or on the sideline, looking just as gleeful. He makes no apologies.
"Early in my career I remember walking into a meeting and a coach telling me, 'You've got to quit smiling so much,'" says Romo, who sat on the bench in Dallas for three seasons before getting his chance. "'You've got to quit laughing out there. You've got to get the respect of the players and coaches. They won't respect you if you're always smiling.' So for a week, week and a half, I stopped smiling. I got serious around the locker room and at practice. It was the most boring, uncomfortable week of my life. So I decided, if I'm going to come to work each day and have to act like that, I'll have to do something else. Maybe I'll go down in flames, but at least I'll be myself.''
Romo remained true to his nature, and this year, if not for Tom Brady, he would be the leading MVP candidate. The Cowboys have had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, but in 2007 Romo set single-season franchise records for touchdown passes (36, with one game left), passing yards (4,125) and megawatt photo ops (Underwood, Jessica Simpson) while leading Dallas to its first bye in the playoffs since 1995.
Make no mistake, though—Romo has felt the anguish of failure. That happened last January, when he bobbled the snap on a potential winning field goal in Parcells's last game with the Cowboys. Seattle won that wild-card playoff, 21--20. Romo didn't leave his apartment for a week. "I hurt so many people," he says. "Then you just figure, If that's the worst thing that happens to you, you've got a pretty good life." Romo used what he learned from that mishap to get through the ridiculous October night in Buffalo, when he finished with five interceptions—two of which were returned for touchdowns. "At one point in the second half," he said, "I grabbed a towel, pressed it to my face and just started laughing. I was so bad you just had to laugh."
Tragedies That Speak To a Larger Issue
THE NEW year was two hours old when gunfire sounded on an icy Denver street. Fourteen bullets tore through the exterior of a white Hummer limousine. One struck 24-year-old Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams in the neck, killing him.
Nearly 11 months later four young men broke into the South Florida house of Redskins safety Sean Taylor at around 1:30 a.m., according to police. Taylor, 24, awoke and confronted the intruders, one of whom shot him in the groin. The bullet tore open his femoral artery, causing massive blood loss. When Taylor died the following day, the NFL's year had found a tragic symmetry.