If football has a goddess, she speaks in strip sacks. A defensive player knocking the ball from the hands of the opposing quarterback is as pure a deus ex machina as there is in professional sports. While not exactly a freak play, stripping the quarterback is nevertheless random enough to frustrate easy attribution of blame: it is possible for the offensive line to block well enough, and for the quarterback to make the right read, but have the ball knocked from his hands anyway, as he reaches back to throw. As with the god that suddenly descends from Olympus to resolve an impasse in Greek tragedy, the feeling of arbitrariness is the point: it wouldn’t be divine if it were rational, and yet the result is a sudden proliferation of reasons rather than their absence. Instead of nothing having meaning, everything does.
On January 19, 2002, Tom Brady was stripped of the ball, down by three, at the end of a divisional playoff game against the Raiders played in the driving snow in a concrete box now known as “old Foxborough stadium.” The spirited young backup QB, who had taken over for an injured Drew Bledsoe while the World Trade Center was still burning, had brought his team to where you could begin to see the faint outlines of a comeback on the horizon. But then Diana came down in the person of Charles Woodson and knocked the ball from Brady’s hand and under the body of Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert, ending the game. The stadium would be bulldozed in the offseason. Bledsoe would return the following fall and perhaps Brady would be traded for a good draft pick. But this didn’t happen. Instead, humanity matched the divine thumb on the scales with one of its own, transforming Brady’s fumble into an incomplete pass on review by order of a controversial reading of the so-called Tuck Rule. Sixteen years, five championships, fifty-four comeback victories, and sixteen days later, down by five with just over two minutes to play in his eighth Super Bowl appearance, Brady was still on the field, now 40 and sitting quietly with his arms wrapped around his knees. He had finally lost the fumble, and I was grateful.
This time it was Brandon Graham, yet another Michigan alum—both Woodson and Brady are Wolverines—who had transcended right guard Shaq Mason and gotten close enough to Brady to knock the ball into the waiting arms of rookie defensive lineman Derek Barnett after a preternaturally lucky bounce. I was grateful for Brady’s fumble because it was so clean and indisputable. It was less of a mistake than an ending. That’s enough Tom, you could almost hear the divine machinery cranking, that’ll do.
The first time Tom Brady won the Super Bowl he threw for a mere 145 yards, 53 of these on the game’s final drive, which culminated in Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal. This was the lowest total ever for a Super Bowl MVP. The real story that night was head coach Bill Belichick’s defense, which held a record-setting Rams offense to seventeen points. This was the third and last time Belichick’s defensive genius would make an appearance on the game’s biggest stage, the first two having come when he was defensive coordinator with the Giants. There would be other defense-driven playoff victories by Belichick and Brady’s Patriots, but never again would the Super Bowl feature an all-powerful offense mysteriously shut down by the wild schemes of Wesleyan’s most famous alumni.
This was not for lack of trying. Belichick bragged that his game plan against the Rams was his best coaching job he had ever done, and he has spent the fifteen years since trying to match or exceed it. The last time the Patriots played the Eagles in the big game, in 2004, Belichick came out in a rare 5-2 front—five defensive lineman, two linebackers—in an effort to control then-Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb’s running with the ball. It didn’t work, but that didn’t stop Belichick from reaching deeper and deeper. His fondness for the baroque and untested eventually became so expected that Atlanta and Seattle—New England’s last two Super Bowl opponents—knew that whatever defense the Patriots would roll out would be something they hadn’t seen before. These schemes didn’t work either, but Brady bailed out his coach both times.
We cherish the Cinderella story for the way it provides concrete images for the transformation of everyday objects into instances of grace, and then, when the clock strikes midnight, they turn back. A weird vegetable become a coach for a time and then, when that time is over, it suddenly becomes squash again. The clock struck midnight for Coach Belichick before the game, when either out of churlishness or hubris, he made the all-time inexplicable decision to bench star cornerback Malcolm Butler. This was the same Malcolm Butler who had delivered the single greatest play in the history of the Super Bowl when he sealed the Patriots’ 2014 victory over the Seahawks with a last-second interception. The same Malcolm Butler who had played more defensive snaps this season than any other Patriot defender. The same Malcolm Butler that Belichick himself pulled from undrafted obscurity cried softly throughout the anthem and then spent the entire game on the sidelines, watching the Eagles pile up 538 yards, the most ever surrendered by a Belichick defense. No matter how many times Butler’s replacements were beaten—humiliated, really—in front of the world’s biggest audience, Belichick never budged. But then this is the weird vegetable Belichick was before he met Tom Brady, an unorthodox and occasionally inspired gourd famous mostly for two good game plans as defensive coordinator of the Giants, and then for benching beloved quarterback Bernie Kosar as head coach of the Browns in the last season before Cleveland moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. Benching Butler was worse because it was the Super Bowl and because there was no conceivable football reason for it, despite “football reasons” being Belichick’s only explanation.
In fact they were Belichick reasons, the result of a long accumulation of small acts of vindictive, weaponized piety, here made flesh in the person of Jordan Richards, the third-string safety who blew the coverage on Clement’s touchdown catch at the end of the second quarter. You can’t understand the Patriots loss without knowing the story of Belichick and the early round safeties, of which there have been three: Tavon Wilson, taken out of Illinois in the second round in 2012, Duron Harmon, third round from Rutgers in 2013, and the aforementioned Jordan Richards, taken in the second round in 2015. What links these three players is that they all play safety, first, and all were drafted by Belichick far higher than anyone expected them to be. When Wilson’s name was called, Mel Kiper, resident ESPN draft guru, who literally does nothing but study college prospects all year, threw up his hands and said to his colleagues “I don’t know guys. Maybe I missed him.” Harmon wasn’t even invited to the scouting combine, despite excellent production in college, while Jordan Richards was projected to go no sooner than the sixth, if he was drafted at all. Belichick, of course, is famous for finding players from nowhere and giving them starring roles—Malcolm Butler himself is one such player—and also for being the best drafter in the history of the game. This was why, when each of these players were picked, Belichick wasn’t flayed alive, in the same way that nobody wondered why Oedipus thought himself capable of curing the disease plaguing his city. He was king, after all.
And in fact Tavon Wilson, though not a star, did earn a second contract in the league, with the Lions, and Duron Harmon had more than justified his selection by the Patriots even before he had the game’s only interception on Sunday night. In short, although neither player was expected to be drafted both of them should have been. Richards was expected to be drafted but not that high. This is because every scouting report says the same thing: Jordan Richards is an exceptional human being who cannot run fast enough to play football at a professional level. But he was a team captain at Stanford who knew the game so well that other players called him “coach.” Malcolm Butler was undrafted out of the University of West Alabama, but it was Richards who was beaten consistently when he played instead of Butler on Sunday night. It was so brutal that I began to entertain dark theories about what was happening.
First, I considered that the directive had come down from somewhere in the league office that the game had to be entertaining. The league is suffering from declining ratings and a third Super Bowl appearance in four years for the Patriots was a recipe for further fan fatigue. The imperative to entertain was why not one but both teams called the ridiculous “surprise pass to the quarterback play” within fifteen minutes of each other. (Brady dropped the ball near midfield with no defenders even near him; Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles, playing the second straight game-of-his-life, comfortably pulled the ball down in the end zone—on fourth and goal, no less.) The two teams had exceeded the Super Bowl record for total yards by the end of the third quarter and the game featured only one punt. The resulting spectacle was somewhere between the Harlem Globetrotters and Arena League Football: entertaining, but unusual to the point of being suspect. Benching Butler certainly contributed to this feeling, but the Eagles played all their starters and still got lit up. But then the Eagles were playing Tom Brady.
Which brings me to the second dark theory: Belichick wanted to throw the game because he was mad at Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft for essentially forcing him to trade backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the middle of the season. Brady was no longer okay with having his replacement in house, so he presented the team with an ultimatum. After the trade, Belichick retaliated by banning Brady’s personal guru and mystic Alex Guerrero from team activities after several years as a de facto member of the staff. All this according to a bombshell ESPN report released just as the season was winding down. Some caveats: ESPN was the outlet responsible for pushing the Deflategate story to stratospheric levels of hype, and they also happen to be paying four times as much to broadcast NFL games as any other partner: if anyone needs the NFL ratings to stay up, it’s the Worldwide Leader. Faced with yet another long Patriots postseason run, its perfectly possible that they exaggerated the tension inside the New England organization to keep fans as interested as possible.
It’s also possible that they didn’t exaggerate. Brady and Belichick have been together for so long, and achieved so much, that there is ample reason for resentment on both sides. One can certainly look at Jimmy G’s subsequent success in San Francisco after the trade and tell a story about Belichick’s commitment to the game being done wrong by Brady’s ego, but it is equally possible to make the case that Brady would have done even better with a coach less given to bullying and overthinking. Not only has Belichick consistently run Brady’s receivers out of town, costing them at least one trip to the Super Bowl (in 2006), but he has also yet to match his coaching performance against the Rams. Since that time Belichick’s defenses have mostly gotten worse as he has traded or cut one talented defensive player after another, while Brady’s offenses have consistently gotten better and better. By the time his last-second desperation pass fell to the ground, six inches short, in the Philadelphia end zone on Sunday night, Brady had thrown for a Super Bowl record 505 yards and three touchdowns with no picks. The Patriots became the first team in league history to rack up 600 yards in a game and lose. The reason was chiefly because Nick Foles played a magnificent game. But even this cannot be separated from Coach Pumpkin’s choice to bench Butler who, if nothing else, certainly would have made the tackle his replacement Johnson Bademosi blew on a key third down late in the game, allowing Nelson Agholor to pick up a first down after catching the ball well short of the sticks.
We’ve seen this sort of coaching malpractice before, of course, with the benching of Hope Solo in 2007 being perhaps the clearest example. After a certain point, the game decides who will play it, insofar as all who cannot are quickly exposed. Holding Butler out as the backups were consistently exposed in the Super Bowl while Brady accumulated more yards than anyone ever is a larger footprint on the game than any coach should feel comfortable making. At the very best, Belichick wildly underestimated Nick Foles in scheming chiefly to stop the Eagles’ running game.
Perfectly enough, Foles was himself traded out of Philadelphia by Chip Kelly, another system-precious meddler, whose firing Belichick went out of his way to bemoan. Anyone who saw the way Foles threw the ball on Sunday night—and heard the story about how close he was to retirement—knows how easily it could have gone wrong for Brady, too, and how much any player depends not only on an effective system, but a receptive one. In the closest he will ever come to a statement of labor solidarity, Belichick praised defensive end Chris Long’s decision to leave the Patriots system for the Eagles’, where his skills are a better fit, and also the free agency system that made it possible. I agree about free agency, but not about the vast over-emphasis on system at the expense of making the tackle on third and six in the Super Bowl. When Fletcher Cox tossed a Patriots’ offensive lineman like a small child, I thought, “this guy’s so good Bill would have traded him already.” This is why, when Belichick goes, I will not miss him. I have won enough, for now, and I’d like to try losing with honor, which seems the one thing that escapes my otherwise impeccable team.
And if I will love Brady forever it is because he still had his team in position to win anyway. Despite injuries to his two best receivers and relatively fresh stitches in his throwing hand, despite two score years on the planet, and despite his dyspeptic, possibly senile, and definitely symptomatic coach doing everything in his power to fuck up his side of the bargain, despite all of this he was still there at the end, the greatest of all time, holding the ball, down by five, with just over two minutes remaining.
But then it was a night for desperate renditions of old songs. In sequence after sequence, one faded star after another took turns trying to convince the assembled polity that their enfeebled national territory still had it: Pink’s signature voice betrayed her during the national anthem, Justin Timberlake looked old at halftime, barely able to remind us of the time he and Janet Jackson somehow caused a scandal during the same show. Where was she? Jeff Goldblum and John Williams somehow managed to sell out Jurassic Park, a fate I did not think was possible for so thoroughly commercial a product. Advertisement after advertisement referred to itself as an advertisement, hoping to recover some of the frisson that once made this our favorite unofficial holiday. Gwen Stefani, Jimmy Fallon, Dirty Dancing, Crocodile Dundee, the references were at once smug, self-assured, and criminally, morbidly old. It was Kia that finally gave the evening its enduring mantra, at least until the end, with an ad that featured Steven Tyler driving backwards through time until he was younger and once again the object of endless and unproblematic female attention. KIA: feel something again. The slogan flashed across the screen, only to disappear quickly: it was as if someone realized it was too on the nose.
When it looked like the aging Brady might make good on the automaker’s threat, Artemis smiled, picked up her bow, and sent Brandon Graham to restore order to the universe. After the fumble, Brady still got the ball back once more, now down by eight with a little over a minute left and no time outs, but it was too much, even for him, and Pats fans watching knew it. Still I will always cherish the absolute reticence of the Eagles fans to declare it over when it was. The shot of Philly waiting in disbelief to start celebrating that they had, in fact, beaten Tom Brady and won the Super Bowl will go down in my mind as one of the highest compliments ever paid to a competitor. When Brady was on the field, it wasn’t over until it was over and sometimes not even then.
I will miss Tom Brady. I will miss the stories about how weird he is, what foods he is or isn’t eating, what strange fitness rituals he is or isn’t participating in. I will miss his ridiculous shrieking and insane, reckless touchdown celebrations. I will miss his awkward runs and the way he hated wasting my time. I will miss these things for the same reason I miss similar characteristics in those who have commanded less of my attention, and for whom life has not been so epic and so relentlessly over the top. I will miss him because that is what we do when someone leaves: we feel for the edges where their unique combination of neuroses and commitments used to take place, nineteen Sundays a year, for a decade and half, in stadiums across this sad and forsaken land. One cannot love cities or the people who live there and not be happy for Philadelphia. When we needed Tom to win, he won. And when we needed him to lose, he consented to standing a short distance from victory, as far from the promised land, and as close to the rest of us, as the comeback kid ever gets.