Just after the third quarter began, I hobbled on blistered feet to the third-level concourse at Gillette Stadium in search of popcorn. (The blisters were courtesy of traipsing around the North End the night before during Kristen's birthday festivities in The Wrong Shoes. More on that soon.) As I took my place in line at one of the concession stands, Tom Brady was sacked on third down for the third time in four series and the second time in a row. My command to "keep No. 12 clean and upright for once" toward the O-Line pre-game appeared to fall on deaf ears today.
Still, the score was 14 to 7, and I thought I'd only be in line a few minutes since I'd waited for the halftime rush to subside. It appeared I was right when I first got in line; there were only about ten people ahead of me, and it was a stand where no assembly was required for the workers: aside from pouring sodas, their only duties included grabbing pre-wrapped, boxed and packaged things from shelves and bringing them to the counter.
Once again, however, the Gillette Stadium concessions staff proved to be the slowest thing in the stadium, and given Tom Brady's mobility as a rusher, that's saying something.
And, of course, as soon as I got in line, unable to see the television monitors from where I was standing, I proceeded to miss five first downs by the Saints, which drew them up to the New England 43 before the Patriots defense finally decided to show up and force them out.
As I stood, tapping my gloved fingers impatiently on my leg, watching a concession worker manage to take five full minutes to deliver a man three hot dogs, the Pats failed on two straight passing plays, but then Patrick Pass ripped off a 31-yard run to move the chains.
As the next person in line had to be nudged by the person behind him before he approached the counter, there was a roar from the stands. My dad would tell me later that they were reacting to a 60-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Andre Davis that put the Patriots up 21-7.
When I had left the stands, there was 13:20 remaining in the third quarter. Once I had refrained from ripping the soda cup out of the hands of the slackjawed concession worker (he had been distracted--no, held rapt--by a conversation happening next to him, and had stood for about thirty seconds with the lid poised over the cup) and huffed my way back up the stairs to the seats with my popcorn and Pepsi, there was 4:13 left in the third quarter. If you consider that football time is about twice to three times as long as regular time, you can see I had a ridiculously hard time getting a stupid popcorn. And in so doing, I had missed the best Patriots series of the game, on both offense and defense.
In case I wasn't aware of this, my dad spent most of the rest of the third quarter and about half the fourth quarter reminding me. Thanks, Dad.
After I returned, things of course went pear-shaped again. Brady spent most of the rest of the game attempting to recreate his long bomb to Davis, and failing (in fairness, this was due at least once to the fact that the yellow flags stayed firmly in the officials' pockets despite flagrant pass interference by the Saints' cornerback, a non-call that did not go unnoticed among the crowd). Brady also appeared to be hobbling slightly, favoring his left leg, and I hear tell there's something wrong with his right shoulder. Insert string of colorful expletives here.
Until the final plays of the game, the only memorable aspect of the second half after that was a spectacular tantrum by Saints DE Will Smith (#91 on your program), who stood accused of a personal foul for "kneeing a player while he was on the ground." Smith then immediately racked up a second personal foul by telling the referrees what he thought of them, their mothers, and their lineage in no uncertain terms (it was silent on the Jumbo-Tron replays, but I got the gist of what was being said anyway). After finally being dragged toward the sideline by teammates, Mr. Smith incurred his third and final personal foul when he ripped off his helmet and chucked it about 20 yards (minus the bounce).
Said the referree into his booming stadium microphone shortly afterward, "Defense, Number 91, has three penalties; however, only one can be enforced." The officials enforced the first personal foul for fifteen yards and left it at that. It was the general assumption that Smith had been ejected, but he came out for the next series, to a welcome from Patriots fans I'll just leave you to imagine.
Oh, and when a referree took to the microphone again after Belichick challenged a call to reverse the ruling on the field. After reviewing the play, he said, "the runner's buttocks hit the ground before the ball came loose."
Imagine being a referree, on the mic in front of 68,000 people, and having to think of the appropriate way to say "his ass was on the ground."
Imagine actually uttering the word "buttocks" in front of 68,000 people.
"Ah yes," quipped the guy behind us. "The old buttocks call."
The real excitement, though, came in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter, when the Patriots' decimated secondary (helped generously by the linebacking corps) bent, then broke, allowing the Saints a touchdown and then several shots at the end zone. Ironically, it was a member of that much-maligned secondary, Eugene Wilson, who intercepted an attempted touchdown pass at the literal last second to put a merciful end to a disconcerting game.
"They're just bad," my father finally concluded of the defense. "They're just...bad."
"Is it a mental thing, like they don't know where they're supposed to be?" I asked. "Or a physical thing, or...?"
"Kind of both," he answered. "Mentally, they're not all that bright, and physically, they don't react as quickly."
In fact, it was only miscues by the Saints, including several passes that simply dropped out of the hands of the receivers, and the fact that QB Aaron Brooks missed a wide-open Zach Hilton during the final scoring attempt ,that kept the defending world champs from overtime against one of the bottom-feeders of the league.
"I don't get it," I said to my dad in between nail-biting in the fourth quarter. "We still have Seymour, and Tedy, and Vrabel, and McGinest..."
"They're all up front," he pointed out.
"But Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson..."
"They're nickelbacks at best. At best," he said. "They're definitely not Rodney Harrison or Ty Law."
"But these other guys...we've always picked guys off the scrap heap," I said.
"Yeah, to fill certain gaps," he countered. "But never to play everywhere."
He's got a point. And Tom Brady would point out during his postgame press conference that the Pats have also lost four offensive linemen, two running backs, three out of five receivers and two tight ends this season.
In retrospect, the effect of this was borne out in a play that puzzled me at first. "What's wrong with him?" I'd asked my dad, bewildered, as yet another passing attempt to Davis missed its mark.
"He doesn't know the kid," my dad shrugged.
Sometimes I guess it's that simple.
Even more disconcerting, there doesn't seem to be any hope in sight, either. No one's going to trade with the Patriots, even if we had something they wanted. There isn't anyone coming back from the DL--they're all on injured reserve, the guys like Harrison, their seasons over. This is what we have to work with, for better or for worse, and from watching today, I have to say it's probably going to be worse.
My dad had summed it up best during our tailgating before the game, in the VIP lot, thanks to some friends of his who'd won a ticket package and brought us along--the height of luxury for those of us used to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the vast expanse of plebian parking.
"I don't know," he'd said. "But something tells me we won't be seeing a 2005 banner up there."
("If we were playing the Colts today," he added, post-game, "We'd have given up 60 points.")
I hate it, but he's right.
(Speaking of things I hate, after much complaining from New Englanders, CBS decided to put the Indy-Cincy game on...and the Colts are still ahead. Stupid Colts. I hate the Colts.)
Still, all in all, my first day at Gillette this season was a good one. It was a beautiful, sunny 50 degrees. Our VIP parking got us in and out fast, and we enjoyed sumptuous grilling before the game among the smells of charcoal, lighter fluid and wood smoke I've come to associate with the place. And getting to watch a game with my dad while he patiently answers my questions, hearing his witty remarks and knowledgeable observations, is of course more important than the final score.
My father and grandfather used to do these things together--go to games, talk about the team, argue good-naturedly over their players and prospects. I like to think he and I are carrying on that tradition in some form.
It seems, in general, that no matter where they are for the game, in the third deck among the beer-drinkers or pacing the sidelines, fathers are important to the people who love sports. The two things--fathers and sports--seem naturally prone to conflagration. It's a threadbare subject on this blog, I know, but I keep coming back to it in different ways.
According to Bill Griffith of the Boston Globe, Bill Belichick is not only no exception to this phenomenon, but perhaps its most shining example. As he wrote about the Belichick autobiography, The Education of a Coach:
Belichick didn't seem the ideal subject nor [David] Halberstam the ideal author for an 'as told to' book; however, the 'education of a coach' approach seemed to work. "I think his decision to cooperate was because he felt it would be an homage to his father, a coaching lifer and the best scout of his era," said Halberstam.
So far, reading this book, it has seemed to live up to that vision of it as an "homage." I'm only on page 73, but already the book has been 75% about Steve Belichick rather than his son Bill. For instance, on page 73 itself:
Scouting seemed to come so naturally to [Steve Belichick], not so much an end in itself, as someof his colleagues who watched him thought, but more accurately as a game within a game, one which he was always determined to win. Most of the other scouts were assistant coaches who did not really want to be scouting. They wanted to be back with their teams on Saturday, watching their handiwork in action, and their work habits showed it. They were, Bill Belichick remembered from watching them when he was a boy, "all so casual about it, talking to each other, paying attention but not really paying attention, doing a lot of coaching small talk, gossiping really. Not really paying attention to the game, but thinking that they were. Instead they were halfway interested. There were a lot of questions they would be asking each other, like 'Hey, did the guard pull on that play?' It was like a social occasion for them, and they would be ordering hot dogs and coffee. And, by contrast, he was always working. Every minute. He was like a hawk up there. And by watching him, I learned to see the game, how well prepared you have to be and how quickly your eyes have to shift."
Watching through my binoculars this afternoon, I had noticed that throughout the game today few people ever seemed to talk to Bill Belichick as he walked the sidelines. He hardly ever seemed to speak into his headset, either. He just walked, his graceless, ambling walk, eyes trained on the field. I had thought it odd.
He was, his son said, "the first great scout." "What I learned, going with him," Bill Belichick added, "was that it was not just a game, it was a job."
He was always working. Bill remembered one year when he had been allowed to make the trip to Philadelphia with his father, to scout Penn. They were the first to arrive and Steve did not waste a minute, immediately checking out the players in the pregame drills, the punters, how long they held the ball, how they dealt with the wind, and finally what kind of returns they were setting up on punt returns. There was, Steve Belichick taught his son, always something to learn.
Listening to the postgame reports on WEEI on the way home from the game tonight, we heard the news: Steve Belichick passed away last night, due to heart failure. He was 86.
"I coached this game with a heavy heart," Bill Belichick told the media. "My dad passed away. I found out about it the middle of last night."
But he was out there, pacing the sidelines, eyes trained on the field today. The depleted Pats struggled down to the wire, but they won thanks to their tough, smart leader in the frumpy grey hood.
Of the son, the same thing can be said as was said about the father: Belichick is always working.
Title quote by Victoria Segunda, Women and their Fathers, via Quotegarden.