(photo from Boston.com)
For the last five years, a simple formula has seen the Patriots rise to the cream of the league: an emphasis on teamwork, solid leadership from team captains and coaches...and a gray hoodie.
It's been discussed on SportsCenter. It's been sent up on Letterman. And since the turn of the century, Bill Belichick stalking the sidelines in his gray hoodie has risen to the status of sports icon.
Then, last night, in possibly the biggest regular-season game of the year for New England, Bill Belichick...switched the formula.
I could feel the clenching in my gut when they first showed him on the sideline in his traditional gray sweatpants and blue headband, which he has in the past been known to wear when the temperature is cold enough, all of that well and good, but all of it lost in the blaring, fire-truck red of The New Hoodie.
And lo and behold, the Patriots were outmanned in the contest. Coincidence? Well, that's not for me to judge. But I know a solid correlation when I see one.
But seriously, folks. There's a seed of truth within the superstition that Belichick's change in routine was a factor in the loss last night; maybe not if you focus on his wardrobe choices, but you have to admit, both he and the Patriots looked like their own evil twins last night.
The most shocking comments about the Patriots' performance were the ones from both the broadcast booth and Tony Dungy in a sideline interview that the Patriots, and Tom Brady, seemed to be "pressing." But they were accurate--look no further than an unprecedented four interceptions from Brady.
Probably the best example of the peculiar way the Patriots fell apart came in the third quarter, when they attempted to run a double-reverse that went completely pear-shaped from the very beginning.
"See, the Patriots, they don't need to be running trick plays like that," John Madden said. And though I don't always find John Madden the most insightful person on the planet, in that moment he was definitely right. Or how about the fake screen pass that Brady muffed shortly before that? He got the fake in, but then the actual screen to his right side was a dying quail that missed its mark.
The sloppy play was out of character, and the Patriots' collective personality seemed equally off. How about when Belichick stormed down to the 14 yard line to protest a call in the second quarter, risking a penalty for straying outside of the 30 yard line?
The Patriots normally play clean football--and yet yesterday there were a truly worrying number of penalties, false starts and illegal hands to the face, and pass interference and holding. I mean, Troy Brown got a taunting penalty? Clearly, we are living in the end times.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Peyton Manning was still doing his infinite audibles, but in contrast to the Patriots, he and his receivers looked slick, poised, cool and collected. It was a total role reversal--Manning was in command while Brady floundered. Where in the past the Pats have stuck to a game plan of robbing a team of their best asset and forcing the opponent to beat them on New England terms, yesterday the Patriots got stuck playing the Colts' game, as Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne ate up the field on one drive after another.
I will even admit a grudging respect for the performance the Colts put on yesterday--it reminded me of that place we've all been, at a job or in a class, where we try and fail over and over and over again to get something right, and then finally, in the end, repeat the sequence drawing on hard-earned lessons every step of the way. The Colts had clearly completed some process of elimination that helped them find the chinks in the armor--a painstaking process built on sheer elbow grease that has up until now been Brady's specialty, not Manning's. That's one theory, anyway.
Another is that the Colts took advantage of a Patriots team that was just...off. The old "we beat ourselves" adage. But somehow, I just don't buy that--the entire game, in retrospect, had a coherent "arc", and a strategy was obviously being executed. It just wasn't ours.
The bewildering root of that analysis, however, would have to be that either Belichick's usually infallible game plan didn't work, or that it was the wrong one. Neither prospect is particularly comforting, especially when you begin to consider the underpinnings that may have contributed to either scenario. If the game plan was well-designed but poorly executed, does that in turn point to poor personnel decisions--Branch, Vinatieri, McGinest, et al? If the players did their jobs for the most part, but the game plan turned out not to be effective, does that point to truth in another whisper among Belichick's critics that the loss of Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis could not be sustained for long?
There is also a third scenario--that other teams, including the Colts, have begun to emulate the Patriots, in their personnel decisions, coaching styles, and game planning. The Patriots were an enigma when their dynasty emerged in 2001, but in the intervening years, their success has been recognized and, you could argue, reverse-engineered by other franchises who desire the same results. Might the rest of the league, led by the Colts, simply be catching on and catching up?
It's hard to decide what's scariest, speaking as a Patriots fan: the idea that Tom Brady was bested by Peyton Manning; the idea that Bill Belichick was outcoached by Tony Dungy; or the idea that the Colts finally found a way to beat the Patriots at their own game.