By Jason Keidel
A few eyebrows arched when the Patriots shipped Chandler Jones to Arizona for Jonathan Cooper. But only a few.
Most teams would be questioned for such a move. Rabid pass rushers don’t grow on the gridiron vine. Cooper has alleged upside, but he is hardly Orlando Pace. These are the Patriots, however, and we assume there’s some simmering logic under the surface, beyond our eyes.
The Patriots seem to survive bedlam more than any team in sports. Not only survive, but also thrive.
Spygate would have wrecked most teams. The Patriots went 16-0 that year and famously fell 60 minutes short of the best season in NFL history, with crates of 19-0 t-shirts shipped to underprivileged kids outside the country. If not for Eli Manning, the Pats would be a cemented NFL monolith, the team and Tom Brady the unquestioned best in history.
Deflategate would split a team down the middle. Imagine your franchise quarterback bouncing between Boston and New York to defend his name, not knowing if he will play the entire season. Yet the Patriots won their division (again), then reached the AFC title game for the fifth straight year, most in NFL history. They just couldn’t corral the karma surrounding the Sheriff’s last season in the saddle.
Aaron Hernandez, the talented tight end who just signed a $40 million contract, kills Odin Lloyd (at minimum, as there are multiple homicide charges against Hernandez), and the Patriots simply cut him, and sweep him into the dustbin of memory. How many teams can sustain the weight of a star player morphing into a murderer?
Rarely does real life puncture the fantasy bubble of pro football. But the Aaron Hernandez saga could have — should have — shattered the Patriots’ psyche. They aren’t responsible for Hernandez’s horrific conduct, but they had to feel at least obliquely connected to something that far exceeds any deeds on a football field.
Why do the Patriots always win in a league contoured for parity? Despite all legislation designed to dump a big bucket of Haterade on dynasties, the Pats have yet to fall to lower rungs after any of their successes.
The template is simple. Win now, pay later. Get that ring, if you can, then all your studs twirl down the drain of free agency. You must replace them with college players, but you are stuck with low-end draft picks.
Every year the Pats draft at least 25th in the first round, yet they find a Rob Gronkowski in the second round, or Julian Edelman, a former quarterback, in the seventh round. Maybe the alchemy behind the Jones/Cooper trade is the second-round pick the Pats get in return, which they will likely turn into gridiron gold.
Brady was famously (or infamously) taken in the sixth round of the 1999 draft, the last of six quarterbacks taken that year. There are still grainy videos of the lanky neophyte huffing his way down the 40-yard dash. As if that metric means something for pocket passers. The photo of a shirtless, bony Brady in shorts was a laughable reminder that lifting weights makes you great at one thing — lifting weights.
Sure, the Pats got lucky with Brady, who even struggled to start in college. If anyone had any sense of Brady’s potential, he would have been bagged in the first round. But the Pats are more than lucky. And Brady is more than a fine passer.
Brady takes a fraction of his market value to stay in Foxborough, though no one would begrudge him an epic payday like his recently retired colleague, Peyton Manning. Does anyone even know what Brady makes every year?
Brady is a Boy Scout, but the Pats are just as accomplished with bad boys, those miscreants other teams keep at arm’s length. Randy Moss bought in and caught 23 TDs in one season. Corey Dillon bought in, rushed for 1,635 yards in one season, and left with a Super Bowl ring. Only Aaron Hernandez was beyond pigskin salvation.
The Patriots esprit de corps has been surreal. In an era of wikileaks and social media snoops who always seem to unearth the one secret you can’t spill, New England’s corporate group hug is unbreakable. You won’t find one crack in the chain of command, from Brady to Belichick up to Robert Kraft.
We can argue about America’s team. It’s clearly not the Cowboys, despite their ancestral handle as God’s favorite club, their money-minting business model, and 80-yard flatscreen over their field. Green Bay is Titletown, from Lombardi on down. While my beloved black & gold have the most Lombardi Trophies, there’s only one team that brings anxiety to Pittsburgh’s bones. That’s the team from Foxborough.
New England is this epoch’s gold standard. While the Cleveland Browns haven’t won anything since Jim Brown was their best player, the Patriots haven’t lost anything since Bill Clinton was president.
At some point Las Vegas will lather its walls with odds, an amalgam of numbers telling us who should win their respective divisions and conferences. While Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Seattle will likely round out the chalk, there’s only one team that has won double-digit games in 14 of their last 15 seasons, hasn’t had a losing season since 2000, and has its mail forwarded to the championship.
That would be the New England Patriots.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.