by Matthew Walther
The Dynasty: The Inside Story of the NFL’s Most Successful and Controversial Franchise
Simon and Schuster, pp. 592, $30.00
It’s Better to Be Feared: The New England Patriots Dynasty and the Pursuit of Greatness
Liveright, pp. 506, $30.00
This is a trigger warning. I am either the most or least qualified person in the United States to review two histories of the New England Patriots dynasty (2001-?). Both conclusions could be justified with reference to the same body of evidence, viz., that I have spent hundreds of hours in bars and living rooms and group texts arguing about Bill Belichick while having—here comes a defensive stunt worthy of the great man himself—decidedly mixed feelings about the quarterback he picked up in the sixth round of the 2000 N.F.L. draft.
My wife voiced two concerns during the long genesis of this article. “You’re going to bring music into it, aren’t you? You’re going to talk about how he is the Herbert von Karajan of football and draw a bunch of analogies between the Cam Newton season and that recording of The Planets. It will make sense to maybe five people on the planet.” Actually, this comparison (which a friend of mine came up with years ago) is worth dwelling on, because even though it totally breaks down at the level of, say, personal appearance, it tracks pretty well across both men’s respective careers. A lot of people dislike Karajan because he cared more about good performances than he did about maintaining some kind of consistent aesthetic (e.g., luxurious but textually iffy orchestration, really slow tempi): instead, for Karajan the competence, which is bloodless, almost mechanical, became the aesthetic: a cold, buried romanticism. The analogy has become so important to my understanding of the Patriots dynasty that when I watch football in bars and, say, Patrick Mahomes’s failed fourth-quarter comeback in the 2018-19 A.F.C. championship game comes up, I have to catch myself from responding with things like “The Alpine Symphony!” that would only be met with confused stares or worse, even, I suspect, from most readers of this magazine. (You don’t ask a guy who mows his lawn listening to Tod und Verklärung to write several thousand words about pro football unless you want something pretentious.)
Anyway, the distinct possibility that I could turn an essay about the world’s number one Bon Jovi fan into an extended metaphor about Bill Parcells and Walter Legge did not exhaust my wife’s concerns: “You’re going to use a word like ‘Oriental,’” she said. “You’ll think you sound like Hugh Trevor-Roper or something, but as soon as you actually start speculating about whether he had Berj Najarian’s tongue cut out, people will think you’re being insensitive. No one under thirty has read The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Then there was the problem of actually describing what he looks like. The Gargamel-Skeletor-Star Wars Emperor jokes are too easy, and everyone has already made them. Besides, what no one points out is that those never made sense anyway because the whole point of hooded Eighties cartoon villains is that they never actually thwart the ambitions of the insipid do-gooder heroes, whereas Belichick is still bottling Smurf tears in New England thirty-two years after inventing the base dime defense. Bill as Savonarola presiding with grim satisfaction over an inextinguishable bonfire of football vanities would be more appropriate perhaps. But the career of my second favorite excommunicated member of a religious order ended in failure too. These guys always lose. Until recently, Belichick didn’t. That, I am convinced, is the essence of his appeal.
Anyway, he used to dress better. Look back at the infamous Jets press conference, or even footage of him when he was with the Giants. Sometimes it was actually a suit, which you still catch him in at banquets and (obviously) funerals or while being interviewed for one of those N.F.L. Films anniversary deals, but usually it was a polo shirt or a sweater with those block capital letters that fill the hearts of those of us too young to have actually watched pro football in the Eighties with a holy longing for giant shoulder pads and sub one-to-one touchdown to interception ratios. The hoodies wouldn’t arrive for years, and after that they would retain their sleeves for a few more. The cut-off T-shirt with (by my count) eleven holes and what appears to be a large-ish stain on the right side of the collar, the unwashed hair, the stolid but still somehow wistful expression that could be the frontispiece to Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe but could also give you the impression that this man poor man staring at you said the wrong thing to a Bills fan behind the dumpster of a Dinosaur Bar-B-Que late last night: for these and other indelible images, we would have to wait.
The most commonly proffered explanation for Belichick’s sartorial choices is that he wants to be comfortable. Others have suggested that he doesn’t like the league or the marketing department or the C.E.O. of Reebok deciding what coaches wear. He always ignores “Salute to Service” and the other dumb initiatives in which every other head coach participates, but he also goes out of his way to do things like wearing an Armenian flag pin to the White House.
Some geniuses have run the numbers, and it looks to be the case that his winning percentage is slightly higher—seventy-four percent to seventy-three—when he is wearing full sleeves as opposed to cut-offs, as he was in all three Super Bowl losses. All of this has been broken down at the level of individual outfits, such as a Nike jacket in which he has won forty-one games since 2013. While color appears to track with how well the Patriots’ offense does (in the days when Belichick used to wear red to games more often, they would score an average of eight fewer points), it seems to have no effect whatever on the quality of his defense. In post-season play blue seems to be lucky, but gray is far and away his best color. Of course it is. Physiognomy only gets you so far, but I maintain that Belichick has always been an éminence grise, albeit one who was his own Richelieu.
In his first year in New England, with the team exceeding the salary cap by ten million dollars (which is to say, by almost twenty percent) and only forty-two players on the roster, he began systematically eliminating stars, such as Ben Coates, the legendary Patriots tight end who would play only one more year, winning a Super Bowl with the Ravens. He replaced them as only he could, with something like thirty undrafted rookie free agents. This army of scrubs would become Belichick’s first Super Bowl team, and all the teams since have more or less resembled it.
Who are typical Belichick players? Rejects, mites, goons, has-beens, lunatics, geniuses, morons, fullbacks converted from every position imaginable. Murderers (at least until he stopped trusting Urban Meyer). The son of a Nigerian immigrant whose father once made him skip an entire year of high-school ball because he got a bad grade on a test. An N.C.A.A. wrestling champion who had never played a snap of college ball. Day-two and day-three guys, veterans who wanted a ring, burned-out cases who knew they needed real coaching for once. Anyone willing to play harder than he would have to anywhere else, and for a few rusty nickels. Academic All Big Tenners, Ivy Leaguers, guys from Angelo State in the Division II Lone Star Conference, guys who would go on to play for the Berlin Thunder. One guy whom Dennis Miller, during his brief stint calling games, referred to as “the N.F.L.’s all-time leading receiver among players named Shockmain.” A long snapper from the Naval Academy. Another Navy guy, a former defensive end who has spent the last half decade serving as an officer and hasn’t played so much as a snap of football at even an amateur level in six years and so naturally is ready to become a practice-squad tight end. Several Michigan State quarterbacks named Brian (everyone knows that the only living Americans under the age of forty with that name are current or former signal callers in East Lansing, just as everyone knows that if you want to sling it in the Big Twelve or, heaven help us, the Mountain West, you have to be called something like Colt or Baker or Hunter or Spencer or Hank or Tiger). Doug Flutie, for a lone season in relief and the greatest extra point in N.F.L. history, and, amazingly, Kliff Kingsbury at a time when very few people were paying attention to what Mike Leach was doing at Texas Tech (Kingsbury played zero games in relief of Brady but got a ring anyway). All-around contributors like Patrick Pass, who rushed, received, and contributed on special teams. J.R. Redmond, the former Doak Walker Award candidate picked up in the third round, the hero of both the Snow Bowl (a.k.a. the Tuck Rule game) and the first championship. Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney and Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount (and poor Kevin Faulk alternating with way too many of those). Otis Smith. Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy. Adam Vinatieri, the single most clutch kicker of all time, and Stephen Gostkowski, who not only has the edge in points over the former but is the team’s all-time leader in scoring. Ted Johnson. Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi and Eugene Wilson and Roman Phifer. Willie McGinest, who holds the record for all-time playoff sacks (sixteen), arguably the most enviable in the league. Mike Vraebel, his most gifted apprentice. One perfect season of Darrelle Revis. Randy Moss, one of only a handful of first-ballot Hall of Famers on these teams. The undrafted Malcolm Butler, whose presence guaranteed one Super Bowl victory and whose absence (the result of Belichick trying to make goodness knows what quasi-paternal coaching point) almost certainly had more to do with the loss of another one than the talents of Nick “Big Stick” Foles. James White. Gronk obviously. Sony Michel. Chase Winovich, the former Michigan linebacker-turned-tight end-turned edge rusher who does ballet, martial arts, amateur graphic design, picked up in the third round before using his rookie signing bonus to pay for the outstanding school lunch debts of his entire former high school and came near the top of the A.F.C. in sacks despite not starting a single game. Vinny freaking Testaverde.
I keep telling myself there will be more names. For years we would hear that the roster was too thin, that Belichick was trying to do too much with too little, that he had let too many people go, and every year what happened? The ex-Cornhusker fullbacks and sixth-round former M.A.C. triple option quarterbacks-turned special teams gunners cum receivers also capable of working in the secondary would do more things that bring tears to our eyes. Day-three Big Ten guards would play three different spots on the line in their first three starts and Heisman-winning erstwhile N.F.L. Most Valuable Players would make seven-hundred thousand dollars more than the Broncos’ fourth-string Q.B. and love doing it. The most blue-collar team in the N.F.L.? Buddy, this has always been a no-collar franchise.
Is there some essential quality here? Until last year, I was convinced that Belichick actively dislikes players who get taken in the first round of the draft because he thinks they are entitled and likely to be more trouble than they are worth, and not just on payday. This is why he has routinely traded away first-round picks or, when he has used one, he’s done things like take the slightly less athletically gifted of a pair of Georgia running backs. He has been using the draft to humiliate his colleagues for years. For a while there he was getting less subtle. When I saw last year that he was using his first of two second-round picks to pick up a safety out of (let me check the spelling and hyphenation) Lenoir–Rhyne who had played only seven games during his senior season, I suspected that he was just making up both the kid and the school, like Samuel Beckett when he gave a lecture at Trinity College on a non-existent French poet named Jean du Chas, whose guiding principle, he claimed, was being “at odds with all that is clear and distinct in Descartes.”
This is why in some sense 2021 was more disappointing to me than 2020, despite the Pats making the playoffs. This year, under orders, it seems, from ownership, Belichick more or less disavowed every principle he had ever stood for: he took a quarterback who won a national championship in large part because he was surrounded by so many other first-round picks at skill positions that his offense was arguably more talented than that of many actual N.F.L. teams. I felt betrayed. All those hours I had spent in bars arguing that these guys almost always flame out and that you are much likely to find success with someone who played without interior talent and managed to win games anyway were wasted. Even worse than drafting an Alabama Q.B. was his spending tons of money, and not to get someone like Justin Jefferson either, but on what I would charitably describe as a bunch of deeply okay-ish players. Don’t get me wrong—a Belichick offense can do a lot with a little, but I’m not so sure that Jonnu Smith should be the third highest paid tight end in the league, especially without Josh McDaniels. The best thing you can say for Smith (and for Hunter Henry and Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor) is that they are “Patriots-quality,” guys who will never put up world-historic or even noteworthy stats but might make a few really clutch plays when it matters. Which is fine, but you don’t tend to get players like that by offering them top-level money.
Maybe Belichick had no choice and he needed guys who were halfway decent for Mac to throw to. But what happens when Jason McCourty—assuming he isn’t ready to retire no matter what—starts asking why he and so many others made chump change all these years. What happens when all the most basic assumptions, ones that were submitted to years of rigorous testing under real-world conditions and subject to league rules that are designed to make long-term success unlikely if not impossible, rules that have in fact changed significantly to favor the part of the game about which Belichick seemingly cares most?
This is to say nothing of all the retirements and other departures. Losing McDaniels (probably for good this time) is bad. But losing Ernie Adams, the W.A.S.P. Andover graduate who became a football nut after reading Belichick père’s Football Scouting Methods, the onetime municipal bonds trader who engineered Spygate, the twisted grand vizier behind so many of the great man’s schemes? It might as well be a different team.
This is the part where I am supposed to talk all about the “Patriot Way,” and what it means (e.g., not getting penalties), and quote from a bunch of YouTube documentaries and Players’ Tribune articles full of stories about guys getting fined for being thirty seconds late to meetings they raced through blizzards in their underwear to get to. (I believe them.) Belichick himself says there is no such thing. I think he’s right. What we should be talking about instead is a Patriot Sublime: the distant prospect of a glacier coming gradually into close-up; fixed, immovable, ancient, a permanent feature of the landscape that is somehow burying you alive.
The Patriot Sublime is not for dilettantes. It is more Weimar classical than Sturm und Drang. It is calculated and controlled. It is built upon, among other things, decades of institutional knowledge of the game of football, the only area of American life in which competence is impossible to fake or replace with charts and buzzwords (at least for longer than a season or two) and knowledge is transmitted organically. (How many of our problems would be solved if we replaced consultants with people whose fathers had taught them their jobs?)
I wish I could sketch the whole thing for you. Imagine an overcrowded nineteenth-century genre landscape labeled “the National Football League.” Here is the little village where the thoughtless but picturesque townspeople go about their business: the jolly miller saying, “We have to control the tempo”; the hapless milkmaid with her refractory cows mooing about another nine and seven season (sorry, nine and eight); the pipe-smoking innkeep everyone thinks of as a real player’s coach who is in between coordinator and head coaching stints; the river of stalled wild-card bids wending around all of them; and behind them all, the inaccessible mountain, with its greys and blues and ruby-pink mists. Instead I am going to suggest a few reasons why I think Belichick actually does loom Alp-like above everyone who has coached in this league since Don Shula, albeit in no particular order.
❖ The idea that a player is a kind of numbers machine whose quantitative output can be plugged into any other franchise irrespective of team culture, gameplan, scheme, play-calling, and a thousand other considerations does not occur to Belichick. This is why he doesn’t care whether the guy before or after you is more athletically gifted according to some easy-to-identify but ultimately unimportant metric like running a forty-yard dash three one-hundredths of a second faster. It’s why metrics in general are less interesting to him than seemingly unimportant “anecdotal” information, like knowing that your father and grandfather both served in the military. (Imagine trying to make Belichickian arguments in a corporate board room: “These digital engagement statistics from five other companies are interesting, but we’re pretty sure people just like to buy our french fries!”) This is also why he drafts teams rather than players, and why, by contrast, a franchise like the Detroit Lions has enjoyed the services of two of the greatest of all time at their respective skill positions—Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson—with nothing to show for it. (Remember a few years ago when the Lions gleefully imported player after player from the Patriots, apparently under the assumption that sooner or later by some quasi-mystical process they would come together like the Megazord?)
❖ Credentials are irrelevant to Belichick. If anything, the fact that you might have won a national championship at the college level and were used to receiving uncritical praise from hyped-up fans and coaches who ignored your worst habits except on Saturdays because they knew they wouldn’t have to deal with you for more than three or four years would make him wary even if you weren’t demanding first-round money. He would rather have a guy who knows what losing is like, who has shown that he will work hard, cares about the game for its own sake, and wants to do what he is told and, who knows, maybe even contribute in some limited but essential way to a team’s success. (In a conversation with Alabama’s Nick Saban a few years ago, he insisted that he never wanted to go undefeated in the regular season again because evaluating losses is incalculable.)
❖ Belichick drafts and signs players not only because they fit his team’s present requirements but because they are adaptable. He does not have “rebuilding” years because for him the slow, careful work of constructing a team is never finished. This is what has made it possible for him to field teams as unlike one another as the 2007 Patriots, with their innovative college-style shotgun spread offense that went undefeated in the regular season, and the 2018 group whose lone touchdown in the Super Bowl was a run behind a fullback in the I formation. (The extent to which any of these lessons might be found applicable to the problems of federal, state, and local government, the armed forces, commerce, and perhaps even the Roman Curia, I leave to the reader. I will only say that the fact that millions of Americans, including me, think of the demonstrably competent Belichick as a bad guy tells us everything we need to know about our political future.)
❖ The logical and polar opposite of the Patriot Sublime is not the Detroit Lions in 2008 (winless) or the Cleveland Browns in 2016 (ditto) but the San Diego Chargers in 2010, a team with the best offense, the best defense, and the absolute worst special teams units in the N.F.L., that failed to make the playoffs. Belichick cares about aspects of the game that do not matter to most fans or even, if their teams’ performance is any indication, other general managers and head coaches. Offensive linemen rarely sell jerseys; hands team contributors and third-down pass-rush specialists do not put up All-Pro numbers.
❖ “Do your job” isn’t some ridiculous tech-bro mantra, like “Break shit!” was a few years ago. It’s an invitation to people who, after days or weeks or even years of quiet and selfless preparation, whatever their level of talent in respect to those around them, do exactly what they must with a quiet firmness that just barely manages to be awe-inspiring, taking them and the audience above the buried life. It’s a universal call to heroism.
This is the part that’s the hardest to write, mostly because it’s earnest. (From a friend of a friend, for a future book of maxims: “Earnest is stupidity gone to college.” I’m not sure I actually agree with it—in my experience, people with advanced credentials are the least likely to be earnest, but it seemed apropos.) I really mean it when I say that at various points in my adult life I have tried largely without success to apply the lessons I like to imagine I have gleaned from watching New England football to various endeavors, like trying to wake up earlier in the morning or editing this magazine. “Be obsessive about the things you care about! Do it from five o’clock in the morning until ten p.m. and it will make up for whatever inherent talent disadvantage you have. Make a plan. Test it against both history and your own experience. Seek knowledge and wisdom from people who have been doing it for a long time. Don’t use money as a shortcut,” etc: in theory, these things should admit of pretty much limitless application. But the truth is that no matter how much I like to imagine that I can be the Bill Belichick of bimonthly journalism, the fact remains that it is extremely unlikely. Most of us would be lucky to be the Rex Burkhead or even the Rhamondre Stevenson of whatever we do, and even then the chances of that are pretty slim once you consider that the corresponding Belichicks in whatever our areas of aspiration happen to be are pretty hard to find. So what I am left with is not some kind of spectacularly moving and wisdom-filled coda, but a sneaking suspicion that the only thing that’s left is the dynasty itself: a terrifying monolith that cannot be imitated, effaced, interpreted, or even meaningfully praised, but simply made the object of holy dread.
Let’s go back to the beginning. You have to remember what football was like at the turn of the century. Something like half of the quarterbacks from Tecmo Super Bowl were still in the league, and many others had just retired. Split-back formations were not only still very much a thing, but crucial in most offenses, including on obvious passing downs. Only Dan Marino, in his second year with the Dolphins, had ever thrown for five thousand yards in a season, and even four-thousand-yard performances had been rare in the intervening years unless your name was Warren Moon. Snaps under center vastly outnumbered those in the shotgun, and the pistol had just been invented by a softball player in conjunction with a coach friend at Ohio Northern University. Every team had a starting fullback. They weren’t all gigantic Slavic bruisers from Pennsylvania steel towns anymore—heck, Lorenzo Neal didn’t even have a moustache, and it took him two-hundred thirty-nine games to accumulate eight-hundred rushing yards. Mostly he blocked. But he and Jerome Bettis were both household names.
Meanwhile, in Michigan there was this kid. Here in no particular order are excerpts from various N.F.L. scouting reports on one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Junior:
Tough, will take hit to deliver the ball. Durable, but not real strong. Not overly quick setting up. Comes on balance to throw. Doesn’t throw a tight ball; it waffles a lot. Puts lots of air under his deep balls. Lacks deep-ball accuracy; will underthrow. Limited pocket movement. Has weight down to improve his quickness and mobility. Can throw on the move. Questionable read ability. At times, I think he predetermines his throws. Lacks accuracy; sprays the ball. . . .
Lacks nimbleness and foot quickness in the pocket. Not a runner or a scrambler. Labors. Has winning ways. Can bring them back. Not real gifted or natural as a passer. Does not throw a tight ball. Does not have a big-time arm. Backup at best; don’t see him as a starter. Worth bringing to camp. May make some teams. . . .
Outstanding leader. Priest-like personality. Calm, wise and thoughtful. He’s accepting of what comes his way. Doesn’t appear to be dynamic. Has a calming demeanor. Well-liked, class kid. Has work ethic. Respected by his teammates. Two supportive parents who attend every game. . . .
I don’t like him. Smart guy. That’s it. . . .
He was no Charles Woodson, who forced the most infamous technical non-fumble in N.F.L. history from the quarterback with whom he had briefly overlapped in Ann Arbor. Heck, he was no Drew Henson (career batting average with the New York Yankees, for whom he now serves as a scout: one hundred eleven thousandths). He was constantly being benched at Michigan by Lloyd Carr, who called Henson the greatest athlete he had ever seen at the quarterback position. Fans agreed, including the ones who just wanted the Wolverines to run the ball like they always had (and inshallah always will). The Brady boy had health problems. He suffered from anxiety. He looked small and frail. Yes, there was that comeback against Alabama in the Orange Bowl. But even by the standards of other former Michigan quarterbacks in the N.F.L. (journeymen like Jim Harbaugh, Elvis Grbac, who, insanely, still holds the Kansas City Chiefs single-game passing yards record), no one was expecting much from him, including after the Patriots selected him in the penultimate round of the draft in 2000.
What does it mean to be a “system quarterback”? On the one hand, you have players like Favre (who, in a story so good I will never attempt to verify it, famously responded to his center’s report that the defense was in the nickel by rejoicing that they had too many men on the field). He could have played in any offense, just as Mahomes could today. Then you have Michael Vick, perhaps the single most gifted athlete in the history of the position, who wasted the early part of his career throwing medium-length completions out of heavy sets to a tight end named Krumpler in a circa 1985 N.F.L. offense. Since then players like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson have had better luck finding coaches who are interested in marrying scheme to players and their actual skill sets.
What was Brady’s skill set? Not the strength of his arm, surely. Was it his willingness to fall under the sway of the bizarre Eugene Landy-like guru, the diet-related mysticism, the rule changes? Was it because he was a nice man, the guy who was inevitably going to make friends with the Mormon punter, and a hard worker, someone who would watch film for fourteen hours a day? Was it the fact that he responded better than any player in history to what a friend—the same one who clued me into the abandoned Karajan analogy, who should probably be writing this piece instead of me—calls Belichick’s “withholding Croat dad routine,” the almost twisted way he refuses to praise his players and pretends that the most accomplished quarterback in N.F.L. history should be subject to all the same rules as an undrafted rookie free agent during training camp? I really don’t know, but until recently—as in well after he won the Super Bowl against Kansas City—I had always maintained that Belichick could have found at least some success in New England with Mike McMahon or Josh Booty. But for reasons I can’t explain, Brady’s last comeback drive, obviated, alas, by Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp, who will have won the Super Bowl by the time you read this, changed my mind precisely because it was not successful.
Could it have been somebody else? Maybe. We will never know. But the much more salient point is that it was not somebody else. Bradshaw hurled spears; the wings grew out of Fran’s helmet and glided him into the endzone. Marino’s release was too fast to see live but somehow permanent, a tiny aqua splash on a post-Impressionist canvas. Elway snorted and heaved and bucked. Favre broke everyone’s fingers. Peyton stormed the beaches while Eli found his humble prayers answered. Wilson builds rainbow bridges to his receivers’ arms, and the leather skips across them merrily. The kid from Michigan sprayed the ball to ten Super Bowls and seven victories, three of them in his first four years as a starter. Maybe Belichick should have named him “Patriot of the Week” more often.
Scene. It’s not the playoffs. It’s not even December. The season is not on the line. Snow is everywhere. This is Glazunov dancing-type winter; the wind is only twenty-five miles per hour. Five touchdowns in five minutes. That’s not blood on the snow; it’s the red uniforms and Vince Young and Kerry Collins combining for minus seven total yards passing and Brian Hoyer going nine of eleven in a fifty-nine to nothing ballet.
Scene. It’s week two in 2018 and Cam Newton has taken them back from a multiple-touchdown deficit to the one. Earlier he scored on my favorite play in football: a short completion to the fullback in the flat off play-action out of a heavy set. He’s going to do it again and they are going to beat the Seahawks, who are obviously great.
Scene. In case it’s unclear, I’m not actually there because tickets cost roughly three months’ worth of my mortgage payments, but I can feel how cold it is. Mac Jones is about to tie a record for the fewest pass attempts in a victory since the Nixon administration—and if he had just one fewer attempt, it would probably match some impossible-sounding pre-merger tally. Allen is embarrassing himself in the red zone, like a kid you don’t feel bad about teasing even though maybe you should because he keeps falling for the same thing over and over again. This team is going to win the A.F.C. East and the Super Bowl.
Despite my pretty much inexhaustible desire to keep watching these games on YouTube, I should probably say what I am contractually obligated to talk about the required reading. If I have written several thousand words without directly referring to either of the two books under review, I can only point out in my defense that in some five-hundred twenty-six pages (excluding acknowledgements and what passes for a bibliography) Jeff Benedict manages to capture roughly zero of what I, at any rate, have found most interesting in my years of football fandom about the greatest sustained achievement in the history of organized American athletics. It’s not just that the book is full of sentences such as “Like most young boys, however, Kraft didn’t get a thrill out of scripture study” or that he has what amounts to an anti-talent for evocation of persons, places, and events. It’s that he seems actively, almost psychotically uninterested in football. What we get instead is a great deal of information about things like what Jay-Z told Robert Kraft at their meeting in 2018 and nary a word about the extraordinary evolution of the Patriots’ schematic evolution on both sides of the ball during the course of the titular dynasty.
I don’t blame Benedict for not caring (or, more likely, not knowing) about how the almost divine simplicity of using Cover 3 Buzz and Jonathan Jones (who should have been Super Bowl M.V.P.) to hold one of the best offenses the league has seen in recent years to three points three years ago. Neither do most of the people watching these things unfold live. What I found really disheartening was his refusal to tell us what any of this feels like.
One thing I did like about the book? I caught only a single reference to a certain former head coach of the Detroit Lions.
On this front anyway, It’s Better to Be Feared was more disappointing, though most of Matt Patricia’s appearances are limited to things like Ernie Adams telling him he is an idiot during halftime of Super Bowl LII. In virtually every other sense, it is a superior offering. (I spotted one interesting mistake: “Dee-troit” is not a Southern accent thing; it is actually how locals pronounce it.) If I had more space I would explain why I liked it more, but at this last juncture, I will simply say that I heartily recommend it to anyone else starved for interesting reading about the game.
The literature of American football is not exactly a distinguished one. It is the subject of exactly one and a half classic books, George Plimpton’s Paper Lion and Frederick Exley’s Fan’s Notes, both of which describe a sport as remote from today’s N.F.L. as a world without automobiles. Even books that capture teams essential to the story of the game at the height of their success are invariably poorly written. The best tend to be memoirs, especially those written in something that at least approximates the voices of the players themselves. (I loved Jack Tatum’s They Call Me Assassin for this reason.) While I for one wish that something like an American Iliad—or if you prefer an American Paradise Lost—could be written about Belichick and the Patriots, I have come to accept that it will never happen.
Some emotions cannot be recollected in tranquility.
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