By Dan Bernstein
Greatness is something to be appreciated from afar and celebrated by those invested in it, and in the case of the New England Patriots, it is something less than fun.
Leave it to them to have mostly appropriated our largest secular national holiday into their routine of quirks and cliches, as they try to move mechanically toward another championship. It has become more like following as much a corporate retreat as preparation for the world’s most important football game, with players programmed to say nothing between their secret preparatory symposiums. It just grinds on, with any evidence of enjoyment seemingly held in abeyance only for the expected postgame party.
Bill Belichick is the grim face of the operation, now such an avatar of hyper-seriousness that anything he says containing even the faintest bit of content is elevated into some attempt to make the case that he is a normal human being. He isn’t, of course, and we know that, but it never prevents us from this apparent need to speculate that somewhere or somehow he must be. Belichick’s inherent oddness is now aped by other NFL coaches, who must think that there is a causal relationship between that and his team’s success, but unaware that it’s merely a correlation. The Patriots are good because he is smart and ruthlessly advantageous, not because he is strange, but that fact remains lost on those who have perpetuated his “personality” throughout the game.
The other end of the Patriots’ axis is the equally weird Tom Brady, who has to be some kind of replicant. He has always existed in a way just enough removed to add curiosity, his game elevated above almost all others for years now as he has cultivated a concurrent air of gauzy new-aginess, as if he is football’s Gwyneth Paltrow. In no interview that he conducts does he come off as an actual person — particularly those with Jim Gray that seem composed by an alien algorithm designed to emulate typical interaction. And he is now branching out as an exercise and diet expert, too.
Brady has been canoodling professionally with snake-oil huckster Alex Guerrero, creating a brand of overpriced products that sell the idea of eternal youth and physical perfection to gullible and unhappy fat people who have some all-too-readily disposable income. Magical recovery water, subscriptions to “brain exercise” programs, and nutrition manuals are all available for purchase, as is a $150 “vibrating sphere” that is listed under the heading of “pliability.” His diet book is bonkers, boasting baseless claims of alkalinity/acidity regulation and anti-inflammatory properties that have no actual science behind them. Though not quite to Howard Hughes levels of eccentricity, the entire late-stage Brady experience is now something less than comfortable.
Only the tight end position has given the Patriots some other sizzle in recent years, even as we account for one of them turning out to be a murderer. There have been the two stints of the delightfully different Martellus Bennett, currently on injured reserve and away from the festivities, and there is always the redemptive goofiness of Gronk.
But Rob Gronkowski has been absent so far due to his recovery from a concussion, removing the needed leavening agent from all the heaviness. He is incapable of embodying the essence of Patriot-ness, instead coming across as both perpetually amused and amusing. His presence has been missed sorely.
There is another team in Minneapolis, of course, but the Super Bowl story is the Patriots. The story is always the Patriots, going about their jobs as we tick toward another kickoff.