Feinstein: Patriots Win Because They're Great. Period.

The Patriots didn't cheat or get all the calls; they're just better than everyone, John Feinstein says

John Feinstein
February 05, 2019 - 10:14 am

USA Today Images


Here we go again.
As in, the national whine-a-thon that takes place every time the New England Patriots win another Super Bowl. Or make another Super Bowl. Or win a regular-season game.
There’s always a conspiracy theory of some kind. The NFL wants the Patriots to win so the Patriots get all the calls. Or they cheat—Spygate, Deflategate, any gate you want. Or they’re just truly bad people.
Why heck, Bill Belichick is disdainful of the media! (Anyone check on who is currently occupying the White House?).
Here’s a simple fact: the Patriots are one of THE great dynasties in sports history. They are in the same sentence with UCLA basketball; the Boston Celtics; the New York Yankees and, well, that’s about the list.
Of course all those dynasties had people yapping about them: the real Wizard of Westwood was UCLA booster Sam Gilbert; Red Auerbach pulled every trick in the book to get the upper hand on opponents; the Yankees have always had more money and power than anyone else in baseball.
For the record, how does that explain the Red Sox four World Series title in the last 15 years? Oh yeah, it must be because the Patriots get all the calls.
Greg Norman once explained to me that in Australia there’s something called, “tall poppy syndrome.” When poppy plants reach a certain height, they have to be cut down. The same, according to Norman, was true of stars: “If they get too big—as in too popular or too important—they have to be cut down,” Norman said. “It’s part of your life if you’re a successful Aussie athlete.”
I’d make the case that tall poppy syndrome isn’t limited to Aussie athletes.
For all the blather about Auerbach turning the heat up in the visitors locker room in the Boston Garden or the water temperature down in the showers, here’s why the Celtics won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons: they had the best players. Who was responsible for that? Auerbach. He was the coach/general manager/chief scout and (seriously) marketing director in those days.
There was no free agency, so you couldn’t go get players by waving a lot of money at them. Know how Auerbach got Bill Russell? The Ice Capades.
During the 1955-56 season, Auerbach’s college coach, Bill Reinhart took his George Washington team to play in the old All-College Classic in Oklahoma City. In one game, GW faced San Francisco, which was on its way to a second straight national title led by Russell.
Reinhart called Auerbach the next week and said, “This is your center. You MUST draft him.” Auerbach trusted Reinhart implicitly. So, without having seen Russell play, Auerbach decided to go after him.
The problem was the Celtics had the seventh pick in the first round. Russell would be long gone by then. So, Auerbach traded one of his stars, Easy Ed McCauley along with the rights to future Hall-of-Famer Cliff Hagan (who was in the Air Force at the time) to the St. Louis Hawks in order to move up to No. 2 in the draft.
The Rochester Royals had the number one pick. Owner Les Harrison told Auerbach he would "get run out of town" if he traded the top pick. So, Auerbach had Celtics owner Walter Brown call Harrison and offer to send the Ice Capades to Rochester for a week (Brown owned them) if Harrison didn’t take Russell with the first pick.
Harrison took Sihugo Green. The Ice Capades sold out for a week in Rochester.  Harrison ran to Cincinnati a year later. And the rest is basketball history.
The water temperature in the Boston Garden visiting locker room wasn’t quite as important to the Celtics dynasty as Russell.
You might make the case that Belichick got lucky when he used the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft to pick Tom Brady. But every other NFL team had multiple chances to choose Brady and didn’t.
There’s a constant argument that Belichick wouldn’t be Belichick without Brady. There’s another argument that Brady wouldn’t be Brady without Belichick.
Both are probably right. Dean Smith once said the key to being a great coach was having great players. But there’s no doubt a brilliant coach can make players better.
Sure, Wooden won three of his 10 national titles with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) at center and two more with Bill Walton. But he won FIVE others—including two with 6-foot-6 inch Edgar Lacey starting at center. He won two more with Steve Patterson starting at center.
Sam Gilbert may have taken good care of the UCLA players while they were in school, but he had nothing to do with 10 national titles in 12 seasons.
Nowadays, college basketball fans KNOW that Duke wins because it gets all the calls. A few years ago, Mike Krzyzewski was on my old CBS Sports radio show in late October. I asked him how his team looked in practice.
“We played with referees for the first time yesterday,” he said. “We were terrible, fouling on every play on defense. Long way to go.”
“But, the refs didn’t call any of the fouls, right?” I said. “Everyone knows Duke never gets called for a foul.”
Krzyzewski laughed. “Yeah, that’s true. All the games and championships we’ve won, it’s all because of the officials.”
Krzyzewski has won 1,119 games; 5 national championships; been to 12 Final Fours and won 14 ACC Tournament titles. I’m guessing that Johnny Dawkins, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Jason Williams and Tyus Jones—among others—had more to do with those numbers than anyone wearing stripes.
Or, as my old friend Keith Drum wrote back in 1984 after Krzyzewski swore that his team had lost to North Carolina because of the officiating (in those days CAROLINA and Smith got all the calls): “Unless Michael Jordan was one of the referees, they had nothing to do with the outcome.”
Do great teams occasionally get the benefit of a friendly whistle? Sure they do. Officials are human—as Roger Goodell likes to point out. They tend to think, usually subconsciously, that the team with better players is more capable of making plays. There are also times when, because people complain so often, officials will bend over backwards so they don’t appear to be giving the power team the benefit of the doubt.
The irony in this Super Bowl was that the Los Angeles Rams, the Patriots opponent, had reached the game because of one of the worst blown calls in sports history. Can you imagine the reaction if that non-call had benefited the Patriots in such a crucal situation?
The New Orleans debacle didn’t stop people from bringing up every past Patriot misstep or insisting that the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game because of missed calls. Like Krzyzewski and Duke, the Patriots have NEVER won a game fair-and-square.
Since there were no truly controversial calls in this Super Bowl (the hard hit on Jared Goff near the sidelines WAS inbounds as ex-ref Gene Steratore correctly pointed out), the Patriots dislikers (I refuse to use the word hate in a sports column) will now settle for just saying they are sick and tired of Brady; of TV shots of Giselle Bundchen (I agree with that one, but even more so could do without Robert Kraft shots); tired of hearing Belichick’s gravelly monotone and of seeing the confetti coming down on the Patriots again. Oh, and for the record, as ridiculous as Kraft might look doing his high-five act with omni-present son Jonathan, how about Rams owner Stan Kroenke wearing sunglasses indoors?
Look, I’m no Patriots fan. The highlight of this Super Bowl for me was seeing Joe Namath carrying the Lombardi Trophy to the podium (part of that ridiculous hand-off of the trophy by past Super Bowl stars) for the presentation. That’s the closest any Jet has gotten to that trophy in 50 years.
But to try to claim greatness is the result of anything but greatness is foolish. You don’t go to nine Super Bowls in 18 seasons—and win six of them—without being absolutely brilliant: as a coach, as a quarterback, as a team.
I almost always pull for the underdog. Being a lifelong fan of the Mets, Jets and Islanders (the early 1980s excepted) will do that for you. Not to mention Columbia football and basketball. Yes, seriously. Jim McMillian and Marty Domres were boyhood heroes.
But I would like to think I can appreciate genius. I don’t like Tiger Woods personally but understand I’ve been privileged to watch him play golf from an up-close position for 23 years.
Woods is lucky. No one can claim his 14 major titles and 80 tournament wins are because of luck, officiating or cheating. He’s just the best that’s ever lived.
Belichick, Brady and the Patriots deserve the same respect.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “Quarterback,” remains on The New York Times bestseller list. His latest novel, “The Prodigy,” is set at the Masters and tells the story of a 17-year-old with a chance to win the tournament while his father, agents and apparel reps surround him and try to turn him into a human ATM machine. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com