On the John: The ‘I’ in ‘Team’ never saw it coming

On the John
The ‘I’ in ‘Team’ never saw it coming

Originally completed September 12, 2009

Any way you cut it, the Patriots became the new America's Team in 2001.
Any way you cut it, the Patriots became the new America's Team on this night in New Orleans.

Back in 2001, the St. Louis Rams were it. The team to beat. The team to fear. They had the talent and they had the stars. They were the show and we were in awe. Warner flinging bombs to Holt and Bruce, Proehl underneath, Hakim running kicks. And Faulk, always Faulk, Marshall!-Marshall!-Marshall! catching and carrying and scoring and combining the three better than any man has.

St. Louis was so far ahead of everyone else that my premier memory is two Rams yapping at each other as they galloped the sideline, one with the ball, the other cheering, all defenders ten, fifteen, twenty yards behind, defeated.

At Super Bowl XXXVI, when the St. Louis offense was introduced man-by-man to the Superdome crowd, the roll call included six Pro Bowlers, three MVP trophies, and the most points ever scored in three consecutive seasons.

And then those pesky New England Patriots shot out of the tunnel “introduced as a team” and blasted the stars in the mouth.

One of those non-stars for New England was rookie Richard Seymour. He started at defensive tackle that day and went on to five Pro Bowls and two more championships with the Patriots. During those title years, the New England defense was one of veteran leadership, but when I met with a Boston-friend of mine a week ago and the talk turned to football, he was concerned about the erosion of his beloved Patriots’ D.

“Bruschi retired. Harrison retired. We traded Vrabel. Asante’s gone.” He looked wistfully at his beer. We took a moment to bask in the ray of Richard Seymour’s light, who, upon Bruschi’s retirement, became the final defender left from that iconic 2001 team…

…and was promptly shipped to Oakland the very next day.

The trade came only a few days after Bears running back Kevin Jones accepted a handoff in a meaningless game against Cleveland, took a shot at a few more yards by leaping towards the sideline, and landed funny on his left ankle. Torn ligament. Done for the year.

To us, the injury meant Adrian Peterson would undoubtedly make the team, that Garrett Wolfe was now a Vital Cog, that we Bears fans would flinch harder with every hit Forte absorbs. To the Bears coaching staff, it meant more time eyeing backs around the league, just to be sure.

Meanwhile, Jones is facing a year of rehab, hospital visits, test results—an anxious, quiet battle, un-televised. It will be the fifth straight season in which Jones has missed time with injury.

According to the NFL players association, the average playing career is three and a half seasons. Running backs tend to get chewed up even faster. And now, at the age of 27, in his sixth season with his second team, one entire year of Kevin Jones’ chosen profession has popped. Kaput!

Leaving everyone else—players, coaches, fans, broadcasters—to take one big step to the right, and move on.

It’s what the Patriots do best. After upsetting the Rams, Belichick’s group won two more titles by selling the “team-first” mentality. Were we suckers to believe the little-football-team-that-could shtick? Maybe not in ’01. But since winning that first title, Kraft, Belichick and co. have handed walking papers to many of the veterans upon whose shoulder pads the “team-first” concept rested: Milloy, Antowain Smith, Ty Law, Givens, Patten, McGinest, Deion Branch, Vinatieri, Vrabel, and now Richard Seymour. Banished, each of them, in the name of Team.

My dad always says that in his day, it was the players who made following a franchise so important. Mr. Cub, Sweet Billy, Nellie Fox, Bobby Hull, Butkus, Sayers…these guys were more than just some dudes on the team. They were the team.

Which is not to say that the Patriots’ approach necessarily violates some kind of sports honor code or unwritten principals or that they are athletically immoral, if there is such a sin. But we should be clear about what we mean by the “team concept.” As used by Kraft and Belichick, it means “all fall for the good of the franchise.” Sublimate your ego, discard your individualism, do whatever we ask, step away when your time is up.

And it works. For eight seasons, we have hailed the Patriots for their ability to change it up. They are “the team with the moveable parts,” sliding Cassel in for Brady, moving Troy Brown to corner out of necessity or Vrabel to tight end just for a hoot. We applauded that mutability without ever acknowledging the flip side, that if every man is replaceable then every man will be replaced.

Brady will go too. His time will come, just as it came for Montana, Rice, Emmitt, Bruce Smith, Favre, and many others who failed to retire on time. Ol’ Brady might even play a few more years for another team, dragging the Browns or the Niners or somebody to a conference title game or even a Super Bowl. He’ll be 36, 37, 38, and some of us will complain that the man is tarnishing his legacy by suiting up for “those teams,” while others will say “Hot damn! I thought he had nuhtin’ left…”

But nothing short of retiring will prevent it. And nothing Brady does elsewhere will prompt Kraft and Belichick to look back. They’ll have their new man, some 23-year-old star with his career stretched out before him, the kid excited as hell as he trots to his first huddle with Belichick’s “You’re our leader now, kiddo. This is your team.” ringing in his head.

Copyright 2009, jm silverstein

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