After a much-heralded confrontation, the super bowl is over, and Boston weeps. It was a hard fought season, for both teams. The best of both leagues met in Minnesota, both strong and confidant. Fans of the New England Patriots are accustomed to winning. But it was not to happen.
Down in the first half, they seemed to bounce back after Justin Timberlake’s half time performance, leading 33-32 for a long time. But it would not hold, and Patriot’s fans stumbled out of their favorite sports bars and watering holes into the cold winter rain, tails dragging between their legs, to digest the big defeat, with a final score of 41-33 favoring the Philadelphia Eagles, and sounding the death knell for New England’s hopes of Super Bowl glory for 2018.
The biggest question on the mind’s of fans the morning after, as the dust settles and the stinging realization settles in, is “how?” How did this championship team, accustomed to victory, with arguably the most talented quarter back, Tom Brady, in NFL history, lead by the one of the most win-friendly coaches of all time, Bill Bellichick, drop the ball, at times so very literally, and fail to nail down this much coveted victory? New England’s superiority on the field is well established. But clearly no team is perfect.
For many, the responsibility lies with the coach. And Bellicheck has in fact taken responsibility for the loss, which is commendable. But nonetheless, questions abound. Fans and sports journalists are scrutinizing Bellichick’s decisions. As is expected, the Monday morning quarterbacking is fierce.
The largest concern lies with his inexplicable choice to bench star player Malcolm Butler for the entire game—the entire game! As everyone knows, the man knows how to tackle. And he can be counted on, like clockwork, to deliver plays. But this skilled athlete, free of injuries and suited up, ready to roll, didn’t even play for a single minute during the entire span of Super bowl 52, despite numerous opportunities, and despite the prayers of innumerable fans.
It’s true that Butler’s contract negotiations are reported to be contentious. But if this was the salient factor, it’s difficult to conceive how this rather mundane business issue could lead to such a draconian punishment on the field. The choice to bench Butler, many fans believe, was essentially a choice to sacrifice a Super Bowl win.
But a sacrifice in the service of what greater good? Surely not merely to bolster the ego of coach Bellicheck? If so, what a sad waste, and how frustrating for the devout fans. The famed coach refuses to explain his reasoning, merely insisting that he made the best decision possible to maximize the team’s chances of winning. In the end this may be so, but his prickly silence, and the dictates of common sense, leave New England’s fans scratching their heads in disbelief.
There’s no doubt that the Patriots are a strong team—a winning team. They are undisputed masters of the game. It’s likely that Tom Brady has at least another great year or two left, despite his age, and probably a few more after that, while star tight end Rob Gronkowski is still young. So they have a great shot to win Super Bowl 53. This is, of course, a comfort to the fans. “Next Year!” is the familiar refrain of many losing sports franchises. But for the New England Patriots, it’s not an empty pipe dream by any means.
But there seems to be a pattern. The New England Patriots win the AFC championship a lot, and win the Super Bowl every other time, or so, that they play. So why doesn’t this Cracker Jack team cinch victory and take home the Vince Lombardi trophy every time? Well, the competition is, of course, fierce. Team’s that play in the Super Bowl have earned it, with hard-fought winning seasons. Therefore you need to be at your absolute top level of performance, both physically and mentally, to bring that victory home.
And this is where the Patriot’s may still need some work. Thought they play fantastically, with supreme confidence, throughout the regular season, the Super Bowl is a different story. Even Tom Brady, who passes like a well-oiled machine, was throwing incomplete passes with high frequency during the big game. In short, at the Super Bowl they seem to let the emotions and the pressure get to them, unlike the regular season.
And so, though arguably their defense needs work and perhaps some significant changes, the coaching staff would do well to prioritize developing the “inner game,” the game of psychological mastery. Surely they are almost there, but more work needs to be done. And they’ve got a year to do it.
Photo – By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link