By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
MINNEAPOLIS (CBS) — The New England Patriots are not supposed to be this good for this long. Nobody in the NFL is supposed to be that good for so long. Everything about the league — from the salary cap, to the draft, to the rules on contracts, to injuries, and so on — is designed to prevent a sustained run of dominance from one team.
And yet, for the third time in four years, for the fifth time in 11 years, and for the eighth time in 17 years, the Patriots are here in the Super Bowl as champions of the AFC.
This is not supposed to be how it happens.
One might think that, given the Patriots’ ability to overcome quite a bit en route to reaching the Super Bowl with such frequency, that the commissioner of the league might not be overly enthused about the matter. But Roger Goodell — known throughout New England as an enemy of the Patriots — expressed nothing but admiration for the Patriots, the Kraft family, Bill Belichick and “their wonderful players.”
“What I think it does say is the incredible achievement that the Patriots as a team, as an organization, have achieved. It’s really remarkable that they’re going to their third Super Bowl in four years,” Goodell said Wednesday at his annual Super Bowl week press conference. “In this kind of a system where keeping that group together, changing whatever they need to change, whether it’s players or coaches, they do that in a way that still creates success.”
Of course, the Patriots have faced some even steeper challenges than most in reaching all of their Super Bowls. They became the first team in NFL history to have a first-round pick taken away from them in 2008, and they again lost a first-round pick in 2016.
The man responsible for imposing those unprecedented punishments for violations was Goodell himself. And considering one of those violations might not have even happened and the other violation was not entirely out of the norm of standard practices for an NFL team, Goodell has gained the reputation around New England as being a commissioner who holds a certain level of contempt for the Patriots.
But according to Goodell, again, that is not the case.
“I marvel at that. I think other clubs marvel at that. I think fans marvel at that,” Goodell said.
Goodell also argued that parity is still very much at play in the NFL. He noted that the Jaguars and Eagles finished in last place in 2016, but won their respective divisions in 2017 and ended up playing in their conference championships.
“I think the balance of having new teams with teams that continue to find ways to win is a great thing for the NFL. And it’s great for our fans,” Goodell said. “That’s extraordinary. And I think that’s great for our league. So you can continue to win, and then there’s also teams that can surprise you. And I think that’s what makes our game special.”
Goodell is right, though not necessarily for the reasons he stated. In covering the Patriots in a frenzied 24/7/365 environment, you learn certain things about the team and about football fans in general. And one universal truth that applies to the Patriots and many, many other areas of life is simple.
People love to have a villain.
And the Patriots, for various reasons, have filled that role nationally quite well over the past couple of decades. It’s no different from the runs of the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Yankees in the ‘90s; fans of other teams get very sick of seeing the same team win. And though Tom Brady’s story began as that of the underdog who scrapped and fought for every snap he was given on a football field, he became an international superstar, considered by many to be detached from the common man.
Throw in the cheating accusations — and the job Goodell did in turning both matters into never-ending national controversies — and the ingredients were perfect. And now, for the third time in four years, America has someone to root against on Super Bowl Sunday.
If this game were being played by the Eagles and the Jaguars? That would say tremendous things about the effect parity has on the NFL. But it would not be good for the league.
The Patriots might as well ask the U.S. Bank Stadium staff to blare Tony Montana’s famous monologue as they trot onto the the field on Sunday.
You need people like me. So you can point your finger and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’
The Patriots are the bad guy — just the way the NFL needs them to be.