Winning is its own reward. It is also its own punishment.
For a prime example of that, look no further than the New England Patriots.
Seven years of sustained excellence has won them three Super Bowls. But in the process, it?s turned them into the NFL?s big, mean football machine, the team everybody roots against.
Nothing illustrates that more than this Sunday?s humongous clash with the Dallas Cowboys. For decades, it didn?t matter who the Cowboys were playing, they were the team most people wanted to see lose. But now, solely by virtue of playing the Pats, the Cowboys for maybe the first time in their history actually are America?s Team.
It?s likely that even Giants? fans, who would rather see Dallas lose than show up in the parking lot on game day to find Bobby Flay waiting to cater their tailgate party, will be pulling for the guys with the stars on their helmets. That?s how unpopular New England has become.
I doubt that the Patriots care. Being hated for being too good is a lot better than being laughed at for being reliably mediocre.
New England has plenty of experience as the NFL?s fall-down comedians. For all those years when the Cowboys were loathed for all their America?s Team smugness, the team from Foxboro went by the nickname the Patsies. They were loveable losers back then, the Chicago Cubs of the NFL, but without all the winning seasons.
So if they?re viewed now as being less cuddly than a wolverine with a migraine, I doubt they care. They probably even enjoy being hated ? it lets them play the old ?The-whole-world-is-against-us? card.
And that includes their quarterback, Tom Brady, which is really remarkable.
Even as the Patriots were becoming the team everybody wanted to see lose, Brady remained above the fray, buoyed by his matinee-idol good looks and his uncanny ability to win games.
Brady is still popular, but he?s outdone in this game by a genuine America?s Team Idol, Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo, a swashbuckling graduate from clipboard duty who took over from Drew Bledsoe last year and led the team to the playoffs. And even people who like them both are going to go with the exciting kid, Romo, over the veteran star, Brady.
And then there are the coaches. If this game had been played last year, there would have been a hung jury on which one was more deserving of ill will. But the irascible Bill Parcells, who had also once coached the Patriots, hung up his clipboard after the season, to be replaced by Wade Phillips, an easy-going and amiable man with whom even Terrell Owens cannot find fault.
That leaves Patriots? coach Bill Belichick, the man who shows up on the sideline looking as if he?d mugged a bum for his clothes, and one of the few men who could give Dick Cheney lessons in how to be disagreeable with the media.
Let?s start with that outfit he wears. The NFL is very particular about the way its players and coaches dress. An untucked shirt will earn a fine. An unauthorized head band can start a league scandal. A coach, in fact, needs special dispensation from the commissioner himself just to wear a suit and tie on the sideline.
New England?s superior defense will be the difference in Dallas
But Belichick shows up in his tattered old hoodie with the sleeves torn off, and that?s considered coachly attire.
You know he does it on purpose. It?s his way of showing that if he took the time to dress decently, it might distract him from his work. How would he find time to spy on other teams? signals if he had to poke around looking for something clean to wear?
He has a sense of humor, and during his rare breaks from the game after the season, he?s actually quite engaging and amiable. But once he switches into football mode, you?d swear he was born with a rare birth defect that rendered him incapable of smiling.
The media put up with it for a while because he was winning, and that trumps everything. But after a while, it got tiresome, as did his reluctance to part with information. You?d think he?d mellow, if even a little bit, but he hasn?t.
To the fans, he comes off as cold-hearted and unsentimental. It doesn?t matter how popular or good a player is, if he doesn?t want to accept his assigned position in the team?s salary structure, he?s gone.
That attitude has made the Patriots great. Belichick is all about team, not individuals, and when they were winning their Super Bowls, we marveled at how selfless they all were and we congratulated Belichick as making something that was greater than the sum of its parts.
But now they?re seen as a machine, picking parts off the shelf, plugging them in, and grinding on, made more of cogs and gears than flesh and blood.
The cheating episode in the year?s first game against the Jets wouldn?t have harmed most teams. NFL fans are inured to cheating. They may burst with righteous indignation at a baseball player caught taking steroids, but a football player caught doing the same thing receives virtually no criticism.
Baseball playoff drama, men carrying their women, catching big waves and more.
But this was Belichick who got caught and slammed with a $500,000 fine. Any other coach might have gotten the same fine, but he wouldn?t have taken the same criticism from fans and media. Belichick got skewered ? mostly because people were delighted to see him get even a little piece of what they figured he deserved.
And now they want to see the undefeated Patriots get lassoed and hogtied, even if it means rooting for the Cowboys to do it.