By Michael Vallee
-Lord of the Rings: Over a year ago when Roger Goodell handed out the laughably excessive 4-game suspension of Tom Brady for Deflategate you could almost picture Brady throwing on a pair of wrap-around shades, sizing up Goodell’s office and saying,“I’ll be back.” On Sunday, like his Terminator counterpart, Brady pushed the pedal all the way to the floor and smashed his way back into the NFL, shredding the hapless Cleveland Browns in a 33-13 runaway. It felt less like an NFL game than a welcome home party and the guest of honor did not disappoint, putting up video game numbers (406 yards, 4 touchdowns) in a virtuoso performance that should end any and all speculation about age, rust and handsome backup quarterbacks.
Tanned, rested and ready, Brady played like a CEO returning from an August vacation on Nantucket. And despite whatever salacious tabloid pictures emerged from his NFL-imposed hiatus, Brady reportedly worked out four hours a day, the results of which showed early and often. From the word “go” the Patriots quarterback was in midseason form, completing 11 of his first 13 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns. Faster than you could say “Art Modell” New England led 23-7. We weren’t even three minutes into the 2nd quarter and the thousands of Patriots fans that traveled to Cleveland were already dancing in the Dog Pound.
The rest of the game was more of the same, with TB12 surgically dissecting the sad little Cleveland Browns before handing the reigns to
nemesis backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the 4th quarter. It’s amazing how quick the narrative can change from “Brady is a system quarterback” to “Brady is f**king awesome”, in just two weeks. I guess that’s what an embarrassing home shutout and 400 yards passing will do.
We still have no idea what Belichick and the brain trust at Foxboro intend to do with the QB position after this year and I’m sure the “keep’em/trade’em” debate will continue to rage on, but on Sunday Brady gave everyone that might have forgotten an emphatic reminder of what exactly he means to this team and this franchise. Brady is a highly motivated once-in-a-lifetime talent and even though he is pushing 40, as long as he keeps playing like he’s 25 that is going to be hard to walk away from. Whether you’re talking about his preparation and film work or his pre-snap reads and audibles, Brady’s mastery exudes a confidence that is thoroughly contagious and for the last month was sorely missed. But not anymore. Brady’s back, and the rest of the NFL has officially been served notice.
-Medicine Man: Brady also apparently possesses some kind of svengali-level healing powers capable of transforming Rob Gronkowski from a banged up, part-time blocking tight end into an all-world one-man wrecking ball. After four weeks of sparse play with minimal impact, Gronk was at his unstoppable best on Sunday dominating the Browns for 5 catches and 109 yards, including a highlight reel 34-yard catch-and-run where Cleveland looked like they were trying to tackle an escaped gorilla covered in baby oil.
-Into the Deep: On Sunday Brady also looked like he wanted to use his new platform to dispel an old notion that he doesn’t throw a good deep ball. Against Cleveland, Brady completed three balls downfield including a perfect 63-yard bomb to Chris Hogan. All told New England had six different pass plays of over 30-yards.
-The Towering Inferno: The Cleveland Browns are awful. And I’m not talking about the 2016 Browns but the entire sorry franchise. Year-in-and-year-out they offer a comically inept brand of football nonsense that is routinely the source material for late-night talk show monologues and sarcastic Twitter rants. They couldn’t even succeed with Bill Belichick at the helm. How did a franchise that was once an NFL dynasty and played in three Conference Championships in the 80s become the laughingstock of the entire sports world? A timeline:
-1996: Browns fire future Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Belichick. They would have a losing record in 17 of the next 19 seasons.
-1996: After 50 seasons in Cleveland, soulless villain Art Modell moves the franchise to Baltimore because the poverty stricken city of Cleveland won’t use taxpayer dollars to build him in a new stadium
-1996: The city of Cleveland retains the Browns name and logo (which doesn’t really exist) and agrees to build a new stadium to secure an expansion team in three years. The very same stadium they refused to build, that cost them their team three years earlier
-1999: In their first season returning to the NFL the Browns draft franchise savior Tim Couch with the number one overall pick. He would be the first of 26 starting quarterbacks over the next 18 seasons. With Cody Kessler knocked out of the Patriots game that number will most likely grow to 27 next week.
-1999: The Browns hire Chris Palmer as head coach.
-2001: Palmer is fired after going 5-27. He would be the first of nine Browns head coaches over the next 18 seasons.
-2002: The Browns blow a 17 point lead to lose their only playoff game in the last 20 years.
-2003: Quarterback Tim Couch ends his lousy career when he retires at age 26 after going 22-37 as a starter.
-2012: The team is purchased by Jimmy Haslam III.
-2013: Jimmy Haslam’s company pays a $92 million dollar penalty after a criminal investigation by the FBI for fraud.
-2014: The Browns pass on quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo, in part because a homeless guy told the owner to draft Johnny Manziel.
-2015: Johnny Manziel enters rehab.
-2016: Johnny Manziel is cut.
-2016: The Browns hire Paul DePodesta as “chief strategy officer”. DePodesta has spent his entire adult life working in baseball and has never previously worked for any NFL team. The 2016 Browns are 0-5 and last in their division. Over their last nine seasons they are 37-96 and have finished last in their division eight of those nine seasons.
-Wreck-it Ralph: It’s always hard to judge anything when you are playing against a glorified CFL team and their 3rd string QB but the Patriots defense appeared to have a solid bounce back game. After allowing a hellacious 75-yard first quarter touchdown drive, New England allowed just 83 yards over the Browns next 7 drives and scored a safety when LB Dont’a Hightower wrecked Cody Kessler as he was attempting a screen pass in the 2nd quarter.
-Cinderella Man: I’m not sure it is possible to have a worse start to your career than cornerback Cyrus Jones. After muffing or fumbling multiple kick returns and looking like special teams was some sort of riddle he had not yet solved, Jones has now brought his ineptitude to defense where he was burned badly on the Browns first touchdown and then eventually tossed from the game after throwing a punch at a Browns player. And it’s only week 5.
-Dumb and Dumber: I thought a Sunday without Phil Simms calling the Patriots game would be a welcome break from the worst analyst in football history…….and then I suffered through 60 minutes of Trent Green. So which guy would I prefer if I had to choose? This is a tough call. The both are terrible at their job but for completely different reasons. Simms spends his games weaving a tapestry of incoherent babble and buffoonery while miraculously managing not to make a single interesting or insightful observation. Green, on the other hand, is just boring. And when I say boring I mean booooooooooooring. I didn’t think it was possible to be as uninteresting at a job as Trent Green is at his. He spends the entire game bombarding you with cliches (“they must win the turnover battle”) and telling you absolutely nothing that indicates he has played one minute of NFL football. That is the one thing Green and Simms have in common. They both manage to provide such little insight that they sound like two guys off that street that won some sort of online contest. If I had to choose though, I’m going with Simms. As much as I kill him every week, the unintended comedy at least makes Simms entertaining. Plus I find it endlessly fascinating how awful he is and yet how highly they regard him at CBS. It is one of the great mysteries of our times.
-Panic Room: It might be too early to push the panic button but Stephen Gostkowski has already missed three field goals equaling the number he missed all of last year. This year his field goal success rate is at 70% which is concerning when you consider that in the previous three seasons he made 106 of 114 attempts, for a success rate of 93%. When do we start wondering if that brutal missed extra point from last year’s AFC Championship loss is still lingering?
-The Last Emperor: Despite a dominant performance on offense (501 yards) the Patriots had two questionable offensive coaching decisions on Sunday:
1. Why run LeGarrette Blount on 3rd and 4th down from the one-yard line when Brady is historically automatic at quarterback sneaks?
2. What was Belichick doing at the end of the half not using his timeouts? I know the Patriots had a two touchdown lead but why was their no urgency to stop the clock and score another touchdown.
After the game, I am sure Belichick provided detailed and insightful answers to both questions.
-The Natural: Tom Brady wasn’t the only Patriot that returned from a four-game suspension. Rob Ninkovich made his season debut against Cleveland after serving a four-game suspension for PED use. During his hiatus Karen Guregian wrote a piece in the Herald about how hard it is for Ninkovich to miss these games, while offering no criticism of his actions that led to the suspension. It was your classic beat writer puff piece but it triggered the ire of WEEI’s Lou Merloni who, as a former Major Leaguer, is fed up with the PED double standard that exists between baseball and football. While I agree that the perception of football players as warriors that “need” PEDs has created some clear hypocrisy in the reaction to NFL PED users versus the reaction to MLB PED users, it is worth noting that the NFL started testing for PEDs over 15 years before baseball; and the NFLPA didn’t throw a temper-tantrum when they were asked to pee in a cup. Another distinction is in the quality of player that has been caught. Yes, there have been plenty of NFL guys busted for steroids or HGH, but virtually none of them have been stars. Baseball on the other hand has watched many of its elite players get busted (sometimes multiple times) for PED use. When the Bradys, Watts and Beckhams start testing positive then we’ll find out how deep the double standard is.
-Shawshank Redemption: I like Scott Van Pelt’s midnight version of SportsCenter. He’s a good interviewer, loves to talk about point spreads and offers an eclectic view of sports that is an entertaining diversion from the usual SC format. Last week he did an interesting piece about Browns RB Isaiah Crowell and the Twitter storm he caused over the summer when he tweeted out an illustration of a police officer getting his throat slashed. The fact that he tweeted the picture three days after five Dallas police officers were murdered only fueled the outrage. He quickly deleted the image but the damage was done. Van Pelt started the piece by laying out the five stages of a Twitter firestorm:
1. Somebody says/shows/does something controversial
2. The public reacts
3. They demand their pound of flesh
4. They get their pound of flesh
5. They get bored and move on
But, Van Pelt asks, shouldn’t there be a sixth phase? A sort of “Where are they now” aftermath stage to revisit the long-term consequences of what happened? In Crowell’s case the story was not yet complete. After going through the usual round of regret and apologies, Crowell pledged his first game check ($35,000) to the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation. A nice gesture for a vile act, but just the tip of the iceberg in Crowell’s redemption.
Soon after pledging the money, Crowell was contacted by Demetrick Pennie, a Dallas police Sergeant and president of the foundation. Pennie invited Crowell to attend the funeral of Patrick Zamarripa, one of the five slain Dallas officers. Despite concerns about how he would be received, Crowell not only accepted the invitation and attended the service, he spent several hours talking with Sergeant Pennie and meeting with other officers. During this time he paid respects to the fallen, expressed remorse for his actions and engaged in dialogue about the disconnect felt between inner-city blacks, like himself, and the police. What emerged was a mutual respect and understanding by both parties, with Sergeant Pennie stating, “Personally, I would like to commend Isaiah Crowell for the courage of principled accountability.” This was a quote from the detailed and remarkably well-written Facebook post by Sergeant Pennie about both the controversy and the visit. The post can be read here in its entirety.
Sometimes there is more to a story than just the angry reaction of a bunch of random people on Twitter, restricted to an impulsive 140 characters.