The Ulcer In The Blue Sweatshirt

belichickHave you ever looked at a Wikipedia page for a specific calendar year? Not only is it a very poor way to get a sense of what happened in a given year, but it’s also depressing as hell – it’s essentially a more-morbid-than-average local news broadcast for the entire world, only with the odd chance that some joker plugs “CHAD IS A FAG!!1!” in for a few minutes before it gets corrected. I found this out when I made the mistake of looking up the Wiki page for the year 2007 before writing this column. I did this because I wanted to see if there was a reason why I remember ’07 as being a singularly shitty part of the low, dishonest and just-concluded decade. And it turns out, per Wikipedia, that 2007 was pretty freaking terrible – a succession of mine disasters and suicide bombings and cyclones, punctuated by puzzling, faintly bummerish mundanities like Vladimir Putin being named Time‘s Person of the Year (really) and the UN declaring “The International Year of Languages.”

But looking at a few other years reveals that this is just the way Wikipedia’s year-recaps work – I don’t remember 1995 being especially terrible, as junior years of high school go, but yikes: from an avalanche in Iceland (January 15) to Taiwan’s deadliest fire (a month later) and sadly onward, that year apparently super-sucked, too. I imagine any year, chosen at random, would yield a similar result. But those of us who lived through 2007, which would be the entirety of The Awl’s non-toddler readership, remember that it was characterized by more than cyclones and rampant Putin-mania, and awful for reasons that were notably more diffuse. In reality, 2007 was probably in an eight-way tie for Shittiest of Bush Era honors, but that doesn’t in any way diminish how bad it felt in the moment – awash in the acid entropy of Bush’s last two lame-duck years; unfolding in the twilit gloom of an increasingly obese and sadistic popular culture (thankfully we’ve turned that one around); haunted by the first signs that the various rots accompanying the fake economic boom would require a gut renovation instead of another coat of paint. And while all this was happening, I was obsessed with something else.

Something ridiculous and sports-related, naturally. Something I was convinced – perhaps because I was writing about the NFL on a weekly basis for the first time, and perhaps because I am a goofball generally so-inclined – represented everything wrong with America circa-then. I remember 2007 as a bad year among bad years not because of the European heatwave – heatwaves happen, after all, cyclones happen – but because of the rise of the ulcerously, pitilessly and unstintingly loathsome 2007 New England Patriots. At the time, the Patriots seemed to me to be both symptomatic of and causal to everything that was wrong with the culture in 2007. In retrospect, they were just an unlikable but extraordinary football team en route to the NFL’s only 16-0 regular season. At the time, though, they seemed indescribably worse, and their miserable, implacable dominance seemed somehow everyone’s fault – something we should and could have prevented, but did not.

That the Patriots wrapped up 2007 by losing in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants diminished their record-book legacy somewhat, but it takes nothing away from that team’s truest achievement – making unprecedented success look like the most unpleasant thing in the world. Presumably your more vicious Patriots fans (and certainly a large number of sports bettors) enjoyed the way in which the Pats brutalized the NFL during the first three-quarters of the regular season – they won their first eight games by an average of 25.5 points, and beat Buffalo by 46 points in Week 11 – but it wasn’t much fun for the rest of us. That’s because, as easy as it was to marvel at the brutal beauty of New England’s play, it was clear that all that winning was no fun for them, and thus no fun to watch. Blowout after blowout, the Patriots unsmilingly went through their merciless motions, then peevishly delivered themselves of dead-eyed post-game quotes that suggested they couldn’t believe anyone could be so ridiculous as to ask them about the game they’d just finished playing. It’s not just that it wasn’t fun to watch. In its button-down savagery and singularly pissy excellence, it was actually pretty Patrick Bateman-ish, and kind of chilling.


Chilling because, as rough as it was playing against the Patriots that year – New England scored seven more touchdowns than Buffalo in that Week 11 win – it somehow seemed even more unpleasant to be playing for them. The players fumed relentlessly at strictly notional haters with a blinkered, raging vanity that could coax a reproachful “Dude, relax” from Kanye West. Quarterback Tom Brady, in the middle of one of the greatest seasons a quarterback has ever had, answered perfectly reasonable post-game questions with a prickly, plu-peevish condescension that was only otherwise available, at that time, from members of the Bush White House’s press team. But the source of all this, the great melting bile-glacier that fed this pure joylessness, was head coach and now-GM Bill Belichick.

Which I know is a pretty standard way of looking at a football team, and one I generally reject – the idea that a team’s personality comes from its coach, as if the grown-ass adult millionaires under that coach’s command were somehow also infants awaiting behavioral imprinting. Some of that storyline’s persistence obviously owes to the perspective and biases of those covering the sport – NFL coaches tend to be closer in age, appearance and background to those covering and watching NFL games than are, say, punt returners – but much of it seems a function of no one really knowing exactly what it is that NFL coaches actually do besides make speeches, wear headsets and model team-logo windbreakers on Sundays.

This isn’t to say that coaches can’t or don’t actually do things to improve the players in their charge, or make choices that win or lose games, but it’s easy to see how the importance of a coach – that one unfashionable middle-aged white dude who makes all those implausibly powerful young athletes into winners – might appeal a bit too easily to people in that coach’s broader cohort, be they in the press box or on some suburban couch. But even bearing that in mind, those 2007 Patriots – and every Patriots team during his tenure there, before or since – has mirrored Belichick’s unique state of perpetual aggrievement. Which is also to say that they have also reflected the similarly sour approach of Belichick’s coaching mentor and modern football’s ur-jerk, Bill Parcells. Which is in turn all kind of a long way of saying that Belichick’s decision to trade Randy Moss – New England’s best receiver and a future Hall of Famer – to the Minnesota Vikings this week was not at all out of character.

A third-round pick is not a bad return in the NFL, especially for a 33-year-old receiver grumbling about his contract situation. But the basic strangeness of trading a team’s best receiver during the season – and leaving a receiving corps comprised solely of smurfy, underrated-from-day-one types to sustain a team that, if the last month means anything, will need to score 35 points per game to win – is mitigated by the fact that this sort of thing is a familiar move for Belichick and the other Parcells-ites. Belichick – like both his mentor and his own NFL acolytes, from Denver’s Josh McDaniels to Kansas City’s Todd Haley to the currently and inexplicably employed Browns coach Eric Mangini – seems peculiarly intent on the assertion and performance of his own dominance.

It doesn’t matter, finally, whether it’s strategic insight, gnawing first-day-in-prison insecurity – Parcells was drafted by a NFL team out of college, but Belichick and the rest are small-college grinds whose intelligence and pathological appetite for late-night film sessions have erased negligible football bona fides – or plain dickishness that leads these guys to pick fights with their star players, cavalierly fire special teams personnel or trade a sure-thing Hall of Famer because he wants a team of good listeners or whatever. The point is that they all do it, and do it with variations on the same snarl on their faces and shades of the same disdain in their voices. That all that nastiness has resulted in enhanced reputations and not-even-grudging praise for these Tough-Minded Strategists – if years of negging and relentless cocksure cockery can somehow get a Donald Rumsfeld leadership manual into print, it should also buy a three-time Super Bowl winner some slack on a baffling trade.

So it’s not hard to see what’s so 2007 – and so uniquely loathsome – about all this. In the same way that Donald Rumsfeld always seemed faintly annoyed at having to lie into open mics, Belichick and the other neo-Parcellsians mouth their bullying dishonesties, needless secrecies and what-the-hell obfuscations – Belichick is famous for listing all his players as “probable” in New England’s weekly injury reports – in a way that suggests the general public should really work on better appreciating all of the above. If one had never seen Belichick’s affect, or didn’t know about his heroic grudge-carrying abilities, all this could almost seem kind of punk – a too-smart Wesleyan grad fucking with football’s myriad brain-dead traditions for the sake of the fucking-with.

And maybe it is, although Belichick’s well-known love for Bon Jovi – apart from a long-running affair with a married New Jersey woman, it’s one of the few public bits of knowledge about this very famous person – suggests that “punk” is the wrong word here. And anyway there is no joy of performance, let alone whimsy, in Belichick’s brilliance. Belichick’s NFL resume ranks among the NFL’s all-time greats, but when I think of his New England tenure I just see acres of middle fingers, hedgerow to poisonous hedgerow. All those handshakes refused, all those needless margin of victory-widening touchdowns punched in by various “high-character” Caucasian human victory cigars (my favorite being this prince), the barely restrained fuck-you of Belichick’s every public utterance – even for Belichick, who wins all the time and gets what he wants even when he chooses to build a roster seemingly designed to prove that he can go 12-4 with any old humps, there doesn’t seem to be any life in it.

In 2007, when the world seemed to belong to feckless neocon incompetents, spooky-eyed true believers and churlish bankers, the bleak dominance of the Patriots was plainly depressing. In 2010, with the Potemkin empire those goofs made in ruins around us, the fact that Belichick is still pissily proving the same points about his own blazing brilliance – and engaging in the scowling dissimilation and territorial pissing and strategic shanking of the scariest dudes in the commissary – might be more depressing still.

You know how good Belichick is at coaching games and pissing me off? Well, that’s how bad I am at picking winners against the spread. I continue to trail the coin – which, at least, kind of came back to earth last week – and continue to feel pretty shitty about it. This may or may not be the week things turn around for me. They may or may not ever turn around, honestly. But the fact remains that I know a great many more ways to call Bill Belichick a dickhole than this silly Canadian coin does. That’s something, right? Wait, it’s not? You’re sure? (As always, the coin flips are courtesy of Garey G. Ris, and the betting lines are from

Week 4 (and overall): David Roth: 5-9 (23-36-3); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 6-8 (35-24-3)

Sunday, October 9
• Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens (-7), 1pm – DR: Baltimore ; ATTLCTDC: Denver
• Jacksonville Jaguars (-1) at Buffalo Bills, 1pm – DR: Jacksonville; ATTLCTDC: Jacksonville
• Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts (-8.5), 1pm – DR: Kansas City ; ATTLCTDC: Indianapolis
• St. Louis Rams at Detroit Lions (-3), 1pm – DR: St. Louis; ATTLCTDC: St. Louis
• Atlanta Falcons (-3) at Cleveland Browns, 1pm – DR: Atlanta; ATTLCTDC: Cleveland
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cincinnati Bengals (-6.5), 1pm – DR: Tampa Bay; ATTLCTDC: Cincinnati
• Chicago Bears (-3) at Carolina Panthers, 1pm – DR: Carolina; ATTLCTDC: Carolina
• Green Bay Packers (-2.5) at Washington Redskins, 1pm – DR: Green Bay; ATTLCTDC: Green Bay
• New York Giants at Houston Texans (-3), 1pm – DR: Houston; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey G
• New Orleans Saints (-7) at Arizona Cardinals, 4:05pm – DR: New Orleans; ATTLCTDC: Arizona
• San Diego Chargers (-6.5) at Oakland Raiders, 4:15pm – DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: San Diego
• Tennessee Titans at Dallas Cowboys (-6.5), 4:15pm – DR: Tennessee; ATTLCTDC: Dallas
• Philadelphia Eagles at San Francisco 49ers (-3.5), 8:20pm – DR: Philadelphia; ATTLCTDC: Philadelphia

Monday, October 10
• Minnesota Vikings at New York Jets (-4), 8:30pm – DR: Minnesota; ATTLCTDC: Minnesota

David Roth is a writer from New Jersey who lives in New York. He co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. His favorite Van Halen song is “Hot For Teacher.”

Photo by Steve Glass, from Flickr.