A little more than 16 years ago, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stood at a podium before the assembled sports media – and a huge television audience – and presented the MVP trophy for Super Bowl XXXV to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
You want to talk awkward? Just a couple of months earlier, Lewis had copped a plea for obstructing justice in the investigation of a double murder he and two friends had been involved with at the previous year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta. All these years later, Lewis – whose white suit worn the night of the killings mysteriously vanished and in whose limousine the blood of one of the victims had been found — remains the only person to have been convicted of a crime in connection with that incident.
And now, here he was standing up there alongside the commissioner as the face of the NFL. (Wisely, the then-ubiquitous “I’m going to DisneyWorld’’ commercial was delegated to winning QB Trent Dilfer.)
I covered that game for the New York Post and my lead the next day ran along the lines of Tagliabue, while making the presentation, looking as if he had just eaten bad fish for lunch.
So I had to laugh in the days leading up to Super Bowl LI – coincidentally, also held in Atlanta, the site of Ray Lewis’ not-so-excellent adventure – as football writers either too young to remember that scene or too co-opted by their cozy relationship with the league to dredge it up engaged in all sorts of hand-wringing about what an “awkward’’ moment it might be for Roger Goodell, Tagliabue’s successor, to have to hand over the MVP award to Tom Brady.
According to the narrative, the simmering resentment of Deflategate and its ensuing four-game suspension for Brady had not been dissipated by the Patriots 14-2 season, nor presumably would it be ameliorated by a Patriots win over the Atlanta Falcons, even though it would represent a record-setting fifth NFL Championship for Brady.
That contrived drama no doubt kept millions glued to their TV sets long after the Patriots had rallied for a 34-28 win in what turned into a rousing Super Bowl, a comeback aided tremendously by an epic choke job by the Falcons and their wunderkind offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
But when the drama played out, it revealed itself for the manufactured storyline it had been all week, and indeed, all season, long.
“Tom, come on up, and get your trophy,’’ Goodell said, somewhat stiffly. Brady just as stiffly complied. The two held frozen grins on their faces as photographers clicked away until finally Brady had had enough.
“They gotta get one good one there,’’ he murmured before heading to the podium to talk about what an “honor’’ it was to accept the award – his fourth – from the commissioner.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was that. The air had finally been let out of Deflategate, and in truth, that’s all it ever was. A lot of air, most if it hot and none of it consequential.
Brady and the Patriots got their slap on the wrist at the beginning of the season, and what they really wanted at the end of it. They were 3-1 during Brady’s exile and 14-1 after his return. And as it became clear that once again, the Patriots would be the team to beat in the NFL’s annual post-season spectacular, it became harder and harder to understand what they were so angry about in the first place.
The answer, of course, is simple and is woven deeply into the fabric of the quasi-military organization known as the National Football League. More than any other professional sport, football thrives on the creation of an ‘’Us against Them’’ mentality and the carrying around of a heavy chip on the shoulder. This takes many forms, from the old standby of blaming the media, to the hackneyed “Nobody thought we could do this,’’ to the creation of an enemy or enemies on the opposing team who must be taught a lesson in the big game.
This is the way football teams motivate themselves, and more importantly, it is the way football coaches maintain control over their players in a way that no baseball manager or NBA head coach could ever hope to.
In this case, it was the Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, who seemed most interested in continuing to breathe life into the “feud’’ between Goodell and the Patriots, knowing that not only would his team buy into it, but that the Patriots rabid fan base would eagerly lap it up.
And really, what else did he have? It would have been laughable for the New England Patriots, of all teams, to allege media bias or to assert somehow that there were widespread doubts among fans and journalists over whether they were good enough to win yet another Super Bowl. None of that crap was going to fly, and it would have been equally difficult to paint Matt Ryan or Julio Jones as a villain in Falcons clothing.
So instead, Kraft latched onto the next best thing, painting Goodell as a villain who had somehow besmirched the squeaky-clean image of Brady and the Patriots. (That’s a joke in itself and fodder for several other columns).
Now, there is plenty of ammunition with which to skewer Roger Goodell, mostly concerning the slowness of his response to the league-wide concussion crisis, an institutionalized crime begun on Tagliabue’s watch, and his botching of several domestic violence cases, notably the “Ray Rice Coldcocks his Wife in an Elevator’’ coverup.
By comparison, the kerfuffle about whether the Patriots did or did not remove some of the air from their footballs, and whether or not Tom Brady authorized or even knew about it is very small potatoes indeed.
The suspension was probably too harsh – four games for Brady but only two, initially, for Rice? – and the reaction to it from New England bordering on hysterical.
And in the end, it really didn’t make one bit of difference.
The Patriots won the game, Tom Brady took home the hardware and Roger Goodell was able to hand it over without suffering a coronary occlusion in public. So much for a contrived storyline that got a lot of “reporters’’ through a week’s worth of Super Bowl hype, and kept a good part of its TV audience up well past its bedtime.
Compared to what Paul Tagliabue had to swallow in presenting the same trophy to Ray Lewis 16 years earlier, this one seemed to go down pretty easy, for everyone concerned.