'Free fallin' out into nothing'
By Bill Simmons
Updated: February 4, 2008, 2:10 PM ET
GLENDALE, Ariz. (Monday, 3 a.m. MT) -- Now it all makes sense.
You bleed for your team, you follow them through thick and thin, you monitor every free-agent signing, you immerse yourself in draft day, you purchase the jerseys and caps, you plan your Sundays around the games ... and there's a little rainbow waiting at the end. You can't see it, but you know it's there. It's there. It has to be there. So you believe.
Of course, there's one catch: You might never get there. Every fan's worst fear. All that energy over the years just getting displaced, no release, no satisfaction, nothing. Season after season, no championship ... and then you die. I mean, isn't that what this is all about? Isn't that the nagging fear? That those little moral victories over the years won't make up for the lack of a big payoff at the end -- that one moment when everything comes together, when your team keeps winning, when you keep getting the breaks and you just can't lose.
And if none of this makes sense, well ... it does to me. I just watched somebody else's team win the Super Bowl. Giants 17, Patriots 14.
If you're wondering why this column feels familiar, it's because I pulled the previous three-and-a-half paragraphs from my postgame column after the Patriots stunned the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. This time around, we were the Rams. We were rooting for the unlikable double-digit favorites with an unstoppable offense. We were the arrogant fans who dismissed the chances of the other team. We had the Super Bowl postgame party looming that had been a hot ticket all week. Then the game started, and everything went right to hell. We looked flat from the first minute. Our underdog opponent gained confidence, punched us in the mouth a few times, kept punching and punching, caught a few breaks, threw a few more punches, ran out of gas near the end, looked to be done ... and out of nowhere, rallied for a miracle drive to steal the championship. We stood there slack-jawed while the other fans celebrated; we were unable to breathe and wondered what the heck just happened. And then we hustled out of the stadium like we were fleeing a crime scene.
The symmetry was incredible. It was staggering. It was epic. During the two weeks leading up to the game, I heard and read different media members make the case there were potential similarities between Super Bowl XXXVI and Super Bowl XLII, never believing the comparison had merit because the 2008 Giants were so different than the 2002 Patriots. The Giants had a deep threat. They had a monster defensive line. They had a semi-experienced quarterback and a good running game. Unlike in 2002, some people were giving this underdog a chance. I just didn't see it.
But standing there in Section 129 and surrounded by delirious Giants fans who were hugging and screaming and crying and acting like stranded castaways who just noticed a rescue boat? I saw it.
Truth be told, I started seeing it during the halftime show, immediately after the Patriots headed into the locker room with a deceiving 7-3 lead. Their lack of energy was alarming and almost inexplicable -- not just during the first half, but when they were warming up beforehand and getting "fired up" during the pregame introductions. (Remember that bizarre NFL Films clip before Super Bowl XXXVI, when a psyched-up Brady momentarily freaked out in the tunnel, jumped toward Drew Bledsoe, grabbed Bledsoe's helmet with both hands and started head-butting him and screaming like a lunatic? Those days were long gone.) There were red flags everywhere. New England's offensive line was getting overwhelmed by New York's front four. An uncharacteristically sloppy Brady had me telling everyone within earshot, "You know, I really think his ankle is bothering him," at least 73 times in 90 minutes. Even worse, the game had no discernible flow because of New York's 10-minute opening drive, followed by an endless slew of commercial breaks so Fox could catch up.
One moment in the second quarter stood out: when the Pats blew an easy third-and-1 from their own 42. For the first three months of the season, back when they were the Big, Bad, Invincible Pats, that would have been two-down territory for them -- they would have thrown on third down and maybe even tried to make a big play. If they didn't get it, they would have banged it past the chain on the next play. This time? They played it safe, ran Maroney to the left side, lost two yards and quickly sent out the punt team while every Pats fan turned into the confused wife from "Airplane" who couldn't understand why her husband had ordered the second cup of coffee.
Who were these guys? Where was the team I watched for the past few months? Why aren't we attacking these guys? Why did we stick with our January cold-weather offense when we're playing indoors?
And right as I was wondering about all this stuff, Tom Petty started playing "Free Fallin'."
Right after the 2002 Pats roared into the locker room with a 14-3 lead and had the Superdome buzzing, U2 roared out and sang "Beautiful Day." It was a seminal moment for every Patriots fan in the building. If you could have picked anything to happen at that specific moment to capture what everyone was feeling, you would have brought U2 out to sing "Beautiful Day." I remember thinking to myself, "Every time I hear this song for the rest of my life, I'm going to think about this game."
Six years later, I was standing there watching Petty sing "Free Fallin'" and thinking, "Good God, is this the Bizarro Beautiful Day?"
My feet started to go numb. My stomach started to churn. Supremely confident for the entire week, I had been quietly worrying even before the opening kickoff when we walked into the stadium and noticed the staggering number of Giants and Patriots fans. It's a dirty little secret, but Super Bowl crowds stink for the same reason that All-Star crowds stink -- more than half of the tickets get chewed up by sports executives, corporate sponsors, people working for the league or the advertising companies that support the league, celebrities and pseudo-celebrities, rich people and neutral fans who just want to be there because it's something to do. Arizona wasn't anything like that. Super Bowl XLII broke the record for "most fans of one team or the other" as well as "most fans wearing jerseys" and "most dead-even split of fans representing both franchises."
Because of the unique makeup of the crowd, I became convinced we were headed for something special, even texting a few friends to predict a close and special game. Soaking in the atmosphere, seeing the sea of jerseys, hearing the sounds that genuine fans make, suddenly a blowout seemed impossible. This was too good. This was what sports was all about, right? Stupidly, I thought the atmosphere could potentially resemble a World Cup match, with fans loudly supporting both teams and cheering on every play, forgetting that the NFL would kill any chance of this happening by overpowering us with rock music and the Jumbotron. But the possibility of an unforgettable game remained. You could feel it before the game, and you could definitely feel it heading into the second half.
With that said, I never thought the Patriots would lose. I thought they'd be tested, I thought the game would be great ... but lose??? You could point out 10 different instances when the Pats blew a chance to make a monster play or put the game away, and you could point out all the different times the Giants caught a break or had a ball bounce their way, but really, everything you need to know about Super Bowl XLII happened on the Miracle Play To Be Named Later -- you know, the third down on the do-or-die drive when Eli Manning ripped himself away from the entire Patriots defensive line (THEY HAD HIS JERSEY!!!!!!) and threw a pass that hung in the air forever like one of those sports movie passes, and even though David Tyree and Rodney Harrison had an equal chance of getting it, Tyree jumped a little bit higher, hauled in the football, trapped it against his helmet and somehow held on while Harrison was doing everything but performing a figure-four leg lock on him.
Seriously, what else do you need to know about this game beyond that play and the 30-second loop of Brady getting pounded by various defensive linemen? The Giants played well enough to win, they were tougher, they were luckier and they wanted it just a little bit more. Now we live in a world that Tom Coughlin outcoached Bill Belichick in a Super Bowl, that Eli Manning outplayed Tom Brady in a Super Bowl, that a Belichick-era Patriots team lost a Super Bowl because they weren't tough enough, that the Ewing Theory has been replaced by the Tiki Theory. The Giants deserved to win.
They were better. They peaked at the right time. And watching their fans celebrate afterward, a small part of me actually felt happy for them. Envious, even. It's one thing to win a championship ... it's another to win a championship like that. You can't possibly understand unless it happens to you.
Other than that "Free Fallin'" moment and the Miracle Play To Be Named Later, I will forever remember eight things about Super Bowl XLII:
1. Before the pregame introductions, the Patriots were jogging off the field and the Jumbotron caught Brady briefly break stride to shake hands with Pat O'Brien. This bothered me for some reason -- somewhere along the line, the team and the quarterback almost became too famous, as symbolized by that handshake and the fact Brady would have run right by O'Brien six years ago because he would have wanted to flip out in the tunnel and inexplicably head-butt Bledsoe over and over again. Look, I'm not blaming Brady for the handshake. This was the season when his fame transcended sports and morphed into something else, and part of that "something else" involves the occasional random pregame handshake with the likes of Pat O'Brien. You have to do things like this when you're famous, even if you don't really want to do them. At the same time, I thought this was a terrible omen and a defining moment of the season. In the Super Bowl, you'd much rather be the "Nobody believes in us!" team than the "Not only does everybody believe in us, but our QB shakes hands before games with Pat O'Brien" team. You just would.
2. Speaking of Brady, if the Patriots had finished 19-0, I planned to start my column with a scene from the Patriots' postgame party. Through some mutual friends, I had arranged to hang out with Brady's crew for what promised to be a laid-back celebration in somebody's hotel room, probably no more than 15-20 people since Brady's circle is surprisingly and refreshingly small. Because it was a rare chance to catch Brady in an unguarded moment -- and an important moment at that -- I spent most of Friday and Saturday thinking about that first paragraph and all the different ways it could start. I kept seeing Brady sitting in a chair with his right ankle encased in ice, quietly sipping a bottle of champagne with a satisfied smile on his face, and Gisele would be there, and everyone would be recapping 19-0 and remembering the incredible season. I liked the thought of a famous person celebrating a historic night in such a totally normal and relatable way. And that's what it will remain. A thought and only a thought. It never happened.
3. First entry in my notebook right after the game ended: "Eli Manning just gave me the Eli Manning Face." And he did.
4. For the rest of eternity, I will never understand why the Patriots -- a team that broke all kinds of offensive records by attacking teams with an aggressive, run-and-shoot offense that thrived on audibles, checks and the intelligence of the quarterback and his receivers -- became passive in the single biggest game of the season. It's one thing to change styles because it's 20 degrees and windy outside and you're worried about throwing the ball. But indoors? Only on the last drive did the Patriots look like the Patriots. I will never understand what took so long. Ever. I will never understand it. I wasn't even that depressed after the game, just confused. What happened to the remarkable offensive juggernaut from the first three months of the season? Where did their arrogance go? What happened to their swagger? Did the never-ending attention and nonstop pressure eventually get to them? For most of Sunday's game, it seemed the Patriots were playing not to lose. And maybe they were.
I will say this: Even though Friday's column will probably earn the No. 1 spot on the "Columns I Wish Weren't In My Archives" list before everything's said and done, Super Bowl XLII inadvertently proved my point. To finish 19-0, you really need a perfect storm of things to fall your way -- not just off the field when you're building the team, but for 19 straight games over the span of five months, and on top of that, the pressure builds every week because of the streak, so it's inevitable you'll wear down in the final two months. I don't think we'll ever see a 19-0 team. If this particular Patriots team couldn't pull it off, nobody's doing it.
5. Much like the Patriots, I choked heading into the weekend: Somehow, I forgot to pack my good-luck Wes Welker jersey and headed to Sunday's game without any Pats gear. Originally intent on buying a Pats hat at the game, once I saw all the jerseys in the stands and in my section, I made the executive decision to fine myself $85 dollars (the price of a white No. 81 Moss jersey at one of those merchandise booths). You can currently find that jersey sitting at the bottom of the garbage can in my hotel room. I might take it home and burn it. I haven't decided yet.
6. Over the weekend, I was arguing with a friend about the unthinkable scenario of a Patriots defeat and whether it would become the most famous loss in the history of team sports. You can have famous wins and famous losses -- for instance, when an undefeated UNLV team lost to Duke, that was a famous loss. When Villanova beat Georgetown in '85, that was a famous win. When the Mets beat the Red Sox in the '86 World Series, that was a famous win and a famous loss, although it was definitely more famous for the "loss" part. When the '80 USA hockey team beat the Russians, it was a famous win here and a famous loss in Russia. You get the idea. Eventually, we decided that an upset of the Pats would be like the '86 World Series -- more of a famous loss than a famous win, but something that would definitely get major play as a win because of the New York media. (By contrast, if Tampa Bay or Seattle had toppled the 18-0 Patriots, it would have been remembered as a famous loss and that's it.) Now it's playing out exactly like we predicted, and I guess what I'm trying to say here is that I spent most of the second half hating myself for ever having the conversation in the first place.
(Along those same lines, has there ever been a better performance by the Karma Gods than Super Bowl XLII? On one side, you have the Patriots cheating in Week 1, going into "Eff-You" mode and running up scores for the next two months ... and just when it seemed like there wouldn't be any real repercussions, they suffered the double-whammy of Brady's ankle sprain and Spygate blowing up again days before the final game. On the other side, you have the G-Men nobly playing their starters in Week 17 and giving everyone such a wonderful and unexpected sporting event ... and they're rewarded with four straight wins, a Super Bowl title and one of the most famous upset victories in the history of professional sports. Hmmmmmmm.)
7. From the "Now It Can Be Told" department: Everyone blamed me for "jinxing" the Patriots two weeks ago after I posted my Dr. Jack Breakdown of the '86 Celtics and the '07 Pats. (And by the way, I think we have a final verdict. And then some.) Well, a significantly more blatant jinx had already happened: For my father's 60th birthday present at the end of November, I bought him a flight from Boston to Arizona and got him a hotel room and a ticket for Super Bowl XLII, although we took great pains to say "Going to the Super Bowl" instead of "Seeing the Pats in the Super Bowl" on every level. One week later? The Baltimore game happened. Yeah. Exactly. I didn't even write about this because I didn't want to get murdered by a deranged Patriots fan.
Anyway, the Patriots won their two playoff games and set the stage for another great father-son sports moment in a lifetime of great father-son sports moments. We went to the triple-OT Suns-Celts game together in 1976. We went to Games 5 and 7 of the Sixers-Celtics series in '81. We saw the Celtics clinch titles in '84 and '86, and we saw the game when Bird stole the ball from Isiah. Best of all, we were in Fenway for Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS at Fenway. But we had never seen the Patriots win the Super Bowl together; now, we had the chance to see them make history. As it turned out, the only history made was Dad breaking the record for "Most pee breaks during a single football game." This definitely turned out to be a bonding moment, but for different reasons -- I haven't seen him this decimated by a sporting event since Magic made the baby sky hook in '87.
After the game, we reacted in different ways: I took the approach of "we didn't deserve to win, we sucked, we choked and I'm not getting distraught over this when the city of Boston has won five titles since 2002" (note: I didn't fully believe this but desperately tried to talk myself into it), while my father went with the approach of "I look like a doctor just gave me horrible news, and I can't speak." He was totally blindsided by what happened; in his defense, he wasn't picking up on all the bad omens during the game, and he missed the Brady-O'Brien handshake. But we didn't say much after the game, and he didn't even laugh when I asked if he wanted to flip a coin with the winner getting to FedEx a turd sandwich to Josh McDaniels this week. In fact, I never thought he'd get his sense of humor back until we had this exchange:
8. Finally, can you guess the last thing we heard as we were walking (OK, hustling) out of the stadium right after the final play? That's right, it was the sound of euphoric Giants fans chanting, "Eighteen and one! Eighteen and one! Eighteen and one!" Yes, it's safe to say the Boston-New York rivalry has been taken to new heights. As a tennis umpire would say, "Advantage, New York."
- Me: "Dad, are you gonna be all right? I'm starting to get worried." Dad doesn't say anything. There's a long pause.
Dad: "I don't think I want to go to the Patriots' postgame party."
Eighteen and one! Eighteen and one! Eighteen and one!
I can still hear them. I will always hear them.
Eighteen and one is a great, great, season! Who could imagine that it would hurt, that fans of the other team would be throwing it back at you?
I believe in most cases it's better to lose than go on a long record breaking winning streak. Human beings just can't keep going to the emotional well week after week without having a let down.
I think the Colts are probably better equipped than most teams to go undefeated. Why? Because they've got used to going deep into the season undefeated. How many years now have they started twelve and zero? Five?
So they wouldn't really start getting on an emotional high until they had already gone 12-0 again. All they would really have to do is stay on an emotional high for the rest of the season.