The Old Dog and the Young Prodigy
Legendary head coach Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots take on the Rams under youngest head coach in NFL history Sean McVay. Whether a fan of one team or the other, Super Bowl LIII will be a spectacle worth staying up for
Article by Deniz Karagulle
There are but a few days left in the NFL season which culminates in the Super Bowl, where perennial participants the New England Patriots will face the Rams, who returned to Los Angeles after 20 years in St Louis.
Tom Brady, the 41 year old face of the franchise and quarterback for the New England Patriots, will be playing in his ninth Super Bowl, a number that is so far beyond any other NFL quarterback that I felt compelled to triple check it. The second most represented quarterback is John Elway with five. Brady’s Patriots are playing in their third consecutive Super Bowl, their fourth in the last five years. To make a comparison with another North American sportsman, it is now more likely that Tom Brady plays in the Super Bowl than it was that Michael Jordan would hit a shot (49.7 per cent).
That is not to say that credit for the Patriots’ unprecedented success rests entirely with Brady – many would suggest that the true architect of this franchise’s accomplishments over the last two decades is the Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick. Unapologetically antagonistic with the press and inspiring of fear in his players, Belichick is an odd figure in today’s NFL. In his trademark hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, he stands on the sideline surveying the game, his face betraying not the slightest emotion regardless of what it sees.
His opposite number, Sean McVay is opposite in a number of ways. Belichick, at 66 years of age, is the second oldest head coach in the NFL, a few months younger than Seattle’s Pete Carroll. McVay is youngest head coach in NFL history, 30 when he was appointed to take over from Jeff Fisher at the beginning of last season. He is a frenetic presence on the sideline, and never is it the case that you are left unsure as to what his emotions might be. He is eight years younger than Tom Brady, another fact that requires repeated checking as it is so outlandish.
The teams represented have disparate aspects to them also. The Rams have built a team through considerable investment in attracting free agents – a tactic that brings with it considerable risk in a sport where each team has the same amount of money to spend on players. This is not to say that they haven’t drafted well, their three biggest names having been selected in the first round of the draft in each of the last three seasons. The Patriots, on the other hand, have made a habit of uncovering diamonds in the dirt, converting the cast-offs of other teams into productive, interchangeable (and ultimately) disposable components of a machine that is well oiled and shows no signs of slowing down. Brady was the 199th pick of his draft class. The Patriots’ leading receiver, Julian Edelman, was chosen with the 232nd pick. By comparison, the Patriots chose to use their most recent first round selection on a running back, a decision that raised eyebrows as it is held to be conventional wisdom that the position can be successfully addressed later in the draft. The player selected, Sony Michel, has been a pivotal performer in the Patriots’ post season performance. If the Patriots are to be victorious on Super Sunday, he will need to have another productive day against what is, arguably, the best interior defensive line in the NFL, spearheaded by the Rams most significant free agent signing Ndamukong Suh and reigning defensive player of the year Aaron Donald.
In an era in which the NFL has been struggling with its public perception, (kneeling controversies, high profile domestic violence problems, concerns about the long-term consequences of concussion, the list is practically endless) the presence of these two teams in the sport’s showpiece event can perhaps be considered a little unfortunate. The NFL prides itself on parity, with various mechanisms in place to make life slightly harder for better teams and easier for worse teams – so when a team ascends to the largest stage the sport has to offer with this level of regularity (as well as having won the divisional championship in 15 of the last 17 years), it can raise some concern. During their reign as the dynasty of the 21st century, the Patriots have been beset with controversy. They were caught illegally video taping opposition practices. They have been caught tampering with the footballs used in a game (and subsequently destroying the evidence relating to this). The officials have often found ways to make their passage to victory easier. Even Belichick’s route to the team was mired in controversy (essentially it was proven that New England came to an agreement with him while he was still coaching another team. At the press conference announcing him as the new head coach of the New York Jets, Bellichick announced his resignation. The NFL agreed that rules had been broken and reparations were to be made). For these reasons (not to mention their incredible success) the Patriots hold the inauspicious honour of being the most hated team in the NFL.
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In the meantime, the Rams were able to dispatch the New Orleans Saints in the previous round in part due to a clear officiating gaffe. It transpires that four of the seven man officiating crew lived locally to the team. If you are philosophical, you might argue that officiating errors are part of any sporting contest, and there is nothing more sinister to it than that. If you are a touch more cynical, you might wonder if the relocation of the team to Los Angeles (a move which saw the value of the team increase by approximately 100 per cent), had something to do with the appointment of a crew that were mostly from the same part of the country as the Rams. The move has drawn criticism from the city of St Louis, not least of all because the owner of the Rams, Stan Kroenke (also the majority shareholder in Arsenal FC) promised to “attempt to do everything that [he could] to keep the Rams in St. Louis.”
Los Angeles has the second largest TV audience in the country and has not been represented in the Super Bowl since 1984. Given the falling TV ratings over the last few years (possibly in response to President Trump’s displeasure with various NFL players choosing to peacefully protest police brutality), such a relocation and the subsequent success of an LA team is doubtless good for NFL coffers. That being said it is not my belief that the NFL engineers results – however, it is quite clear that certain players and teams are more likely than others to get the rub of the green.
Of course, none of that will matter on Sunday, where the old dog and the young prodigy will watch their charges battle it out in Atlanta, hosting its first Super Bowl in almost two decades. The halftime show, also not free of controversy, will be performed by Maroon 5, who will no doubt ably entertain those of us who aren’t restocking on beer and snacks (I imagine). Many of those approached to perform refused on account of the treatment of Colin Kaepernick – though that is perhaps a discussion for another article. Kick off will be on Sunday February 3rd at 23:30 BST, and no matter whether you are a fan of one team or the other, it’ll be a spectacle worth staying up for.