Bradford: The Patriots' long, strange journey to extreme likability

Rob Bradford
February 04, 2019 - 1:14 pm

Bear with me.

I know the first inclination upon seeing this headline is to scream and yell something about how foolish it is to dissect how a Super Bowl-winning team became likable, and do so just hours after that team won the that Super Bowl. It is likable, of course, because they won the Super Bowl. That's usually how it works. Duh!

But with these Patriots there will undoubtedly be a bit of revisionist history. Whether you want to admit it or not, there was absolutely a point and time during this very same season that this was the least likable of Tom Brady's teams. Proof? Let's use this Aug. 6 poll as a jumping off point:

USA Today Sports

It was a poll that was admittedly taken in the sweet spot of the Red Sox' season, just a day after their sweep of the Yankees. But those numbers I was not expecting. Five percent above the Bruins! Looking back at that moment offers a dose of reality when it comes to where the Patriots once were. This is what I wrote:

"People are walking on eggshells with this Patriots team. Those fans don't want to deal with controversies involving Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. And there is absolutely a fear -- albeit what I believe is one that is unjustified -- the Pats are on the verge of taking a turn for the worse. They are still a really good team with a great quarterback and an outstanding chance at making it to another Super Bowl. But the unknown is scaring some folks."

And from then, which was the lead-up to the first exhibition game, it only got scarier.

Not enough receivers. Not enough defensive speed. Not enough good Gronk. The drafts had finally caught up to them. One win in their first three games.

Maybe Belichick had lost the locker room. Perhaps this team was still stinging from Malcolm Butler's benching. Brady? He was OK but certainly seemed to be creeping toward the cliff at an unusually quicker clip.

They weren't as likable because it was simply too tough to buy in like before. For the first time in a long time, the benefit of the doubt was wearing off. 

So how did they land here?

For one, the downturn and questions shadowing Brady ultimately played a big role. Because of the unfamiliar territory -- partially spawned by the controversies involving Alex Guerrero, an unorthodox offseason and the less-than-spectacular early-season performance -- people came to appreciate the quarterback more than ever. It was a fan base's wake-up call. It absolutely made what Brady ultimately accomplished in the final month more satisfying than those years of those miles and miles of cruise control excellence.

There was also the team. They were perceived as overachievers. In this town, that is gold.

Look at the Celtics. You aren't going to find a more likable team that Brad Stevens' club from a season ago. They did what nobody thought possible, allowing Boston sports fans to wake up every morning feeling like a green and white gift had been delivered. This time around the product hasn't lived up to the expectations. Hence, the downturn in likability.

This was a team made up more of players taken from the fourth round and on, with a boatload of undrafted rookie free agents, than any bonus baby draft picks. Perhaps this will be a repeat of 2001 when a bunch of perceived bit players went on to become borderline or flat-out Hall of Famers. But for now, this was the gritty, gutty, well-coached, selfless roster which so many want to wrap their arms around and maybe throw a beer can at.

Who knew? Six months ago, certainly not the vast majority of New England sports fans.

The benefit of the doubt is back from taking a short hiatus. And in this case, absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder. Soak in perhaps the most likable Patriots team of them all.