LONGSHOTS: Foxboro lads earn pats on the back, and old Celtics mystique makes sense
by Dave Long
It took me a long time to fully understand the blank faces on basketball fans under (gasp) 30 anytime I say something about the Celtics mystique. It seems so natural to me everyone will just understand about them because since the first day I started following sports they were always great and itís just in my sports DNA. But itís been an astonishing 15-plus years since theyíve been anything close to those Celtics. So Iíve finally gotten it through my brain that the younger folks canít truly grasp what it is to always expect your team to wriggle off the hook no matter how big the jam. And while it didnít always happen, it didnít diminish the expectation that from Cousy all the way to Bird someone in green would always find a way. In retrospect, itís the most assured feeling Iíve ever had as a sports fan.
However, I have good news for the under-30 crowd next time I prattle on. As I talk, instead of the Celtics, picture the Tom Brady Patriots, who are exactly what the Bill Russell Celtics were back in the day: a team that always seems to find a way because theyíre tough, smart and, most of all, clutch. One, win or lose on Sunday, to admire now, because it canít always be this good ó can it?
Iím not talking about the undefeated season. Iím much more interested in winning number four and I see 19-0 as the cherry on this Sunday. It would be historic for sure, but if you ask which I prefer for the Brady era ó four Super Bowls and a 19-0 season or five Super Bowl titles ó Iíd take five before I could blink. So would they. The only problem is that to get number four this year they need to get win number 19 too, so itís a moot argument.
What I like best is how smart and versatile they are. In a maddening age of over-specialization, where follow-the-pack pundits make push-bottom, ignore-the-obvious managers like Tony LaRussa out to be ďgeniuses,Ē Troy Brown plays defense and Mike Vrabel is a TD machine in goal line offense. They play Vrabel, Brown, Tedy Bruschi and others on special teams as folks like prickly Ron Borges criticize the injury risks as it turns out to be the absolute edge in helping an unheralded little engine that could win in 2001. In 2003 and 2004, itís the defense theyíre best known for, when the thought to be dumb move of putting a receiver in the injury-ravaged secondary is a life-saver in 2004. And now if they finish this remarkable season off the way I hope they do, the record-setting offense will be the story. All that is a sign of brilliant coaching, which adjusts to the talent it has and the talent that becomes available, and also to circumstances as games evolve and the shifting ways the game is played from year to year. And that includes off-field rules like the salary cap, where, oh by the way, those same follow-the-pack pundits said no team can win multiple titles in the salary cap era.
Wrong again, fellas.
But before they can continue on their way to being an actual dynasty ó like the 49ers who were at the top for 20 years ó they have to finish the deal Sunday. That wonít be as easy as many in these parts seem to think, like legendary triviologist Frank Harlan saying on my radio program heís expecting a 21-point win! The G-Men are good and have peaked at just the right time. A lot of the credit for that goes to the focus gained in the dramatic battle with the Patriots to close out the regular season. And there are things about the football Giants of concern, like their pass rush, running game and especially the Plaxico Burress-Ellis Hobbs III match-up ó yikes!
But hereís why I think theyíll do it. First, there is a lot of yapping coming out of the New York camp from Antonio Pierce and Usi Umenyiora. From the greatest show on turf, to Freddie Mitchell to Anthony Smith, that is always something the Patriots respond to. They do us against the world better than anyone. Second is Coach Bís record against facing quarterbacks the second time in a season. This one is particularly important because Eli Manning has played lights out since throwing four TD passes against the Patriots. They need to find tricky ways to bring pressure to make Eli react quicker.
But the final reason is the biggest. They remind me of the Celtics I spoke of earlier. Particularly, in a weird opposite kind of way, with the worst team in the Bill Russell era. A team led by declining stars in Russell and Sam Jones, prime of life John Havlicek and fortified by role-playing journeymen like Emmett Bryant and Don Nelson. The Lakers boasted a line-up with three of the five greatest NBA players to that point, in Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. But, thanks to the ugliest series-winning shot in NBA history by Nelson, Boston won on guile, guts and brains.
The record-breaking season says the Patriots have more in common with L.A. But the response to the video-gate hoo-ha, the grumpy old Dolphins and the escape in Baltimore say differently. So do the defense and running game picking up a struggling Brady to grind out a win over San Diego, as does coming back with the undefeated season in deep trouble to beat the Giants and Colts on the road. The bottom line is, like Russell and company in 1969, they found a way to win.
So while I respect how dangerous the G-men are, I say with a history of rising to the occasion New England plays its best game of the year ó though anyone who saw Villanova take out Georgetown in 1985 knows that hasnít always been enough. But I donít think the Giants play the perfect game.
So I like the Patriots to seal the deal on Sunday 34-23 to let the youngíns know as they make history exactly what it felt like to root for those great Celtics back in the day.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billyís Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM Ė The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.