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The Patriots Are Reverting To Type

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick chats with QB Bailey Zappe in the first half. The Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-18.
Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

One Sunday in Germany, the New England Patriots set a new NFL record for Loser Face Memes In A Single Game. First, the cameras caught New England offensive coordinator, and multiple failure as a head coach, Bill O’Brien erupting in fury when quarterback Mac Jones took yet another sack. O’Brien was giving Jones the full Gunny Hartman, pounding a tablet with his finger as though it were a gavel, and point out that Rhamondre Stevenson was … right … fucking … there, dammit.

Second, when Jones nearly threw a red-zone interception in the end zone, the cameras caught owner Robert Kraft dropping his head so hard that he probably sprained his neck and required a serious massage after the game. 

Third, when Jones finally threw what may well be the worst interception in the history of mankind, again in the red zone, and on the Patriots’ final drive, the camera caught Bill Belichick dropping his face into his hands and, fourth, a few moments later, the camera caught Jones on the bench, alone, looking bereft, like a tsunami survivor, or some German idiot who’d taken the over. Belichick benched Jones for the last New England possession, only to have backup Bailey Zappe come in and throw his own international interception on a comically botched fake-spike gimmick. Thus did New England leave Europe at 2-8, forever lost in Internet immortality.

And then, remarkably, everything got immeasurably worse, and now we are in the grim death watch of a dynasty, albeit one carried forward on waves of schadenfreude stronger than any the country has experienced since Richard Nixon blew town. There was a brief respite last week when they managed to beat Pittsburgh, mainly because Bill Belichick figured out that Mitch Trubisky is not a very good NFL quarterback. Then, yesterday, they put up a bad team’s fight against Kansas City until the Chiefs ran 20 points in a row. The Patriots are now the team good teams use to get well again. This, by the way, is how it used to be.

The Kraft regime has done its damndest to erase a fundamental historical fact about the team’s history. The six Super Bowls and Tom Brady made that job infinitely easier. But the fact is that there have been as many years like this one than there have been seasons of triumph. The Patriots have distinguished themselves in NFL history twice—most recently as dynastic winners but, first, as the league’s most successful running sketch comedy series. This season is at least true to a big part of the franchise’s history.

Unlike many of my younger peers, I am old enough to remember that ridiculous football bouffee is as much a part of this team’s history as the lordly championship run in the 2000s. For many years, not only were the Patriots bad, they were staggeringly, hilariously, Mack Sennett baggy-pants grotesque. How many teams sent the entire front office out into their new stadium in order to flush the toilets simultaneously to test whether the system could stand up to a full house for their opening game? How many other Boston teams have played a home game in Birmingham, Alabama? How many football teams have nearly electrocuted their new head coach with a faulty microphone at his introductory press conference? 

Even in their brief spasms of success, the Patriots found ways to fall into the orchestra pit. Between 1976 and 1978, under Chuck Fairbanks, the Patriots were a talented power-running team. But in 1976, they lost to the Raiders on a epically terrible roughing the passer call for which the “tuck rule” decision can legitimately be said to have been a karmic reward. 

In 1977, offensive line stalwarts Leon Gray and John Hannah got into a contract brawl with the Sullivans, who owned the team at the time, and fractured the locker room to the point where the Patriots missed the playoffs. In 1978, Fairbanks was recruiting for the University of Colorado while still coaching the Patriots. The Sullivans found out and suspended him before the final regular season game. Earl Campbell ran all over them in their first playoff game and that promising era ended with a thud you could hear on Venus. By 1981, they were 2-14.

In 1985 season, they made the Super Bowl and got crushed by the Chicago Bears and their second-day story was a massive drug scandal. In the 1996 season they made it back there again, losing to Green Bay, and their second-day story was Bill Parcells beating feet to New York to coach the Jets because he and new owner Robert Kraft didn’t get along.

And I haven’t even mentioned how the team was banned from home field Monday Night Football games from 1981 to 1995 because of a mass inebriation festival in which a man fell ill with a heart attack and some fans urinated on the EMTs while they were working on him and, after the game, some idiot had stolen a goal post and, on his way up Route 1, he hit some power lines and electrocuted himself. The NFL and the town of Foxborough agreed to send New England into Monday night exile. And I haven’t mentioned the brief ownership of Victor Kiam, who managed the sexual harassment of my friend Lisa Olson in a fashion that foreshadowed Harvey Weinstein by several decades. And I haven’t even mentioned that the night John Lennon was murdered, Howard Cosell delivered the sad news during … a Patriots game.

And I haven’t even mentioned Harpo Gladieux, have I? And Harpo Gladieux is as towering a figure of the Patriots’ days of futility as Tom Brady is of their now-lost days of glory.

Bob "Harpo" Gladieux was quite legit. A stone-tough running back out of Notre Dame, he’d scored the Irish’s only touchdown in the famous 10-10 tie with Michigan State. He was drafted by the then-Boston Patriots and he was looking forward to the 1970 season because he was due a $2,000 bonus just for making the team. On the Wednesday night before the game, head coach Clive Rush called Gladieux into his office and told him he was cut from the team.

(Rush, by the way, is the head coach who nearly was electrocuted during his introductory press conference.)

Gladieux went on a spectacular three-day bender, furious because he believed, probably rightly, that he’d been cut to save the Patriots the $2,000 bonus he was owed. He roamed the bars and lounges of Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Eventually, he was accompanied by the late George Kimball, another friend of mine and a nationally renowned hellraiser. On Saturday night before the Patriots game at Harvard Stadium, the two of them decided to go to the game. They packed a six-pack and a bottle of rum and headed across the Charles.

(The Patriots were playing at Harvard that year because they were no longer welcome at Boston College, largely because their fans had lit a bunch of campfires in the stands the last time they played there.)

Before the game, Kimball went off to buy two more beers. Gladieux, hirsute with the hair of the dog already, heard his name paged over the stadium public-address system and he was told to report to the Patriots’ trainer’s room. Once there, Gladieux was told by Rush that the team wanted to activate him for that afternoon’s game. The whole thing had been a scam to create a loophole that would allow the team to dodge Gladieux’s bonus. But Gladieux agreed to suit up because, what the hell, he was Bob Gladieux and life was weird. I once interviewed him about the episode, and the story got even better. The coaches sent him out to cover the opening kickoff.

“I’m thinking, running out there, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what’s going to happen now?” he said. “I was just looking for some place to hide. My first thought was, whatever happens, protect yourself. Bob and weave! Avoid all contact!”

Because God or Whoever has a fine sense of drama, Miami return man Jake Scott ignored the wedge in front of him and headed directly toward Gladieux.

By then, Kimball had returned to his seat and he was wondering where his companion had got to. Then, he heard the PA announcer say, “Tackle by No. 24, Bob Gladieux.” He shrugged and drank both beers. And that’s how the Patriots once operated. They were never bad when they could just be crazy.

That’s how I’ve managed to get through this wretched team’s wretched season. (Gee, that 6-0 loss to the Chargers looks even better this weekend, doesn’t it?) I give them some credit. They haven’t given up. Their defense, which is missing its two best players, has been stout and stubborn, until it ran out of gas in the second half on Sunday. And Ezekiel Elliott has looked like a decent pickup. Before he got hurt, Rhamondre Stevenson looked like he’d said, Fuck it, I’m just gonna run over dudes all year for the hell of it. 

But 3-11 is still 3-11, more Clive Rush than Bill Belichick. I’ve seen this all before, but it was a lot more entertaining the first time around. This week, the New England Patriots once again were dropped from Monday Night Football. And nobody had to pee on an EMT to do it. The league flexed their game to Sunday at 1 p.m. ET just because the league figured nobody wanted to watch them any more.

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