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Woulda, shoulda, coulda


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Looking back it was an odd football season that had a bit of a flat ending. Although the way the Colts finished it off on a thoroughly miserable evening was cool, efficient, and rather pleasing. Teams come of age suddenly. It’s fun to watch.

One recognizes that we here in New England specialize nowadays in being sore losers but there ought to be some room in our hard hearts to be pleased for Tony Dungy. The man has been through a lot. And how can you not be happy for Adam Vinatieri, given all that he did for you? While we’re at it may I ask, ‘‘What’s not to like about Peyton Manning?’’ All the super-jocks should be cut from the same cloth.

“Three cheers for the Colts,” says I.

As for the Bears, they should not be disparaged. Nor would it be all that unreasonable to lighten up on Rex Grossman, their young quarterback, currently being fitted with goat horns. Did the Bears blow it, tank the thing with clumsy and callow play? Or did the Colts seize the moment, prevailing on the hallowed terms of grace and valor? Can we tell the difference?

Sometimes better teams make lesser teams look bad. Does that mean the lesser team choked? If the Bears “choked,” then so did the Cowboys against the Seahawks, the Chargers against the Patriots and the Patriots against the Colts. These were strange playoffs.

Given the wretched conditions -- worst in the history of the event -- Soupey XLI wasn’t that bad a ballgame. Most Soupeys are letdowns. Two thirds of them over the years -- none of them played in an unremitting monsoon -- were even less interesting, artistic, or dramatic than XLI. The Colts, long scorned as “too soft” took it right to the Bears, long the epitome of the hard-nosed, “black and blue” school of football thought. The Colts beat the Bears in the trenches. They beat them on their own terms, at their own game. They ran the ball down their gizzard. That’s drama enough for my money. Hey, it’s only a football game.

If it had been up to me, the Colts running back tandem of Addai and Rhodes would have shared the MVP laurels. Still, there should be no argument with the choice of Manning. His highly professional control of the game under such crummy conditions was memorable. We can now dispense with all the doubts about his ability to rise to the occasion. Good riddance to a cliché-burdened thesis that had become tiresome. In time, even Patriots loyalists will understand that it takes nothing away from Tom Brady to concede that Peyton Manning is a helluva player. But then swallowing any of the ramifications of this season and the way it ended will not come easily for the Patriots and their loyalists.

The conventional wisdom will forever hold that the Patriots should kick themselves for flubbing a near gift Soupey; the assumption apparently being that if the amiable Tony Dungy could tame the Bears so smoothly the omnipotent Bill Belichick would have casually orchestrated a downright massacre. The premise is both presumptuous and patronizing. If Dungy doesn’t quite have Boss Bill’s lofty cachet it is more a matter of opportunity than wherewithal. Moreover, Belichick could probably learn a thing or two about social graces and the human touch from his very dignified Colts’ colleague and be the better for it, both on and off the field.

Actually, the Patriots should lament nothing because they were lucky to get as far as they did. They had a rockier season than their record suggests. Neither the young Galahad at QB nor the Boss himself was quite equal to the images of infallibility an adoring local media have crafted for them.

Tom Brady never quite got over his understandable snit about the shabby compromises made by a penny-pinching management in some key personnel decisions. He had a right to be aggravated at the snubbing of David Givens and Deion Branch, two of his meal tickets who were replaced with notably inferior (and much cheaper) talent. Did management expect Brady to do it with mirrors? Actually, he almost succeeded.

As for Belichick, he lumbered through the season like a man who had something gnawing at his innards. Doubtless, some of the problem was personal. The aforementioned “adoring locals” -- hardly anxious to offend the Boss -- never got close to the whole story. But out-of-town newshounds -- notably from New York -- have no such compunctions. The focus on Belichick is only going to get more intense. Ever proud and private, he is unlikely to take it well.

Coverage on Belichick on the legitimate issues having to do with the team and its performance is an interesting study. He gets no blame for the bad moves; only praise for the brilliant ones of which, admittedly, there have been many over the period of his stewardship in Foxborough. There is no effort here to deny his accomplishments. They have been stunning.

But it’s a two-way street. This Coach is much more than your ordinary NFL despot. His control is absolute. It is ludicrous to believe he would be denied anything he wants for this team. It is absurd to think anyone might be signed or not signed without his unequivocal approval. So, if the likes of Givens and Branch, are not adequately replaced it’s because he chose not to and he needs to be held responsible for the consequences. If highly respected franchise elders like Adam Vinatieri and Willie McGinest are allowed to walk away to save a few bucks it is because he gave the nod. And that should be recognized. He’s a cold-hearted character. But then all of pro football’s coaching giants tend to be.

Adding further to Belichick’s problems are the revelations of Ted Johnson, the once highly popular linebacker from Colorado who appears to have sacrificed his health on the altar of Patriots’ supremacy. Not surprisingly, he is now resentful and blames Belichick who, he claims, was indifferent, to his welfare. It’s hardly an original charge. It’s long been a cynical game. Even the more loveable coaches regard their chattel as so much “meat on the hoof.” But the Johnson case has the look of something that could get pretty nasty and will probably end up in court where it might even become a landmark case concerning the NFL’s colorful custom of using its uniformed personnel as cannon fodder. More headaches for Belichick. He will have little patience with it.

The cumulative effect of all such stuff can sap a team of its championship spirit, which is what seems to have happened with the Pats. In the end, did it cost them another Lombardi Trophy, which was surely ripe for their plucking this year? The answer is, “No question!” The wonder being that they came so close.

They, of course, botched it royally in Indianapolis after San Diego shamelessly handed them a passport to another championship. In their postseason analysis, the ‘‘adoring locals’’ mainly chose to whine about the hard luck and tough calls their beloved home town endured in that meltdown in Indianapolis, but there’s no soft-soaping a defeat that features the squandering of a 21-3 lead. They got their clocks cleaned by Manning and Dungy. It’s that simple. It was also historic and unprecedented and a fact that Mr. Belichick is going to have to live with right alongside those three championships all -- admittedly -- won with varying degrees of brilliance.

So the man is mortal. What else is new? The point is, he too must recognize this. It’s time. He will also have to come to grips with the fact that when he let the Colts off the hook he may have created a monster. Maybe he’ll be back next year. But so will they.

It will be a long, long off-season.

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