The Cold, Corporate Appeal of Football

The New England Patriots’ recent success is a reminder of how America’s favorite sport is also the most hierarchical and least collaborative.

The New England Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett (7) throws under pressure from the Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (90) during the first half of a game at Gillette Stadium on September 23, 2016. (USA Today Sports / Reuters)

The “Deflategate” scandal involving the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady—one that dominated NFL headlines for well over a year, involved multiple levels of the American legal system, instilled in every football fan a keen interest in air-pressure physics, and finally ended in a four-game suspension for Brady to start the 2016 season—has ended up having little effect on the field. The Patriots beat the Houston Texans Thursday night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, improving their record to 3-0 with only one game left before they get their starting QB back. The win against the Texans, a team that entered the game undefeated itself, was a 27-0 shellacking, New England besting them in every category of play.

For the football junkie, there has even been a kind of rare fun to seeing what this decorated team, one that has won four Super Bowls and reached two others over Brady’s 17-year career, can do without its best player. The backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo played ably in the first game and a half of the season, throwing touchdowns in bunches before a shoulder injury forced him out of the Week Two game against Miami. The third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett held on to the lead Garoppolo had built in that game, but against the Texans he would have to play from the start, and analysts wondered how ready even an excellent coach like Bill Belichick could make him. New England answered those doubts with a game plan that leaned on college-style plays familiar to Brissett, quick passes and quarterback runs, executed well enough to pick the Houston defense apart. The effect was like that of hearing an alternate take of a hit song, a glimpse of the tinkering behind the team’s usual Sunday sheen.

As interesting as the first few weeks of New England’s season have been, though, they have also served as a reminder of the basic set-up of professional football. The Patriots have been so successful for so long in large part because that success has not been founded on groups of specific players. They famously let fan favorites go when they’ve aged just past their primes. They turn replacements into stars and then, down the line, shuttle those stars off for another round of replacements. Even Brady, back in 2001, got his chance when the then-starting-quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury; Brady won the Super Bowl and Bledsoe never got his job back. The Patriots know that their brutal sport is designed to use players up, so they’ve built a system in which rotating casts of players are mere disposable units for a stable management group—ownership, front-office executives, Belichick. It’s an effective and unabashedly corporate approach fit for a cold game.

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After Thursday’s game, the talk from both locker rooms centered on that Patriot system, the organizational lockstep and allegiance to Belichick that has made them the NFL’s best and most consistent team for almost two decades. Belichick himself praised his players’ obedience: “They played the game exactly the way we asked them to play it ... They tried to do what we wanted them to do, and as a coach you can’t ask for any more than that.” Bill O’Brien, a former New England assistant coach now helming the Texans, seemed to get wistful about the professionalism of his former employer. “Their program has been in place for a long time,” he said. “They have what I think is the best head coach in the history of the league, and they do a great job.”

Newspaper headlines took similar tones. “Jacoby Brissett was good. But the Patriots’ win Thursday is Bill Belichick’s triumph,” said The Washington Post. “Jacoby Brissett, Patriots game plan the big winners,” said The Boston Globe (in a headline since changed). The Belichick-approved mantra of the Patriots has long been “do your job,” and the sports press confirmed that, yes, the jobs had been done. Players stayed the course and kept to their lanes, no brilliance necessary.

If the Patriots are not only the NFL’s most accomplished organization, lately, but also its most representative—that is, if they’ve achieved all they have because they recognize and embody football’s characteristics more fully than anybody else—then nights like Thursday, and the subsequent reaction to them, can make you think about the appeal of the game. The NFL’s detractors tend to focus on its violence, but it is also relentlessly hierarchical. A few people, the coaches and maybe the quarterback, get to strategize, and the rest recite what they’ve drilled over the week. Whereas other sports tend to celebrate the collaborative aspects, football teams hew to the corporate model—go out, do this, come back for further instruction—with their success largely dependent on the thoroughness of the directives. Players tend to meet the corporate end as well, laid off with the minimum allowable severance.

Why is America’s most popular sport the one that looks the most like work? The answer may be in the question. It is an increasingly busy and regimented country, a corporate country, and the game fits the times. (Baseball, by comparison, seems unaccountably idyllic, a trait that charms some and bores others). Football has a job-like clarity to its stakes, a task that needs accomplished, and obstacles in the way. In the way of the workplace TV show, individual struggle plays out against a backdrop of institutional order; Brissett’s crash-course in the New England offense, breathlessly reported on by national and local media outlets, resembled nothing so much as a courtroom drama A-plot involving a green lawyer. And as in those shows, characters can cycle through so long as the institution remains.

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Brissett’s first career touchdown, on Thursday night, came when he faked a handoff, darted around the edge, and ran 27 yards to the corner of the end zone. After he celebrated with his teammates, he returned to the sideline and handed the ball to Belichick. CBS, the network airing the game, didn’t miss the moment. Foreshadowing the analysis to come after the final whistle, the announcer Jim Nantz highlighted the Patriots’ famous structure. “His first touchdown, he gives the ball to the coach,” Nantz said, chuckling at the symbolic passing-along of credit.

On Friday, news broke that Brissett had also gotten injured, tearing a ligament in his thumb at some point the evening before and putting the Patriots in a still tougher spot. Even if they lose to the Buffalo Bills next Sunday in the last game before Brady’s return, though, their time without him will have proven an unqualified triumph. After Brady gets back, those first four weeks will take on the feeling of an overture to the New England season, a demonstration of the team’s tenets of responsibility and line-toeing. They will also have served as a reminder, though, of the bedrock of the NFL’s popularity. The players come and go. The work stays the same.