The American people are uniquely triggered by traits of physiognomy, so let’s start with that dimple. In the face of every one of America’s most hated men there’s a feature that provides the lodestar for a nation’s rage. But neither Donald Trump’s flame-head nor Martin Shkreli’s tripod nose comes close to matching the torrents of bile and resentment generated by Tom Brady’s chin dimple. Faced with a smorgasbord of options on which to home its Brady-hate – his Cristiano Ronaldo-like habit of referring to himself as “TB12”, his marriage to a supermodel, his $180m personal fortune, his one-again, off-again bromance with the president, his many crimes, both documented and undocumented, against ice cream – America has instead focused on a small, button-like depression in the flesh of Brady’s chin.
It’s a non-verifiable fact that close to 90% of media previews of this Sunday’s Super Bowl, which most people agree the New England Patriots will win for the sixth time in 17 years, have included some reference to that dimple. A dimple that sums up everything non-Patriots fans (ie every part of America that’s not within a 100-mile radius of Boston) find so detestable about the most successful NFL franchise of our time.
American sporting heroes aren’t supposed to look this good. Joe DiMaggio had bug eyes and funny teeth. Joe Montana looked like he should be running a sandwich shop. But Brady is altogether too perfect, too handsome, too successful, and too good. How can anyone like this attract anything but a nation’s hatred?
There are, of course, myriad other explanations for the unique antipathy that so many in this country feel for the Patriots. There’s the long history of (alleged!) cheating, from Spygate to Deflategate; the gruff spikiness of coach Bill Belichick; the retirement (Deion Branch, Tedy Bruschi) or departure (Adam Vinatieri) of all the vaguely likable players from the Patriots’ first rush of early-century success; the bitter spectacle of a team that’s from the city that gave American independence its originary spark thickening into its own kind of evil empire. Mostly, though, it’s about the winning. And it’s not just the fact the Patriots have won so much that makes them a magnet for a million jealousies and resentments. It’s the way they’ve done it, with a formula for success that should be replicable but is somehow not, and therefore all the more unique and providential, almost religious. Their success is a mystery of timing and luck; a mystery of nature.
Things were not always this way. In the early 1990s the Patriots were something like the Buffalo Bills today: the perennial underdog (or the butt of the league-wide joke, however you prefer to look at it), a hardscrabble team of mostly clueless pluggers and journeymen (yes, they’d reached the Super Bowl in 1986, but they’d been destroyed by the Bears). When Belichick arrived as head coach on the stroke of the new century, the Patriots had momentum – they’d been to the Super Bowl again under Bill “The Big Tuna” Parcells in 1996 – but were still, largely, a work in progress. Belichick threw away the manual on how to win in the NFL, ignoring the received wisdom that said teams needed to pick high in the draft or build their core axis around a star quarterback and a star receiver. Instead, the Patriots became something like value investors in the NFL draft – cleverly going after down-round picks they felt were undervalued, instead of splashing their cash on razzamatazz first-round names – and Belichick set about building a team in which the system, the pattern, were far more important than the individual virtuosity of its brightest lights. This approach was part of a shift across all sports to place data and pattern analysis, rather than a simple reliance on raw talent, at the center of coaching – a shift that included Sabermetrics in baseball, Phil Jackson’s triangle offense in basketball, and today’s fashion for pressing in soccer. The Patriots were the first team in the NFL to fully embrace this analytical turn, and no player better encapsulates it than Brady.