Wedge Issue: Replacement refs could leave scars

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Wedge Issue: Replacement refs could leave scars

At this rate, Bill Belichick is going to wind up on this week's injury report with a tongue.

How much longer will he be able to bite down and resist unleashing an expletive-laden torrent of disbelief at what's passing for professional football in 2012?

The debate over who's right between the owners and locked-out officials is moot to the men who spend each week scheming, planning and pouring their lives into trying to win on Sunday.

And it's moot to the employees underneath the coaches - the assistants and the players - from whom the head coaches demand performance and focus from under unworkable conditions.

To the coaches, the game matters. A mud-wrestle over a pension plan? Indignation over locked-out officials who've gotten too haughty and need to be shown who's boss? The brand, the brand, the brand? Expansion into Europe? An overseas game in London? Thursday night games for every team?

That's not the coach's department. The game is where it begins and ends.

So now why are they banging their heads against the wall to prepare for games that will be butchered and left to the whims of some guy whose job interview must have consisted of proving he could blow a whistle and throw a Kleenex?

The inability of the owners and officials to come to an agreement has invaded the coach's work environment and - by extension - is putting coaches jobs at risk. Sunday night's game against the Ravens was altered throughout by the replacement officials. Monday night's game between the Packers and Seahawks? Even worse.

Phantom calls beget calls that are ignored, beget retribution, beget disrespect, beget chaos.

By the end of it Sunday night, Belichick was pinwheeling around the field, clutching in vain at an official's arm while trying to get an answer to what the hell was going on.

I wouldn't want to be Robert Kraft right now. He's got the greatest coach of this generation, arguably of all-time, having to mea culpa on Monday afternoon for grabbing one of the stand-in boobs that Kraft and the other owners have put in position to make a mockery of the game.

Bill Belichick has "screw you" money and he's got "screw you" influence. And he knows that Kraft - who had the clout to bring the players and owners through last summer's lockout - could probably hasten this resolution in a hurry if he brought his considerable influence to bear on the situation.

But admitting defeat now, admitting that they underestimated the importance of the real officials (as I did until last week), is not in their DNA.

They will not be forced to acquiesce at the point of a media or fan bayonet. The owners and the league are going to iron-fist this thing, first with the officials and second with any coach or player who doesn't toe the line.

Sunday night's game between two teams that will quite likely jockey for playoff seeding and the right to host home playoff games and get to the Super Bowl was left in the hands of hall monitors.

Remember that if and when the Patriots are on the road in Baltimore or Houston in the AFC Championship game. Because you can believe Bill Belichick will.

And with millions on the line and a chance to advance the "brand" with a trip to a Super Bowl, you can bet Robert Kraft will too.

As he steps aside temporarily, Tom Brady is ever the competitor

As he steps aside temporarily, Tom Brady is ever the competitor

FOXBORO – When Tom Brady got to the Patriots in 2000, he didn’t hand-wring about offending 28-year-old Drew Bledsoe, a three-time Pro Bowler who’d quarterbacked six NFL playoff games, including a Super Bowl.

Instead, the 199th overall pick had the gall to put Bledsoe on notice. Not that Bledsoe even seemed to notice. The first overall pick in 1993, Bledsoe couldn’t have felt too threatened by a sixth-round, part-time starter from Michigan with chubby cheeks, a bowl haircut and a soft, saggy physique.

But Brady’s aim was in plain sight. This from Charlie Pierce’s 2006 Brady biography called, Moving the Chains:

Brady reported for training camp that spring knowing the 2000 season was essentially going to be a redshirt year for him. He anticipated hardly any playing time but he determined to take the long view of his career. One evening, as he was leaving the team’s practice facility with a pizza under his arm, he ran into Robert Kraft, the team’s owner. Kraft is a billionaire businessman and he’s become one of the NFL’s most influential owners, but he’s also a fan, sometimes arguably to the point of public gaucherie. This day he was just leaving his office at about 7:45.

“So this skinny beanpole guy walks out and he comes up to me and he says, ‘Mr. Kraft? I’m Tom Brady. We haven’t met yet, but I’m the best decision this franchise has ever made.’

“And it was weird the way he said it, you know? It wasn’t like he was arrogant, but it was more like he was very confident. It was almost matter-of-fact the way he said it. I wasn’t offended at all.’

Adorable story. If it weren’t for the fact the maniac Brady believed what he said.

An accomplished high school baseball player, at the highly competitive Junipero Serra High School, who was drafted by the Expos, Brady eschewed both baseball and West Coast football. He wanted to prove himself against the very best in the country, he told me many years ago, and believed Michigan was where that would happen.

But Brady wound up buried on the depth chart when the Wolverines iced Gary Moeller, head coach when Brady came aboard, and replaced him with Lloyd Carr. After a bout of appendicitis left Brady 25 pounds lighter and Michigan started pursuing Drew Henson during Brady’s sophomore year, he wanted to transfer to Cal.

He sought counseling with Greg Harden, an associate AD and advice dispenser. Harden tough-loved Brady through it. By the time Brady got to Foxboro, he’d built up a pretty thick hide and had a far better understanding of what it was like to compete for a job than he had when he arrived at Michigan.

Meanwhile, here’s Bledsoe. Starting quarterback at Walla Walla High by the age of 16, christened the starter at Washington State in 1991 when he was 19 and two years later named the starter in New England. Never had an occasion arisen when Bledsoe was anything but the chosen one. So who could be surprised if Bledsoe didn’t perceive his job as being in any kind of jeopardy.

Bledsoe was a seal in a shark tank and didn’t even know it.

I asked Brady on Tuesday about the dynamic with Bledsoe when he arrived in 2000.

“That was a long time ago, but in college you have maybe a little bit of that [position competition],” Brady began. “That was probably right out of college where there are a lot of guys close to your age that you’re competing with, but you’re still real good friends with. Some of my best friends were Scot Loeffler, who is the offensive coordinator at BC [Boston College] now, and Brian Griese who has been a good friend of mine, and Jason Kapsner who was one of my buddies, Scott Dreisbach and Drew Henson. We were all friends. We played ping pong and we played pool together, but there was a healthy competition on the field too. We all wanted to play, but at quarterback, one guy gets to play. Then you get fresh out of college, and then I was probably – with Drew [Bledsoe], I was the same way. I used to hang out with Drew all the time. We played golf together; I’d be at his house for dinner.”

There was nothing Machiavellian about Brady announcing to the owner his intentions on rewriting Patriots history and then setting out to do it. It’s the way it’s supposed to be done. Brady, in actuality, was pretty damn forward about it. And Bledsoe accommodated.

“I was trying to learn a lot from Drew, and I learned a lot from Drew because he was such a phenomenal player and leader,” said Brady. “He was tough, disciplined. It meant so much to him. I think I learned a lot from him, I learned a lot from Damon [Huard], I learned a lot form John Friesz when I was first here. I think I used all those people as great examples because they were already pros. I had a lot to learn. I just came in, tried to do the best I could do with the experiences that I already had and then tried to transition those to a different level, a different caliber of playing, and just do the best I could do. It’s easy to do when you love what you do.”

It was Brady’s good fortune to join a team where the once-rising-star quarterback had plateaued and grown world-weary. And to have a head coach in Bill Belichick who not only loved to see players “establish their level of play” annually, but loathed seeing a sense of entitlement. It also didn’t hurt that Belichick had designed defenses that routinely made Bledsoe look inept from 1994 through 1999. 

The path for Brady was there. Bledsoe helped lay it out. Brady had the guts to take it.

All of this backstory to present you with the contemporary comparison between Tom Brady in 2000 and Jimmy Garoppolo in 2016.

If Garoppolo approached Robert Kraft in 2014 after Garoppolo was drafted and said that he would be the best decision the organization ever made, Kraft may have had Jimmy removed for the heresy.

And the nyuk-nyuks that Brady had with Drew – glitter in the AC vents! – weren’t happening with 37-year-old Tom Brady, who’d heard Belichick mention both Brady’s age and contract status when Garoppolo was drafted.

Garoppolo, unassuming, inarguably nice person from Eastern Illinois was now in the shark tank with Brady.

Brady played the first few weeks of that season in a barely controlled rage. After a loss in Kansas City when Jimmy looked delightful in late relief, Brady came back the next week, took his doubters by the metaphorical neck and – over the next few months – choked the life out of them.

Brady has never been more earnest and sincere in his support of Garoppolo than he was Tuesday.

But, as he approaches his month-long suspension, he also wears on his sleeve his love for the game. And it logically follows that he sees as a threat anyone who will be doing his job, whether that threat is reasonable or not.

“I’ve always been blessed to love this sport and love the preparation of this sport as much as I have. It really never feels like work because it’s always a learning experience. I’m still learning every day that I go out there. It’s always fresh when you start because there are always new players, always new schemes, always new plays, new situations to go over. That’s why there’s such a great – that’s why people love the sport. That’s why I love the sport, because it’s so challenging. It’s very humbling, too, because it’s incredibly difficult to perform at a high level every day,” said Brady.

“You’ve got to push yourself and find different ways to motivate yourself over the course of long periods of time,” Brady added, maybe giving a deeper glimpse into what helped him ratchet it up the past few seasons. “It’s easy if you just changed what you did every year. Everything would feel fresh all the time. But when you’ve been doing it for 17 years professionally, and then nine years, I’ve been doing it for 25 years, so I’ve got to keep finding ways to retool and learn and use things as motivation.”

Once, the motivation was easy. Win the job. Then it got harder. Win Super Bowls. Then even harder. Win like no one else has won. Finally, now, the cherry. Win longer and more often than anyone else has ever done. To ensure that happens, there will be no dropping of Tom Brady’s guard during this temporary changing of the guard.