Keeping Score

Is This the Year the New England Patriots Get Fun?

For years, they were dull football blue bloods. Now the Pats are showing signs of lightening up. Why that's good for the game

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Wilfredo Lee / AP

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's virtuoso performance helped lead the team to victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 12, 2011

What’s going on in Foxboro, Mass.? For years, the home of the NFL’s New England Patriots was where fun went to die. The team, under coach Bill Belichick, perfected a brand of intense, win-at-all-costs football that never won the hearts and minds of casual fans as, say, the New Orleans Saints — a team that won the Super Bowl in 2010, inspired a beleaguered city and pulled off a catchy rallying cry (“Who dat?!”). While the Pats have had some electric offensive teams, they never earned an endearing nickname like, say, the Pittsburgh defense of the 1970s (the Steel Curtain) or the turn-of-the-century St. Louis Rams squads (the Greatest Show on Turf).

But now the two biggest (and by biggest, I mean most ridiculous) “controversies” of the first week of the NFL season are coming out of the Patriots’ locker room, and these kerfuffles, far from damning the behavior of New England players, speak instead to the team’s evolving spirit. This year’s New England Patriots have a chance to be — if you’re reading this, Belichick, don’t gasp — fun.

(See photos of being back on the field after the NFL lockout.)

The Patriots are usually entertaining on the field, and this year promises a bumper crop of points. New England’s offense exploded during the Patriots’ 38-24 win over the Miami Dolphins on Monday night, as quarterback Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes and became the 11th QB in history to throw for at least 500 yards in a game. Wide receiver Wes Welker galloped for a 99-yard touchdown catch, sending his fantasy owners into a state of ecstasy and their opponents into abject despair. The aerial assault compelled the Patriots’ newest acquisition at wide receiver, Chad Ochocinco, (who only had one catch for 14 yards) to tweet the next day: “Just waking up after a late arrival, I’ve never seen a machine operate like that n person, to see video game numbers put up n person was WOW.”

And somehow, for the crime of complimenting Brady on his virtuoso performance, Ochocinco got in trouble — at least with a couple of ex-Pats. Former New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi, now an ESPN analyst, ripped into Ochocinco on a Boston radio station; former safety Rodney Harrison later hit the airwaves to back up Bruschi’s comments. Some excerpts of Bruschi’s rambling rant:

“Drop the awe factor, O.K., Ocho, Chad, drop the awe factor. You’re not a fan, all right? You’re not someone who’s on another team or watching TV. You’re not an analyst. You’re a part of it. So get with the program, because obviously you’re not getting it and you’re tweeting because you’re saying, ‘It’s amazing to see’? It’s amazing to see because you don’t understand it! … Stop tweeting and get in your playbook. … Open your eyes and watch some film. That’s what you need to do. If you’re still in awe, that means you don’t get it because you don’t understand it.”

(See TIME’s video with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.)

Whoa. You won’t find a weirder, more illogical media overreaction than that one. Sure, Ochocinco didn’t produce, but his team did steamroll Miami, and all he did was say something nice about a teammate. Can’t a guy put up a few weeks’ worth of bad numbers before you rip him for a tweet that probably took five seconds for him to write?

To be sure, the flamboyant, media-friendly Ochocinco (in 2008, the athlete formerly known as Chad Johnson legally changed his last name to match his jersey number) is an odd fit with the so-called Patriot Way. Belichick’s philosophy demands limited outside distractions, suppression of ego for the good of the team, and secrecy toward the press. Critics quickly bring up the shadier aspects of New England’s approach, like the “Spygate” scandal in which the Patriots were caught filming, from the sidelines, the defensive signals of the New York Jets — a violation of league rules that cost Belichick himself $500,000 in fines and the Patriots both $250,000 and a first-round draft pick. Or Belichick’s habit, especially when the Pats finished 16-0 in 2007, of running up the score on hapless opponents. There’s not much fun in any of that.

But while the Patriot Way has produced astounding regular-season success in recent years, New England hasn’t won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season. Isn’t it time for the old formula to be shaken up a little bit? Why shouldn’t a guy like Ochocinco entertain? His serial tweeting makes him tick. God forbid that he actually tweet something provocative, like his smack talk for New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis before a game in 2009. “Try and cover me!” he wrote. Harrison and Bruschi might collapse in their chairs. The horror!

(Read about how one TIME reporter became a New Orleans Saints fan.)

Brady himself raised eyebrows this week during a talk with reporters. New England hosts the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, and someone asked Brady if he had a message for Patriots fans, whom Brady has long accused of being too quiet during home games. He replied: “Start drinking early. Get nice and rowdy. It’s a 4:15 game. They have a lot of time to get lubed up and come out here and cheer for their home team.”

I’m not condoning public intoxication. The town of Foxboro has ramped up efforts to cut down on drunk driving after events at the stadium. But come on. Brady made a lighthearted comment about his wishes for a rowdy crowd (in a comical attempt at damage control, the Pats insisted that Brady meant to say that fans should drink lots of water). It wasn’t his usual postgame footballspeak: it was the type of thing a normal person would say. And that’s the point. Maybe the Pats are finally loosening up.

(Read about what the NFL can teach teachers.)

We’re not expecting the ’85 Bears here: the Pats won’t be rapping about their Super Bowl chances. But with Ochocinco and a loose Brady airing things out, on and off the field, there’s hope. These may not be the same sour Pats.

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