It wasn't easy shaking off my Red Sox depression yesterday; I'll admit I was still pouting right up until Steve and I pulled in to the parking lot at Gillette Stadium, rolled down the window to pay, and the first whiff of charcoal, propane and grilling meat of not only the afternoon but the year hit my nostrils.
The wonderful thing about being a fan of both football and baseball is that there are virtually no similarities between either the sports or their attached subcultures--and so each one is an effective palette-cleanser for the other. Yesterday, I marveled at just how diametrically opposite everything about the Pats preseason game is from the Red Sox Experience--from the drive in over a particularly desolate strip of Rte 1 as opposed to through the maniacal traffic jams of Kenmore Square, Comm. Ave and Beacon St, to the elaborate camps maintaining self-sufficiency with their own supplies of food and drink, as opposed to the only options being an overpriced hot dog from inside the ballpark or an equally overpriced meal at one of the surrounding restaurants. There are no restaurants in the vicinity of Gillette Stadium, unless you count the End Zone Motel or perhaps the Burger King about a half mile up the highway.
It was also a welcome diversion from the psychological torture of the AL East division this year just to look at the sheer mind-boggling range of tailgating techniques on display around us. We saw people lifting grills that would be overkill in an average back yard out of pickup trucks; one tribe even had two cooks tending to their widowmaker--one grilling up chicken on the gridiron, and the other stir-frying vegetables in a wok on an attached rangetop burner. Another party nearby had brought a sturdy, semipermanent-looking flagpole with them, from which they flew the American, Irish and Patriots flags, while yet another group set up around the open hatch of an SUV featured a sign declaring their territory the PIRATE'S PUB.
Then there were the guys who pulled in next to us, whose entire tailgate consisted of perching on the edges of the bed of their ratty pickup truck and cracking open a six-pack of Bud. And the guys across from them, who appeared content to ingest mostly MGD and filterless cigarettes rather than much in the way of food items.
But the most memorable tailgate of all belonged to the people across from us, who set up two canvas directors' chairs and a chic Brookstone portable table in front of their SUV, removed a styrofoam cooler from the vehicle and from there proceeded to lay out a spread of white wine, breadsticks, gourmet crackers, honest-to-God brie, and fruit.
It was probably the first and last time I will see a plate of fruit at a tailgate at Gillette Stadium beyond lime slices for Coronas. Unreal.
By the time we'd hiked up the ramp to our seats on the third deck (lower down several rows, this year, than in seasons previous), and were awaiting the introduction of the Patriots office while "Thunderstruck" blared on the stadium's sound system, I had all but forgotten the Red Sox. I wouldn't totally leave them behind during the Patriots game--several conversations going on around me helped make sure of that--but it was a welcome salve for my raw psyche yesterday to watch the Patriots thrash the Arizona Cardinals, 30-3.
It would've been 37-3 if Matt Cassell and the B team hadn't taken a knee well in Cardinals territory at the end of the fourth quarter, too.
Overall, it was what you'd expect from a preseason game--a listless crowd and a largely empty stadium by the third quarter. I was also surprised to find myself missing the cold as much as I did; I guess I never realized how much a part of the football atmosphere that bite in the air really is.
About the only thing the stadium came alive for aside from touchdown-scoring plays was the appearance of Junior Seau on the Jumbo-Tron, standing on the sidelines dressed to play though he never did (despite an entire section's determined chanting of "We want Joon-yah"). He wore #55, which I really think should not be allowed this soon after the departure of Willie McGinest, if only because it will confuse me, but of course I can't expect Bill Belichick to really give a damn about my emotions or my confusion.
I had been expecting more of a contest than I might have in past years with the Cardinals--between the signing of Leinart and Edgerrin James, the opening of a new stadium, and an overall feel of resurgence with that franchise, I was under the impression that these perennial whipping boys of the NFL would be putting up a fight this time. But in the end, that wasn't the case.
I was also surprised at how smoothly several aspects of the Patriots' game were going already, particularly the running and the kicking game. The running game this year will have astonishing depth in New England, between Corey Dillon, back for another season, and the newly-drafted Lawrence Mulroney, who ripped off two ten-plus yard runs yesterday (although the pessimist / realist in me has already picked Mulroney as this year's Promising Patriots Phenom Who Gets Hurt. Think about it: when was the last time a young star player brand-new to the Patriots wasn't hurt before the season really got under way? It certainly wasn't in the last few years--think Roosevelt Colvin and Benjamin Watson). Even Kevin Faulk looked sharp in a kind of hybrid runningback / receiver role while working with Brady, and on the B team, Heath Evans gained more yards than any of those higher on the depth chart, and not all of his runs were easy or obvious.
As for the kicking game, I expected to find a total mess, given the departure of Adam Vinatieri and a mini-controversy between Martin Gramatica and rookie Stephen Gostkowski (it is going to take me the entire season to learn his name, by the way--until then I will probably refer to him more often than not as The Big Lebowski). But Gostkowski hit every kick, including two field goals and every PAT. I was somewhat shocked to be reminded watching this that on most NFL teams, kicker is not among the most important positions or among the most famous players on the team.
Add defense, too, to the list of pleasant surprises. Both Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart looked totally lost--Warner threw interceptions, while Leinart was forced to run for his life, capturing a couple of first downs but also the ire of his coach. A Patriots defensive squad that boasted almost no one with whom New England fans are on a first-name basis stuffed Edgerrin James and created several turnovers. If they're doing this well already, it will be something to see when Bruschi, Seymour and especially, especially Rodney Harrison are all playing, too.
Oh my God. Rodney Harrison. I keep forgetting about him--not because you're not special to me, Rodney, but because I've had to put him out of my mind for the last year. But then I keep remembering, too, and being psyched enough to want to head-butt somebody. And it was a thrill, too, on the offensive side, to see Dan Koppen and my personal favorite, Matty Light, also back in business again.
The big story of the game, of course, was the improvement shown by Matt Cassell, who at times looked (if briefly) downright Bradylike on certain reads from scrimmage and in terms of his general mastery of the offense. Brady and Cassell threw to a combined 16 receivers in their shared game yesterday.
After the game, an incredulous Belichick paused during his press conference when asked who was responsible for Cassell's improvement, as if stunned that he actually had to answer the question. Finally, he said tersely, "Matt." (By his silence afterward, he also offered, "Duh".)
I guess maybe the media can be forgiven, given the Murphy's law to which we are accustomed on the Red Sox side, for asking what amounts to, "How the hell are you guys doing this?"
But like I said, football and baseball could not be more different. In football, a single smart, strong-willed coach can develop individual players into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. In football, on any given Sunday, as they say, any team can mount an attack that outwits a technically superior opponent. Most importantly, in football, the team to which I am attached kicked some serious ass last night.
Even if it was success by proxy, I really, really needed to see that this weekend.
Flickr photoset starts here.