There is just something about rooting against a team isn’t there? Sure, there is joy in watching your own team win. But there’s an extra tinge of satisfaction when that lot loses. For the last two decades, that evil empire has been the New England Patriots. Unprecedented success. Unprecedented scandals.
But with the Patriots dynasty on its last, wheezing breath, the league is in danger of losing its national match-up maker. And it is those national villains who make ratings boom. Fans want to see their team go through that team. Neutrals want to cheer against them. So who will step up to take New England’s place?
New England Patriots
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OK, maybe we haven’t seen the last of them. New England’s run is coming to an end, but it’s not over quite yet. There’s a world in which Tom Brady skedaddles this offseason and the Patriots enter rebuild mode. There’s also a more likely one: the Patriots roll it back for another season, replenish a threadbare roster, and are one of the best teams in the league for another year or two, leading to even more frustration for the neutrals. When will this thing be over?
There’s also a third path. The best way for the Patriots to recapture that sense of antagonism would be to rebuild and go again without Brady. The Patriots with Brady are dispiriting enough at this point, but at the age of 42, it’s clear the end is in sight. If New England moved on from Brady and added a young, solid quarterback like, say, Teddy Bridgewater, and went on to win another division title and another AFC crown, the collective brains of NFL fans from New Jersey to Los Angeles would explode.
No team is better poised to rip off a dynastic run than the Super Bowl champions. They have the best quarterback in the league, a smart front office, and a creative coach. The only issue for sports fans: they’re too nice.
There was universal goodwill for head coach Andy Reid finally winning a Super Bowl. Patrick Mahomes is broadly acclaimed as more than a mere quarterback; he’s having a Michael Jordan-like effect on the sport, changing the paradigm of what we think is even possible.
The Chiefs have already survived scandal without too much national scorn. They’ve been happy to add players with shady pasts in pursuit of winning. That, if you reside in Dallas, would have been a major deal. KC got a pass. Perhaps with increased scrutiny, those issues will form a bigger part of the national dialogue. But for now, the Reid-Mahomes halo has enveloped everything.
An on-field scandal is probably the only thing that could push the Chiefs close to Patriots territory. Maybe we find out Mahomes is truly an extraterrestrial. Or that his arm is literally bionic.
There has long been pushback against the self-proclamation of Dallas being “America’s Team”. If the Cowboys were ever good again, as in three-Super-Bowls-in-four-years good, they would ascend to a whole new stratosphere of resentment.
To generalize: sports fans do not like arrogance, earned or unearned. No NFL team, as a whole, has had a bigger collective ego than the Doug Pederson-era Eagles. There’s a real smarty-pants vibe about the whole operation. Carson Wentz helps mask some of that, but from accusations that other teams don’t have enough fun to the infamously corrosive fanbase, to the head coach’s entire I’ve-figured-this-football-thing-out attitude there’s a pervasive smugness in Philly.
The national media, who often help set the X-against-the-world tone, were delighted by the Eagles’ narrative when they won the Super Bowl in 2018. Nick Foles was such a great story that he overshadowed everything. The tenor will be different if the Eagles win big in 2020 or beyond.
A wildcard team. The Bills are among a cast of fanbases right now with a disproportionate belief in their quarterback, Josh Allen. If you’ve spent any time in the recesses of NFL Twitter you will know there’s an ongoing feud between the so-called “Bills Mafia” and the football nerds, those who study analytics and breakdown game film. The snark filling the conversation is second to none. Every throw is painstakingly analyzed by both sides and apportioned a career-defining meaning.
It is fantastic theatre. As Allen’s career continues to bloom, he will continue to polarise. If his career hits lift-off, there will still be those in analysts chairs who refuse to relent on their pre-draft position. If Buffalo remains excellent in spite of Allen (and their coach is as good as it gets), then the analysts will continue to take a victory lap.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league office, and the league’s officials could take on this role, as they have during much of the past three seasons – the Deflategate scandal, the quality of officiating, the rule changes, the national anthem controversy, the concussion scandals. How you turn the incompetence of the governors of the game into ratings on game day is an issue, though it did help during the Replacement Ref days. A national audience had to tune in to see if high school officials could really referee a professional game. Spoiler: they could not.
Incompetence at the top level is good for media partners. It provides the likes of ESPN any number of segments, keeps the NFL, its biggest cash cow, as part of the daily conversation. But unlike the Patriots persona, it’s hard for the league itself to turn that into TV ratings and profits.