On Sunday, the New England Patriots met their bitter rivals, the New York Jets, for the third time this season, with the winner advancing to the AFC Championship game. The Pats had only lost two games all season, were unbeaten at Gillette Stadium, and were heavy favorites to not only beat the Jets but to go all the way to and win the Super Bowl in Dallas in early February.
But it didn't go according to plan. Bill Belichick's team played poorly, the Jets played well, and the result was a shocking 28-21 loss by New England to Rex Ryan's Jets.
As painful as the loss has been for Pats fans, it nevertheless provides a great "teachable moment" for parents to talk about with their young athletes around the dinner table.
For me, the way the game played out furnished a lesson about the importance of going into a game, especially of this importance, as a unified, cohesive and mentally strong team. As is true in all sports, being mentally prepared is just as important as being physically prepared, and can often be the difference, as I believe it was on Sunday.
No one - least of all Coach Belichick - will admit it, but I think the Pats weren't mentally prepared. because they got distracted when Belichick benched a key member of the team, wide receiver Wes Welker, for the first offensive series of the game, for comments he had made to the press earlier in the week; a press conference during which he made 11 references to Jets coach Rex Ryan's alleged foot fetish.
Thrown off their game by a benching - however temporary - of one of their own star players, the Patriots never did get into a groove. "It was lack of execution,'' sighed a morose quarterback Tom Brady after the game. "In order to score points, you must consistently put together plays. We could never do that, and find a rhythm.''
Initially, I thought that coach Belichick may have had made the right move, one intended to send his team a strong message that he did not think Welker's actions were as amusing as most people who heard them thought they were at the time. For a no-nonsense coach like Belichick, Welker's antics, which I am sure were intended as a way to break the tension in the build-up to the game and a humorous response to the torrent of taunting and smashy-trashy mouthing the Jets had been dishing out all week, warranted a response. But perhaps it would have been better to deal with the breach of etiquette internally, as Red Sox manager, Terry Francona, did on numerous occasions when Manny Ramirez acted inappropriately.
As game time approached, I began to develop a strong sense of foreboding that something bad (from a Pats' fan standpoint) was about to happen: a feeling that meting out such a punishment for inappropriate behavior wasn't the right thing to do, and was likely to backfire. Not only did the punishment not fit the "crime" but I was worried that it would distract the team so much that it wouldn't be mentally prepared for the Jets.
And it did.
I could understand how a coach at the high school level might be justified in benching a player shooting off his mouth to teach him and the rest of his players a lesson. But benching a professional player who has been a vital member of a team all season? Was it a smart move to send him to the bench with his tail between his legs and deprive Tom Brady of his favorite target? Was that the best way to start a game, or did it say to the Jets that their words had had the desired effect; that they had gotten under the skin of the Pats players? Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the Welker incident is something we all learned as a child on the playground when someone was teasing us: that sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us?
What do you think? Did the coach do the right thing? Did the Welker comments and subsequent benching leave the Pats mentally unprepared for the game? What is the lesson of this story to impart to your kids?
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.