Back to football

They’re back. Those rollicking brigands who light up your lives from Labor Day to Groundhog Day have returned, bigger, stronger, swifter and nastier than ever.

The National Football League has never been healthier, its players never wealthier, the game never more popular. And America has rarely had a greater need of a lengthy escape from the realities of the daily dirge. You might call it “a perfect storm.” It’s an epic season that the NFL and its apologists gleefully predict. Affirmation has been immediate.

The week before the season started, the defending world champion New York Giants lost their leader on defense, Osi Umenyiora, for the entire season when his knee was ravaged in a pointless exhibition. So much for the Giants’ hopes of repeating.

Then, in the first half of the first game, the reigning runners-up from Foxborough lost their leader on offense and on-field architect of their incipient dynasty when Tom Brady -- so long a son of the football gods leading a charmed life -- departed with his knee having been snapped like a bloody twig. Well at least the game was meaningful.

In the twisted world of the NFL where triage defines the canons of manhood these were wondrous signs presaging a season to remember. Nothing redeems the cause like ritual sacrifice. And nothing levels the playing field like horrific injury to a would-be champion. Maybe in the end nobody will be left standing.

So Brady is gone; only for “the season,” they say. But you wonder how much fire in the belly he’ll have for the legalized mayhem of the NFL when and if his knee repairs. A sophisticated man of many diversions it’s not as if he doesn’t have options. Moreover, what has he got left to prove on the aptly termed “gridiron.”

His was a rags to riches story of the sort that one rarely hears now that computers so accurately assess the worth of everyone who plays games by the age of 12. Somehow he slipped under that infernal radar and blossomed quite out of nowhere to be one of the great champions of his era. It was a fabulous story even if he hadn’t developed so much elan along the way while hobnobbing with popes and presidents and hotfooting with starlets and supermodels. Brady was the whole package; pure box office.

And even as he became the sort of dandy the NFL’s Neanderthals delight in snapping like a matchstick, he commanded huge respect. Because for all of his style and celebrity Brady remained very much a warrior. When he went down, several Chiefs say they heard him groan in a way that instantly informed them he was badly hurt. Their sorrow seemed genuine. Even the chap who pole-axed him was saddened.

But it was, of course, inevitable. Brady had long been on borrowed time. He’d started 128 straight games, third longest uninterrupted stretch in NFL history. He was bucking the odds in heavy defiance of the certitudes of the football actuaries. Is there the chance that was much on his mind? He’d recently seemed a tad diffident while nursing such issues as his “sore” foot. Maybe he’d lost some spark.

For Boss Bill Belichick, the challenge will be monumental. But you could sense him warming to it even as he was announcing that Brady was done. His grimace was faintly Machiavellian; a good sign. You could almost hear the wheels and cogs grinding. I wouldn’t bet against him.

Meanwhile, you shouldn’t read too much into the Patriots triumph in the opener with Matt Cassel, the lifelong backup from USC, at the helm. The Chiefs are widely ranked among the league’s also-rans so can the Pats be that good if they are life and death against such a patsy playing in their own friendly playpen amidst much ballyhoo? That was not in the script. Las Vegas had posted the Pats 4:1 favorites to win it all, which is interesting when you consider the Giants are posted at 25:1. Of course, all that was decreed before Brady got whacked.

But they still have Boss Bill Belichick roaming the sidelines, like a mad monk and as usual he has luck on his side. The schedule early on couldn’t be more favorable. Save for week two’s encounter with the blood-rival Jets -- allegedly revived under the tutelage of Old man Favre -- the Patriots have just one scorching test between now and November and that will be against the usually overrated Chargers in mid-October. Along the way they meet only more patsies and their bye-week comes fortuitously early. It may just give Belichick time to sort out this mess. Overall, it’s an immensely favorable schedule. Somehow they landed dates with every crummy team in the league: the Raiders, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals, and Chiefs; all of whom seem destined to have losing records. It’s the league’s softest schedule. Clan Kraft’s influence is endless.

And it’s the starting point of conjuring a scenario that has the Pats surviving without Sir Galahad at Quarterback. While somewhat improved, the AFC East, is hardly stacked with juggernauts. You can see the Pats scrambling into the post-season with a buck and wing and once they get there the conventional wisdom that always gives Belichick an edge still obtains.

Does the team make the quarterback or does the quarterback make the team? That’s the eternal football question and we’re about to have a textbook explication of the point. In his first trial by fire, Matt Cassel may not have lit up the skies. But he performed with reasonable competence, hints of maturity, and sufficient calm and that’s all that you can ask from the backup. He could grow. Belichick, after all, has a history of working wonders with unheralded, low-round, QB’s nobody else wanted. On the other hand, you may end up wishing that everyone’s favorite emergency hired gun, Vinny Testaverde, was five years younger.

Even before the ugly turn of events in the opener, Belichick might have been excused for feeling besieged. In ways some might view curious, this season was being seen as something of a referendum on him. National media obsesses on the hope that the fabulous near-dynasty he’s built with brilliance is teetering. Don’t underestimate the widespread pleasure that the Pats loss to the Giants last February brought to many.

It has gotten worse. A major Internet service provider -- AOL reaching tens of millions daily -- is currently conducting a poll asking the not so lovely question, “Who is the most despised sports figure in the country?” Among the nominees are unpleasant characters such as James Dolan, Daniel Snyder, Larry Brown, Ozzie Guillen, Bill Laimbeer. And yes, your esteemed coach, Boss Belichick, is also on their ballot. Yikes!

The vibes surely have not permeated New England, which remains in love. But nationally this is not a popular team. A keen desire on the part of many to see Belichick get his total comeuppance for that tired “tape-gate” business persists. He’s been punished, but for many that’s not enough. It’s over. It no longer has legs. But it’s amazing how many don’t want to let it go. Envy has much to do with it. So is the perception -- unfair or otherwise -- that the Patriots, under the Boss, have not exactly been classy winners.

Still, for it all to unravel because of a ruinous injury to the remarkable Brady who had given his entire game a rather fetchingly cosmopolitan gloss would be an unkind cut by any reasonable standard. And the possibility obviously is strong that when Brady’s knee crumbled so did the once and future dynasty.

That seems already to be the conventional wisdom. But I’ve never trusted that sucker. So I wouldn’t bet against them. Nor would I bet that we will soon again see Tom Brady trot onto the old and aptly termed “gridiron,” which Webster defines as “a framework of metal bars on which to broil meat and fish.” Amen to that, says I.