Sometimes, it’s not about loyalty

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Since the New England Patriots’ loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 52, I’ve been feeling strange. It’s not the depressing feeling that you get when you think this was the best chance your team had and it’s all over. It’s not surreal. It’s a tangible emptiness that I struggle to describe. It’s nothing like 2008 or 2012. The pain of this loss is somehow a mild withdrawal from the winning drug, yet I call myself a Patriots fan.

It’s as if after trailing by 25 in last year’s Super Bowl and coming back to beat the Atlanta Falcons was Tom Brady’s and New England’s crowning achievement, so repeating this season would have just been a cherry on top. Somehow, my loyalty to the Pats had me feeling indifferent.

Losing in the Super Bowl should probably be the most depressing thing because of how apparently close to glory my team came, but this time it just isn’t.

With Brady and Bill Belichick at the helm, it’s become the norm, and in fairness to all the fans that give me dirty looks when I walk around with a Pats jersey on, it is a bit sickening to see one team dominate the NFL like the Patriots have done over the past two decades.

But after the game, it is hard to imagine Belichick doing anything but figuring out what the team must do to succeed again next season. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has already confirmed his departure for the head coach job for the Detroit Lions, and it is likely that Belichick will be losing his other right-hand man — offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — to another head coaching vacancy.

The Pats might possibly even lose star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who neither confirmed nor denied a question about his possible retirement, but looked visibly shaken when the question was asked.

In considering these possible departures from the team, as well as many others, I must ask the age-old question: How should loyalty mix with sports?

To me, it used to be all about the narrative of one’s career.

LeBron James’ was tarnished (and eventually resurrected) when he left Cleveland ringless after proclaiming himself “King James.” Kevin Durant became the biggest snake of all time when he left Oklahoma City for the team that beat his own in game seven to get to the NBA Finals.

But I’m starting to think that career narrative doesn’t actually matter.

If McDaniels and Patricia accept head-coaching jobs elsewhere, how can anybody blame them? They’re just doing what’s best for their careers and lives, after both serving the Patriots for years. If Gronk were to retire at the young age of 28, could anybody really call him disloyal? The man has given his body up time and time again for the success of this team.

But moreover, it’s hard to use the word “loyalty” in a league such as the NFL, where almost every decision is a business one. The unexplained benching of Malcolm Butler in yesterday’s game? It was described as a decision strictly concerning gameplan.

After he stayed with the team this past offseason despite the signing of Stephon Gilmore, he was benched for the biggest game, and the results of this decision were blatantly obvious. Is he supposed to stay with the team this coming offseason, just because of loyalty?

If loyalty isn’t there from management, it certainly shouldn’t be required of players or coaches when their contracts end.

Ironically, the only people who are really expected to be loyal in this business are the fans. But even for them, I can empathize with jumping ship when things aren’t going right — when the monotony of defeat is too much to handle.

It’s rare that loyalty fits in the sports world, and especially the NFL. The Kobe Bryant- and Derek Jeter-type stories are especially rare. Nonetheless, they are just that ─ stories ─ and we are fans watching them unfold. But that doesn’t mean we should expect consistent swan-song endings. Our favorite players and coaches are human too and have career decisions to make.

Let’s leave it at that. For now.


Vikram Muller writes the Tuesday column about current events in professional sports. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @v_muller26