Sportswriting is hard. You’re writing about things that have happened many times before, and on a deadline. The inevitable result is overblown exaggerations, overused cliches, hackneyed player quotes, and generally flaccid writing. Case in point: the Boston Globe’s coverage of the New England Patriots’ come-from-behind victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in yesterday’s AFC Championship game.
We’ve seen this Patriots script before, most notably in the most recent Super Bowl: the Patriots fall behind, time runs down, Tom Brady and whoever happens to be his favored receivers (this time it was Danny Amendola) make incredible plays at exactly the moment they are needed, the officials call just the penalties the Patriots need, and the previously highly competent opponents wet their pants and forget how to play defense. It was fun to watch, except the part where Rob Gronkowski took a vicious hit to the head and reminded all of us that brain damage is a central part of our entertainment. But what can you write that you haven’t written before?
The Boston Globe dedicated an entire section to the game. The writers had to fill it up. That’s a prescription for creating the Super Bowl of cliches along with a few choice insights.
As long as the Patriots have the canonized coupling of Brady and Bill Belichick, like the celebratory confetti, it all falls into place.
The Jaguars knew what happened, how they blew a game they had led, 14-3, in the first half and, 20-10, in the fourth quarter. They also understood they were largely powerless to stop it, like a pebble washed away by a roaring river.
But Jacksonville suffered from the mandatory Foxborough Football Brain Freeze.
Leave it to the Patriots to turn what should be melodrama into monotony.
Columnist Tara Sullivan isn’t quite as extreme as Gasper, but she’s working on it:
It will start there, because as a mark of apparent vulnerability, the black tape [covering Brady’s hand injury] failed spectacularly, no match whatsoever for the greatness of the right hand to which it was affixed, no more able than the Jacksonville defense to stop that hand from spinning two fourth-quarter touchdowns into one more legendary comeback.
Tom Brady is going back to the Super Bowl, not simply carrying his Patriots on his back, but dragging them by his aging and injured right hand,
It will be about that final game-winning drive, about one more fourth-quarter comeback by the All-World, all-time quarterback, about Brady’s preternatural poise and just-about-perfect performance when his team needed it most.
Whew. Hose me off, please.
As we so memorably learned in Bull Durham, players are a lot better at playing than talking. I don’t really blame the players and coaches for their cliched language talking about how great their teammates or competitors are. But I can blame the sportswriters for quoting them. Of course, to be fair, there’s nothing else for them to quote but player cliches.
“Danny’s a tremendous competitor, made some big plays for us,” coach Bill Belichick said. “When you look up ‘good football player’ in the dictionary, his picture is right there beside it.’
[Patriots linebacker] Van Noy simply said, “We needed to get humble and play Patriot football, and we did that.’’
“I think we always have confidence. We really do,” said Brady. “I mean, whether it’s the beginning of the game or toward the end it’s never really over till it’s over with this team. You know, I was proud of the way we fought. It’s a mentally tough team, and we needed a lot of mental toughness today, and we found a way to dig deep and get it done, even on offense without one of our very best players. It was a great win.”
“[We s]tarted playing football,” [Linebacker Kyle Van Noy] said. “There is no excuse for what happened in the first half. I don’t know what we were doing, but we figured it out, and we played Patriot football.”
“Make the play,” Gilmore said, running through his thought process. “I kind of knew he was going to run it. I just did whatever I could to not let him catch it.”
“It wasn’t a big adjustment game that you needed to do; it was needing to play aggressively,” safety Devin McCourty said. “We needed to come off of blocks, and we needed to tackle better, and we did that. That, to me, was the biggest change. It wasn’t really, ‘Let’s play this defense or that defense.’ We kind of stuck to our calls. To me, we just played better as a group.”
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia gathered the defense on the sideline. “He just told us we’ve got to go,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said. “We’ve got to apply pressure.”
“Just gotta keep fighting,” [receiver Brandin] Cooks said. “. . . Just got to fight, make sure you get the ball or nobody does. Anything extra is just the cherry on top.” . . . “We work for this, and grind in practice to be able to earn [Brady’s] trust and it’s great to be able to be in that position,” Cooks said.
Patriots Safety Duron Harmon: “[Brandin Cooks has] been laser-focused since he’s got here. Been consistent. Works as hard as anybody on this team. Stays here late. Gets here early. He’s been consistent and that’s why he’s able to have this big game today.”
“I reflect my thoughts at the end of the season, but right now, I’m focused on the next game,” Cooks said. “Not thinking about what my expectations were gonna be.”
“I mean, that’s what we do; we’ve been in that situation before and you know, we play for each other and it shows out on the field,’’ said linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who had nine tackles, including a 7-yard sack of Blake Bortles on the final drive. “If you watch that fourth quarter, we played like a family, and that’s what it’s all about.’’
Special teams player Matthew Slater said . . . “That’s who Danny is. His character is consistent, his work ethic is consistent. When he comes up big in clutch moments for us, it’s just a reflection of his character.”
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” receiver Chris Hogan said. “I don’t think there was much going to keep him from playing this game. You know you would have to take his right hand away or something, and I don’t know, he’d probably still find a way.”
When you’ve got to write in a hurry, the cliches are always there to help. No sportswriter is immune:
Christopher L. Gasper: Bortles (23 of 36 for 293 yards and a TD) and the Jags simply lacked the pedigree to prevent the Patriots, football’s indomitable dynasty, from advancing to Super Bowl LII in Minnesota.
Tara Sullivan: And what happened Sunday will go down among Brady’s best performances, that began by ignoring the injury, that endured by offsetting a head injury to Rob Gronkowski, that blossomed by establishing the connections with Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, that ultimately buried the pesky Jaguars by sheer force of will.
Jim McBride: If this was indeed Matt Patricia’s swan song at Gillette, he went out on a high note.
Anthony Gulizia: Since joining the Patriots this season, Cooks has endeared himself to teammates with his work ethic. He has seamlessly fit into the culture preached in the Patriots locker room.
Ben Volin: Amendola came up clutch not once, not twice, but three times in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win.
Chad Finn: Brady does what Brady does, which is perform under the most intense pressure with unimaginable focus and poise. . . . And one more comeback that would be the greatest achievement in most quarterbacks’ careers, but for Brady is merely one more unbelievable moment turned reality.
Despite the pressure, some of the writers, players, and coaches came up with original ways to describe the game. I savor these nuggets, because they are so ununusual:
“I mean, look, Tom did a great job and he’s a tough guy,” [Coach Bill] Belichick said. “We all know that, alright? But, we’re not talking about open-heart surgery here.”
“It’s hard to describe it,” [Jaguar Myles] Jack would finally say, long, silent seconds after being asked if it felt like his upstart Jaguars had let this one get away, unable to hang onto their 20-10 fourth-quarter lead. “On one hand, you’re like, ‘OK, we could have won the game.’ On the other hand, it’s like, ‘OK, Tom Brady is Tom Brady. We just got Tom Brady’d again.’ ”
Christopher L. Gasper: The Patriots let the Jaguars flirt with victory and twirl her around the dance floor. Then they swooped in at the last minute and left with victory on their arm and a knowing smirk.
McBride: Leonard Fournette also ran out of gas — and into a lot of Patriots — in the second half. Though he finished with 24 carries for 76 yards and a score, the rookie bulldozer had just 36 yards on 13 carries over the final 30 minutes.
Two articles seemed wittier than usual. Chad Finn had an interesting way of describing what happened:
They stuffed running back Leonard Fournette when the Jaguars tried to run down the clock. They beleaguered Bortles with their blitzes and coverages when the game was on the line. James Harrison, the Steelers refugee who lasted longer this postseason than they did, and Trey Flowers suddenly began having regular meetings on the opposite sides of Bortles’ torso.
Brandin Cooks, whose GPS never seems quite right when he’s tracking long passes, dropped a pass in the second half that might have gone for the tying touchdown, or at least set it up.
Oh, by the way: Brady’s hand was fine.
And Dan Shaughnessy, the dean of Boston sportswriters, of course found unique but not overblown ways to describe what he saw as the inevitable triumph of the Patriots:
There was nothing easy about Sunday afternoon’s rock fight against the Jaguars.
But Jacksonville started to do stupid things near the end of the first half and spent the final two periods throwing sandbags at Brady in hopes of stalling the inevitable wave that was about to crash over the heads of the visitors.
We’ve been watching this for 17 years and there’s always another Brady comeback, another Tuck Rule, replay reversal, or dumb decision by the opposition. When the clock hits 0:00 and the confetti flies, the ever-better-and-smarter-than-you Patriots hoist the championship trophy over their heads while the stunned visitors spit out pieces of their broken luck.
Lucky for you, you probably don’t have to write about the same thing over and over again on a deadline. But no matter what you write, please keep the cliches and overblown metaphors in check. If Dan Shaughnessy can find an original way to write about a football game after all these years, why can’t you?