Jim Nantz watches New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft hold the Lamar Hunt Trophy after the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on January 22, 2017. The Patriots defeated the Steelers 36-17 and advance to play the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in Houston Texas. Photo by John Angelillo/ UPI | License Photo
They might be loath to admit it, but the New England Patriots keep maturing into a latter-day image of their old American Football League rival, the Oakland Raiders. And if the Patriots win Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta falcons next Sunday, they will set the stage to reprise one -- or two -- of the Raiders' most historic events, an awkward moment with the NFL commissioner as they accept the Lombardi Trophy.
As The Sports Xchange's NFL columnist Howard Balzer portrays this possibility, it is almost with "giddy anticipation" that the football world awaits this trophy handoff as perhaps the final act in the Deflategate Drama that cost the Patriots a first- and fourth-round draft choice, $1 million and the loss of quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of this season.
Yet the Patriots' potential moment Sunday, although ripe with anticipation, is but a rewritten chapter of Raiders lore that recalls one post-game celebration following Super Bowl XV, just after Raiders owner Al Davis told NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle the team would move with or without the league's approval; and another, following Super Bowl XVIII, after the Raiders did indeed move to Los Angeles, and without league approval.
That was when the Raiders were still successfully acting out their bad-boy image on the field and in the courts with head coach Tom Flores creating crazy success with improbable lineups, including quarterback Jim Plunkett and cornerback Mike Haynes, who happened to be former Patriots. That's not the point here, but still interesting.
The Raiders were known back then for assembling players cast aside by other teams, but who proved perfectly serviceable with the Raiders. Long before the Patriots took in controversial safety Rodney Harrison, unpredictable wide receiver Randy Moss or discarded running back LeGarrette Blount, the Raiders built their reputation by recycling or reviving Plunkett, John Matuszak, Ted Hendricks and cornerback Mike Haynes, who played out his option in New England.
Before the Patriots were accused, and heavily fined, for Spygate -- an elaborate videotaping scheme to illegally obtain information on opponents -- the Raiders were accused of hiring spies, including one dressed as a priest in Pittsburgh, to watch closed practices. And the Raiders were accused, especially by Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram, of recording what was said in the visitor's locker room at the Oakland Coliseum.
Davis smirked at such accusations, insisting it would be disrespectful to disguise a spy as a priest. And during a visit by the Chiefs one year, he told Stram the microphone was not in the light fixture as he claimed. "That's not where it is," Davis said.
And long before there was Deflategate, there was Heliumgate. In 1977, Houston Oilers returner Billy "White Shoes" Johnson accused the Raiders of filling the ball with helium because punts by Ray Guy hung in the air so long Johnson said it was "unnatural." So balls were tested at Rice University. No helium. And no contrary information was leaked to the media.
There were two major differences between the Raiders of old and the Patriots of this century. The Raiders were technically never found guilty of their accusations and managed fair success with four Super Bowl appearances last century -- II, XI, XV and XVIII -- losing only II to the Green Bay Packers. The Patriots either lost or succumbed to their accusations and lost both Super Bowl appearances last century. But, after a jump start helped by something called the Tuck Rule in 2002, they won four of their six Super Bowls since.
And now there is one pending, along with that potential Lombardi Trophy presentation.
"It will remain a big deal in the media all week, but if the Patriots win, owner Bob Kraft and commissioner Roger Goodell will do just fine," Flores said Friday when asked what he might expect. He has experience. He was the winning coach in Super Bowls XV and XVIII and was on the stage both times when commissioner Pete Rozelle presented the Lombardi Trophy.
"It was a little awkward at first after fifteen," Flores said, "but Al and Pete had too much respect for our game to degrade the moment. It will be the same with Kraft and Goodell and even (head coach Bill) Belichick and (guarterback Tom) Brady. These are rare moments to be respected, treasured and remembered."
After the Raiders' 38-9 win over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVII, Rozelle was respectful and Davis was in rare form that Jan. 22, 1984 day as he held up the Lombardi Trophy and uttered his oft-repeated mantra, "Just win, baby."
"Yeah, Al said we ranked among the greatest teams of all time in any sport and it was a moment to cherish," said Flores, who still works with the Raiders and is ever mindful that the Raiders have not won a Super Bowl since. "These are big moments in history and they cannot, should not be demeaned."
--Frank Cooney is the founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange. He is in his sixth decade covering pro football, including all seven victorious Super Bowl post-game presentations involving the Patriots and Raiders.