You can still hear them mutter about it in New England:
If only they'd set it up for Adam Vinatieri...
And who can blame them? Right around this time every year, the ghosts of Super Bowls past come back to visit, with the eeriest specter around Boston way the spirit of Super Bowl XXXVI.
Anyone who has had the misfortune to experience me in a mood to discuss Super Bowl XXV—which is to say anyone—knows my take on The Greatest Game I've Every Seen by rote. Besides, the New York Giants' victory over the Buffalo Bills in XXV may have been an upset, but it was hardly one of the might-have-been proportions of a New England Patriots triumph over the mighty St. Louis Rams.
And most fans hold to the conventional wisdom: overtime game, close game.
To be sure, XXXVI was a dandy. Despite taking on the last dynasty in the game thus far in the second of their three titles, the plucky Patriots and Cinderella second-string quarterback Tom Brady stayed with the Rams.
Who can forget how the 17-point underdogs held a lead for three quarters, the continually changing coverage leaving Kurt Warner looking for receivers to no avail? And if the low-watt offense wasn't producing any great gains, it wasn't making any mistakes either.
But then everything collapsed like it had—as any Beantown fan will still willingly inform—for so many New England teams of the 20th century. The St. Louis offense found the way, Ricky Proehl notched his first TD, Warner capped another drive with a rare rushing TD of his own and, at a later point than on any Super Sunday, the game was tied.
The rest, as they say, was traumatic up there in the Northeast. Bill Belichick called a few conservative plays, Brady threw a single incomplete, and "heads" chose the Patriots' fate.
One long first-down strike to Proehl later and it was over. (Not merely for the game and the assurance of domination by the soon-to-repeat champion Rams, but the medium-term New England future turned on that coin flip.)
To think everything might have been different if Adam Vinatieri, now a faded memory in most places, save New England, had gotten out there. This guy who went from obscurity to a reputation for clutch kicking iced (so to speak) with a few key boots in the Tuck Rule Game, working his way into Patriot fans' hearts.
If New England had somehow found another miracle, as it had time and again in the second half of the 2001 season straight through to the Snow Bowl against Oakland, Bostonians would all remember Ty Law's game-changing pick in the first half rather than the seminal image the Boston Herald (and every newspaper with a wire photo service) ran the Monday after: A downtrodden Vinatieri standing helpless on the sideline. Made into a symbol, he was never the same kicker and was out of the NFL before the preseason games started.
It's tough to feel sorry for Boston fans these days, what with the defending champion Red Sox defeating the Yankee "curse" time and again, the resurgent rebuilt Celtics, and even a promising new edition of the Patriots led by well-taken No. 5 overall Brady Quinn.
Heck, some of those losing underdogs went on to attain their rings: There was Belichick and Law themselves winning one with Indianapolis three years ago, and Brady got a bit of glory—albeit as a backup—with Jon Gruden's champion Buccaneer team.
You can't help but have sympathy for Vinatieri though. Much is made of the psychology failure of athletes performing under pressure or, in technical terms, "choking." But the worst thing about the Vinatieri story is that the man wasn't even given the chance not to succeed and for that he'll never know if he might have put his team over the top and make the greatest Super Bowl upset ever.
To think everything might have been unimaginably different...
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