Saturday, March 13, 2004

Phantom of the offense

He is the Ghost of Patriots Past, a twice-a-season apparition. He is a reminder of those hopeful, happy days of the mid-'90s, when Drew Bledsoe was the Golden Boy QB, Terry Glenn suffered injuries instead of faked them, and visions of Super Bowl victories danced in our heads.

He's the one that got away from the Pats - and he's been getting away ever since.

Hello again, Curtis Martin. Back to haunt us once more, we presume?

Today, the New England Patriots, 6-5 and breathing again, take on the first-place, 7-3 New York Jets in what's shaping up to be a season-defining showdown. It's certain to be another compelling chapter in this rich, raucous rivalry.

And so, for the eighth time since Bill Parcells lured the beloved Pro Bowl running back away with a six-year, $36 million contract in February of '98, the Pats will have to confront Martin, their friend-turned-foe.

It's never easy. It's almost four full seasons later, and only now are the Pats recovering from Martin's devastating Foxboro farewell. It's not an exaggeration to say that this single transaction - by far Parcells's most productive trip to the grocery store - impacted the balance of power in the AFC East for a half-decade.

How has Martin tortured us? Let us count the ways.

First, the stat sheet: Martin has run for 100-plus yards in five of the seven games against New England. He has scored a touchdown in four of the seven. Considering that four of the teams' last five meetings have been decided by seven points or less, you could safely say he has been the difference. Naturally, Martin scored the lone touchdown in the Jets' 10-3 victory in Week 2 this season.

Then, the standings: In Martin's three years in New England, the Pats regularly beat up the Jets at recess and took their lunch money, winning five of six. Since he left, they are 1-6. In other words, the team that has Martin in its backfield is 11-2 in this suddenly lopsided rivalry.

All these numbers paint a pretty convincing case for his value. Yet Pats fans know Martin's worth can't be judged solely by columns of digits on a scoreboard page. There's no category for all that he means to a football team.

Martin is equal parts style and substance, a shifty, instinctive runner whose grace belies uncommon determination and grit. He is the rarest breed: a superstar whose humility and class appeal to Average Joe football fan.

Martin's name is in lights. It should be stitched across the breast of his shirt. It's no wonder you still see the occasional well-worn, red, white and blue "Martin 28" jersey in the Foxboro stands.

How it frustrates us that he's no longer wearing the jersey himself. He is missed, still.

I'll spare you the painful rehash of his utterly unnecessary departure. Just allow me to note that if Pats owner Bob Kraft hadn't insinuated Martin would have a short shelf-life, if Kraft hadn't spent much of the '97 season gloating about what cheap labor Martin was, if Kraft hadn't paid turnstiles Todd Rucci and Max Lane a combined $22 million before offering a single peso to Martin, if Kraft had remembered Parcells often called Martin one of his three favorite players he'd ever coached, well, then maybe the Pats wouldn't have had to spend three high draft picks in failed attempts to replace him.

Yeah, I'll spare you the painful rehash. Just let me note that Kraft bungled the situation with such complete and total incompetence, you have to believe Dan Duquette was giving him management tips.

Martin should have been a Patriot for life, which is why it's hard to fathom that he now has more service time as a Jet. This is Martin's seventh NFL season, his fourth in New York. He ran for 3,799 yards for the Pats; he's run for 4,938 for the Jets.

There's no use denying it: When his portrait hangs in the halls of Canton, the dominant colors will be green and white.

Martin's contributions considered, it's hardly a news flash that the green-and-white has dominated the rivalry. But perhaps, starting today, these new and improved Pats will show their true colors, and the balance of power will shift again.

For the first time since Martin left, there is a feeling of genuine hope in Foxboro, a sense that happy days are indeed here again. Maybe it's because of the exciting emergence of the new Golden Boy QB, Tom Brady, or perhaps it's because Antowain Smith has reminded us of the benefits of a powerful running game.

Probably, though, it's because Coach/No-Nonsense Head Honcho Bill Belichick has molded the team in his image. The Pats are tough and disciplined and they take no crap, and if you are skeptical, just watch Bryan Cox running around out there on a broken leg today, then try telling me these are still Pete Carroll's Patsies.

This, Pats fans, is a team you can root for. You even might say it's a team Martin would enjoy playing for.

By 4 p.m. this afternoon, we should have a pretty clear idea if we'll be rooting for them later into the winter than we had imagined. The Pats win today, and we can start wondering if doomed old Foxboro Stadium might get a stay of execution for at least one more game.

Before we dare speak of the playoffs, though, the Pats must do their part. They must exorcise those green-and-white demons. They must tackle a galloping ghost.

To beat the Jets, they must stop Curtis Martin.

And prove that four seasons after he moved on, they finally have, too.

(Originally published in the Concord Monitor, 2001)