It's hard to believe it was just 14 years ago when the upstart, underdog New England Patriots knocked off the "Greatest Show on Turf" to capture their first Super Bowl title. The Patriots were America's first feel-good story after the tragic events of 9/11, even choosing to be announced as a team as they ran out of the tunnel in New Orleans.
Back then it would've almost been impossible to find someone with negative feelings toward Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the other founders of the "Patriot Way." Belichick, a castoff coach, and Brady, an unheralded sixth-round pick, were the toast of the football world, but as the wins kept coming and the controversies started to add up, the tide slowly started to turn against the Pats.
If you're looking for the exact moment perception of the Pats began to change, the "Spygate" episode of 2007 is a pretty good place to start. After falling short in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, the Pats loaded up in the offseason, adding big-name signings like Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas to emerging stars like Wes Welker and Asante Samuel and established stars like Brady and an aging defense gearing up for a final hurrah.
Suddenly, the Pats were no longer a band of castoff free agents that just seemed to beat everyone with superior team effort. Now they were as close to an all-star team as the NFL had ever seen, so stacked it was almost unfair.
When the Jets reported the Pats for videotaping their signals in Week 1, the anti-Patriots blowback was immediate and severe, and a team that had spent much of the decade as darlings of the football world was now being called cheats, with their Super Bowl wins being called into question.
Despite many within the NFL dismissing signal stealing as a common practice, the Patriots had been too good for too long. The penalty was severe by most standards, though certainly not enough for many self-righteous analysts. Some believed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had covered something up by destroying the tapes, that he was doing his friend, Patriots owner Robert Kraft a favor. Still, the penalty was stiff enough to stoke the fires of those who believed "Spygate" was a much bigger deal than those within the football community did.
If Spygate turned many in the football world against the Patriots, it also turned the Patriots against the football world, acting as impetus for the only 16-0 NFL regular season ever achieved in the modern era. The Patriots set out not only to prove those critics wrong, but to embarrass their opponents in the process. They came within two minutes of the perfect season, but a miracle catch ended the 2007 Patriots' rampage and now they are a footnote instead of the greatest team of all time.
After 2007 came seven years of almosts for the Pats. Brady missed nearly all of 2008 after tearing his ACL in the opening quarter of the season, and then returned only to be bounced from the playoffs in the first round in both 2009 and '10.
They made it back to the Super Bowl in 2011 and to the AFC Championship Game in both 2012 and '13, but the disappointing endings did nothing to silence the "They haven't won anything since Spygate" crowd, despite having won more games and division titles than any other team in the NFL. Those wins only stoked the fires of jealousy even if the Pats avoided controversy.
Now comes "Deflategate," not only empowering the anti-Patriots sentiment once again, but putting Tom Brady at the forefront of the criticism. While Spygate fell almost entirely at the feet of Belichick, this time around it's Brady whose legacy is being called into question.
The NFL world has never been more polarized toward the Patriots than they are now and that will be how Belichick's team goes into the annals of football history. Whether you're a blind supporter of the team or their most ardent critic, what's undeniable is that there's never been another run in sports quite like this one.
The scorched earth, both on the field and off of it, is unprecedented. Add in Belichick's jaw-dropping personnel moves over the years and it's hard to recall another experience quite like what we've seen with the Pats over the last 15 years.
Some of it is self-inflicted. Neither Spygate nor Deflategate seemed to have much, if any, impact on the field of play. That's why these controversies are such head-scratchers when it comes down to it, they were really unnecessary. No one questions how well-coached the Patriots are, nor how hard they play. That is why they've won so many games, but right or wrong, their legacy will never escape the controversies in many fans' and pundits' eyes.
What's undeniable is that the Patriots have gone from the plucky underdog composed of unknowns and castoffs, to the evil overlord everyone wants to take down. Their dominance on the field cannot be denied, but the controversial moments will always be lurking in the background.
The only question left is just how high Brady and Belichick will set the bar on the field. They already have won four Super Bowls and established numerous records together. A fifth Lombardi Trophy would put the quarterback and head coach in a class all by themselves. But can they secure it before all the off-field problems catch up with them?
Regardless, these New England Patriots will go down as one of, if not the most, infamous teams in sports history.