February 8, 2005

Teams Trump Stars

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Here’s a story that every hockey fan knows:

When Wayne Gretzky was a little kid, like every other budding hockey star, he would chase the puck around the rink wherever it would go in an attempt to swipe at it before anyone else could. Although Gretzky was inevitably the fastest on every youth team for which he played, once in a while he would fail to be the first of the 10 screaming six-year-olds to reach the black disc. So, his dad gave him the most important piece of advice of his career — to go where the puck is going, not where it is. From this single piece of advice sprang the greatest hockey player in history — mind you, not as a result of his size (Gretzky never broke 170 pounds in his NHL career) or even his speed (although he was fast), but solely as a result of his being the greatest positional team player ever.

Regardless of the individual, the teams on which Gretzky played profited enormously from his style of play. Looking back, it is easy to name a number of great athletes whose teams never won a championship despite their alleged greatness. This was not the case with No. 99 because he was not just a great player — he was a great team player.

Flash forward to Super Bowl XXXIX. If you analyze Sunday’s teams position by position, you will probably find that the Eagles had the more star-studded lineup. The prime example in this case is each team’s top wide receiver. The Eagles featured Terrell Owens, easily the second best receiver in the game after Randy “Shake that Thang (and Get Fined)” Moss.

Now, the Patriots have … wait, who is the Patriots’ top wide receiver? Some people might say Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch or perhaps David Givens, who had a solid season. However, the correct answer is that the Patriots do not have a top wide receiver. Essentially, Foxboro, which is right near Boston, the place where United States democracy and capitalism was born, is socialist on the football field. Anyone who has ever followed the Patriots’ receivers’ stats knows that you can never know to whom Tom Brady will throw next.

Speaking of Tom Brady, is he really such a great quarterback? One could argue that he’s pretty good, but frankly there are quite a few better. Based on pure talent, Donovan McNabb is probably a better QB on any given Sunday, and Peyton Manning certainly has a better eye for the game, but the fact is that Donovan is always targeting T.O., and the guy who used to beat up Eli (and apparently injured his arm doing so) is always targeting Marvin Harrison.

Regardless, the Patriots won the Super Bowl. They were favored to win, and despite the close score, it appeared like they won with ease. New England showed up like a well-oiled machine on Sunday, while the Eagles always looked like they were hunting for a big play downfield on offense in desperation. This “strategy” earned Philly three interceptions, and this number would have and arguably should have been five if not due to penalties on the Pats’ defense. The Patriots played like a bunch of guys who play together so often that each of them could know where everyone else is on the field if blindfolded. The Eagles played like a bunch of guys who play together enough that they know whether an injured T.O. is on the field. Not gonna cut it.

The point is this: it is the team that wins championships, and this is what makes the Patriots as good as they are. Despite ESPN’s touching relationship with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, there are another several dozen guys on New England’s roster that made this their third title in four years. Maybe Brady or Belichick is the Gretzky who is able to put the final glue coat down to bring the whole eclectic thing together, but never doubt that a team will always beat a star.

When Wayne Gretzky was in the twilight of his career, his small frame had been battered significantly enough that most players in his situation would have retired even sooner than he did at the age of 37. So, Gretzky changed his style of play to accommodate. Instead of being the scorer he always was, Wayne started utilizing his passing skills and his ability to know where the puck would be (not where it is) to develop plays that propelled the New York Rangers to the last playoffs in which they would apparently ever participate. Some fans who had watched him over his entire career saw him as a shadow of the 20-year-old that scored 92 goals in a single season, but every fan saw him as an unquestionable asset because of his ability to make his team better. And without his team, there is no question that Wayne wouldn’t be wearing all those championship rings.

Mike Pandolfini is a Sun Staff Writer. Domo Arigato will appear every other Tuesday this semester.

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