Ask Belichick a question he doesn’t want to answer, or he deems ill-informed, and you get a predictable result.
Mumbles. Pauses. Disdain. Exasperation.
Ask him about something that intrigues him though, say proper strategic use of downfield blocking or the history of Navy football, and he’ll go on and on, often in fascinating ways.
This week, Belichick has been quite expansive, repeatedly, on a topic he certainly doesn’t want to discuss: the fact that a Patriots in-house production crew, in Cleveland to do a story on the duties of an advance scout, filmed game action and the sideline of the Pats’ opponent this Sunday, Cincinnati.
That is against NFL rules. The Bengals confronted the crew, confiscated the film and the NFL is investigating.
That alone has dredged up questions and taunts about a club and a coach that has been through a prior filming controversy (2007’s Spygate) and a lengthy debacle over the PSI levels of footballs (2015’s Deflategate) among other flare-ups.
And that’s what turned a situation that would have gained little to no attention if it involved another team into an all-out battle to not just get the Patriots’ side out to the public, but fight to protect the reputation of its legendary coach.
Belichick has won 302 NFL games (playoffs included). Winning Sunday may matter as much as any of them.
What’s clear from Belichick’s willingness to address the issue this week, and the team’s equally rapid response, is that public relations lessons were learned from past scandals where the team got hammered in ways that went beyond the facts of the case.
There is too much at stake not to be organized, clear and aggressive, trademarks of Belichick’s teams through the years.
“The football team, the football staff and the coaching staff had nothing to do with what happened,” Belichick said, repeatedly in various iterations this week. “Nothing. We have no involvement in it.”
Until the NFL reveals more facts, or even releases the film, there is no way to conclusively know what to make of this. You either believe the Patriots’ story that some guys with no links to Belichick made an innocent mistake or you don’t. There are few facts that wholly back up either opinion. This is fluid. Either side could be right.
What New England and Belichick have learned is that they can’t wait as opinions harden. In past scandals they were too slow, or too cooperating. It allowed the public to make conclusions that were mostly irreversible.
In Deflategate, for instance, the NFL leaked completely inaccurate, but massively damaging, stories to friendly media that 11 of the 12 footballs tested during the AFC championship game were “significantly deflated.”
Four months later, the NFL’s own report showed that wasn’t the case and scientists everywhere pointed to air temperature as the most likely culprit. By then, the narrative was set though, aided by additional negative leaks via the league office.
The reputation of the Patriots, and Tom Brady, has never fully recovered, even as they won three more Super Bowls.
Belichick also still bristles that while the team was guilty in Spygate – the Patriots filmed New York Jets signals from an improper location within the stadium – the league and the media made what he believed was a relatively minor transgression into a huge scandal that damaged his integrity.
“The guy’s giving signals out in front of 80,000 people, OK?” Belichick said. “So we filmed him taking signals out in front of 80,000 people, like there were a lot of other teams doing at that time, too … The guy’s in front of 80,000 people. Eighty-thousand people saw it. Everybody [on the] sideline saw it. Everybody sees our [coaches signaling] in front of the 80,000 people. I mean, there he is.”
That defense and perspective came years later. At the time Belichick said little to nothing. The original Spygate led to further allegations and suspicions gaining traction in the media and public. And that is what made this story catch fire.
One mistake has begat new ones.
At 67 years old, Belichick has enjoyed a late-career resurgence among non-Patriot fans. His constant winning has hardened his reputation as an all-time great. Meanwhile, he’s currently starring, along with Alabama’s Nick Saban, in an HBO documentary about coaching, and as an analyst on the NFL Network’s 100 All-Time Team.
He’s brilliant and likeable in both. This was the last thing he needed.
So there he was Monday, hours after the allegations broke, on WEEI in Boston embracing repeated questions about the situation and hammering home that neither he nor anyone in the football operations have anything to do with the in-house production team associated with Kraft Entertainment and Patriots.com.
Soon after, the Patriots released a statement that acknowledged mistakes and further pointed out their position that this was an innocent error.
Belichick later took multiple questions during a weekly free-wheeling news conference. While he eventually got tired of it — “Do not have anything more to add …” — it was clear that making his case was extremely important.
Not going on too long is a strategy also, of course. It wasn’t a coincidence that team owner Robert Kraft’s only statement to reporters thus far has been to point back to what had already been said by Belichick.
“You know everything you should know,” Kraft told reporters, refusing to say any more.
The Patriots have made their point and don’t want too much chatter to stray the conversation from the central thesis.
All week, Bill Belichick has been talking, repeatedly and at some length, about a topic that he must hate. If he didn’t want to, or feel the need to, he would have done what he has always done and grunted out nothing.
It’s a sure sign about how important winning this battle, the unexpected battle for his reputation, is for a coach that has won nearly everything else.
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