A little more than two years ago, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was immersed in a spying scandal that would cost him a $500,000 fine, a first-round NFL draft pick and a chunk of reputation.
Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher issued, at least by the standards of the closed-rank culture of NFL coaches, one of the strongest condemnations.
"There's no place for it," Fisher said. "Everybody clearly understands the rules." He went onto discuss the importance of the NFL protecting "the integrity of the game."
Fisher stood silently in the Massachusetts snow Sunday and watched Belichick's team deliver a record 59-0 beating on his Titans.
Was it revenge? Was Belichick piling on in response to those comments? Was he driving a stake into Fisher, whose team is now 0-6 and who answered questions after the game about his job security? Or was it some shot at Tennessee after Belichick hired football advisor Floyd Reese, whose departure from the Titans was less than amicable?
Only Belichick knows for sure. For the Patriots, the best part of the debate is that there is a debate.
In one afternoon, the talk about a rusty offense, a gun-shy Brady and the potential end of a championship era was silenced. It's like 2007 all over again. New England (4-2) isn't going 18-0, but being capable of causing running-up-the-score debates again isn't so bad.
"Look, we're not trying to do anything but run our offense," Belichick said. "We went into the game with a game plan and I know the score got out of hand, but we were just trying to run our offense."
The Patriots ran their offense to the tune of franchise records for points scored, margin of victory and total net yards (619). Tom Brady(notes) produced the outrageous stat line of 29 of 34 for 380 yards and six touchdowns. He had five touchdown passes in the second quarter alone. The winning margin tied the record for the largest since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.
Let's gets one thing clear: Even if the Patriots were purposely pouring on the humiliation, the team most responsible for the scoreboard margin was Tennessee. The Titans all but quit on this game, another warm-weather team buried by the Foxborough weather.
No one should have any problem with one professional football team running up the score on another professional football team. This isn't high school or college.
These are grown men, all well-paid professionals, with huge coaching staffs and equal resources. The Titans may be winless this year, but they went 13-3 last season. In the NFL, if you don't want to get embarrassed like that, you should do something about it.
Belichick was adamant that he wasn't up to anything. Fisher, for his part, agreed.
"That was their plan going in," he said of the play-calling. "Why are they going to change their plan?"
They didn't, at least not much. At the end of the first half, leading 38-0, the Patriots ran a no-huddle offense so they could punch in another TD. Rather than sit Brady with a 45-point lead, he led a second-half drive to make the score 52-0.
Later, with backup Brian Hoyer(notes) at QB, the Patriots went for it on a fourth-and-six at the Titans 31-yard line, converted and soon scored another TD for the final margin. In mop-up duty, Hoyer completed 9 of 11 passes – it wasn't like he was just handing the ball off.
"What we wanted to give Brian a chance to do was to run the plays he's going to have to run at some point if he plays, whether they're passes, third-down plays, check-with-me plays, whatever they are," Belichick said.
Belichick's defense is reasonable. He did take Brady out in the middle of the third. And what exactly do you want a football team to do, take a knee on every play? He could've tried a field goal on a couple fourth downs if he just wanted points.
Sure, it was total destruction, but if Belichick chose, he could've gone for the NFL record, Chicago's 73-0 win over Washington in the 1940 title game.
This isn't Belichick's first Spygate-related margin of victory debate, though. In the wake of the scandal, he spent much of the '07 season rolling huge margins in a show of force that drove New England to an 18-0 record before being upset in the Super Bowl.
When Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips was quoted as saying that Spygate may have tainted the franchise's three Super Bowl titles, New England pounded the Cowboys 48-27, including a final TD with just 23 seconds left. A couple weeks later, the Patriots converted two fourth-down plays in the fourth quarter en route to beating the Washington Redskins 52-7.
Belichick can go gangster like that. It's what makes him the coach he is, the master of passive-aggressive paybacks, a guy capable of motivating his players against enemies real or imagined. They love him for it.
So maybe Sunday's game just innocently got out of hand. Maybe the Titans are that terrible. Maybe 59-0 just happened to happen. Or maybe it just happened to happen to one of New England's biggest critics a couple years back.
The Patriots should just enjoy still being capable of creating so many maybes.