In search of aha moments, smudges get placed on legacy of Bill Belichick and his Patriots dynasty

Terez Paylor
·Senior NFL writer

Late in their 13-3 Super Bowl win over the Los Angeles Rams, with a little more than four minutes left and New England up seven, Patriots coach Bill Belichick paced the sideline, stared intently at the Rams’ side, turned on his mic and asked a question I haven’t been able to shake in the wake of Spygate 2.0.

“Josh, where’s [Sean] McVay — I can’t find him,” Belichick asked an assistant. “The plus 40 … alright, I got him.”

Moments later, Stephon Gilmore helped clinch a title with an interception, a tremendous flourish on a game in which the popular narrative afterward was how badly the old master, Belichick, outcoached the young hotshot in McVay, whose dynamite offense was held 29 points and 161 yards under its season averages in the biggest game of the season.

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03:  Head Coach Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams and Head Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots shake hands at the end of the Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. The New England Patriots defeat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Bill Belichick claimed his sixth Super Bowl title as Patriots head coach after New England defeated Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

That moment struck me with such a sense of wonder that I, briefly, thought I’d connected some dots to trigger the famous GIF of Wee-Bey from “The Wire.”

You can probably tell where I’m going with this. Or at least, you think you can.

If you’re among the horde of Patriots fans looking to close ranks around your legendary coach, you’re probably expecting an incendiary line, one pondering whatever tell Belichick sought in that championship game moment was also something that could have been gleaned from Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor in the reported eight-minute video of the Bengals’ sideline that was shot by a Patriots employee Sunday and confiscated, creating this current mess.

I’ll admit this scenario seems unlikely, however, especially since Belichick also eyed Pete Carroll closely at the end of Super Bowl 49 to get a read on his body language, a tactic other highly respected coaches, including Urban Meyer, have publicly admitted doing.

So why mention it? It’s because we’re now gauging what, if any, damage is being caused to Belichick’s legacy by the ambiguity of this entire situation. It’s forcing people into their respective corners, another reflection of our current political and cultural climate.

If you’re a Patriots fan, you’ll likely buy their explanation. If you’re not, you won’t. And because of the lack of proof (at the moment) either way, that’s probably not changing.

Both sides have good points.

Pats fans who don’t want to believe their favorite team was cheating Sunday can point to the obvious nature of the infraction as a reason for the Patriots’ innocence. I mean, the Patriots employee filmed directly in front of Bengals personnel, who could freaking see it happening.

What’s more, since Spygate 1.0, most play-calls are communicated via radio speaker inside a player’s helmet, which minimizes the benefits of recording hand signals and the like.

On the other hand, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said Wednesday that the league is “still gathering information” about Sunday’s incident, and it also doesn’t help the Pats’ case that the team’s official explanation for the most recent incident mirrors the excuses the people involved in the original Spygate were instructed to use in case they were busted. If that’s just a coincidence, it’s one hell of an unlucky one.

So even though there was a report Tuesday that severe sanctions against the Patriots “are not expected” at this time, there’s enough uncertainty here that Belichick, who has already surrendered the benefit of the doubt on such matters, is doomed to take a blow to his legacy for this, regardless of the truth.

Sunday’s incident has, once again, stirred up widespread discussions about whether the Patriots cheated their way to their six titles, and fans of opposing teams, weary of the Pats’ consistency and good fortune, couldn’t be more thrilled.

In conversations across the country, the greatness of Belichick and the validity of the Patriots’ dynasty, can be coated with a fresh round of doubt, with all the information streaming from the latest ordeal offering a verbal asterisk for any non-Pats fan who is dying to attack the legitimacy of New England’s last three titles.

Fans gather on to watch the New England Patriots parade through downtown Boston, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, to celebrate their win over the Los Angeles Rams in Sunday's NFL Super Bowl 53 football game in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Fans watch another Patriots championship parade through downtown Boston last February, this one a celebration of their win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Random Pats fan: “The Pats are the greatest NFL dynasty of all time!”

Random (insert your team) fan: “Yeah ... but they cheated.”

Pats fan: “Come on! We had Tom [expletive] Brady. He’s the GOAT! Gronk too!”

Everyone else:Gronk was pretty awesome, but Tom Brady would have been A.J. McCarron if he didn’t know what the other team was doing before every play!”

Pats fan: “What? Were you watching them play? Plus Belichick is the greatest coach of all time!”

Everyone else: “Psst. He would have gotten fired like he did in Cleveland if he didn’t cheat.”

The latter comment will be the biggest fallout from all of this. To be clear, barring far more evidence of wrongdoing (which is unlikely), Belichick’s legacy won’t be destroyed. It would take this becoming a Spygate 1.0 disaster — with public evidence and the like — to have a chance of keeping him from getting into the Hall with ease. In our “win at all costs” society, he’d probably get in easily and go down as the GOAT coach anyway.

However, the fallout from the latest incident, which is spawning multiple conspiracy theories, not to mention gloating from opposing fans on social media, was a stark reminder of how many people believe one of life’s unofficial sayings: where there’s smoke there’s fire.

And since there’s been enough fire regarding the Patriots and cheating this millennium, that’s how a football diehard like me can find myself thinking of past moments involving Belichick’s observant Super Bowl sideline demeanor and unfortunately catch myself looking at it a bit side-eyed, unlikely as it may seem.

And you know what? Even if this whole ordeal ends up being much ado about nothing, after everything Belichick and the Patriots have accomplished over the past 20 years, the fact people have again been forced to think about stuff like this is a flat-out shame, even if it ends up being merely a legacy-smudging one for Belichick.

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