Bill Belichick and the New England Media

Around the country today, Bill Belichick is viewed as perhaps the best football mind in the game right now. His New England Patriots have won three out of the last four Super Bowl championships and have spawned a new wave of “Dynasty” talk, placing the team in the same echelon as the Packers of the 1960’s, Steelers of the 1970’s, 49ers of the 1980’s and Cowboys of the 1990’s. His teams play a smart, tough, efficient brand of football that is admired around the country, while at the same time the players for the most part are “character guys”, people who have avoided trouble off of the field.

You would think that with this organization in place, Belichick would be lauded nowhere more than in New England, where sports are taken as seriously as religion and politics. Curiously though, if you listen to some sports talk radio programs, or pick up newspaper articles by veteran NFL reporters, you’d think that Belichick was some sort of monster who mistreats people and is overseeing nothing more than a house of cards that is due to collapse at anytime. They constantly refer to his record in Cleveland, and most recently have started the chant that Belichick has won nothing without Tom Brady as his quarterback. You get the impression from these commentators that they would like nothing more than to see Belichick and the Patriots fail miserably.

On the other hand, you also have media members who go the completely opposite way in their treatment and coverage of the Patriots head man. In their eyes, he can do no wrong, every move is that of a genius and the mantra “In Belichick we trust” is their personal slogan. When a hot offense comes into town to face the Patriots, Bill Belichick will find a way to stop them. If there is a player out there on the scrap heap that no one else wants, Belichick will bring him in and make a player out of him. What has caused such polarization in the Boston sports media as regards this undeniably successful head coach?

When Bill Belichick resigned as “HC of the NYJ” after being appointed Bill Parcells’ successor, the Patriots didnt wait long to express their interest in him to take over their team. After some protracted negotiations with Parcells (a media favorite in New England) and the Jets, Patriots owner Bob Kraft eventually worked out a compensation package which allowed Belichick to take become the head coach of the team. Right around this time, certain media members started taking some shots at Belichick, likely because of his perceived disloyalty to the esteemed Parcells. Kevin Mannix of the Boston Herald infamously labeled Belichick “duplicitous pond scum” and a nighttime radio host on sports radio WEEI was also very vocal in his opposition to Belichick’s hiring, calling him “a despicable human being” (for which he later apologized). Michael Holley, then of the Globe, and a native of Ohio, also wrote a very negative article on the new coach. (Holley of course would later go on to write “Patriot Reign”)

Why the vitriol for someone who had just arrived in town? In addition to having crossed Parcells, who still can do no wrong in the eyes of many, there were still lingering stories among the media about Belichick’s tenure as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. The Cleveland media were only too happy to tell stories of Belichick as having been aloof, uncooperative and uncommunicative while having had to deal with him. To this day in fact, many of those Cleveland writers still sneer when his name is brought up. It would appear that many of the Boston writers were influenced by their Cleveland colleagues.

The Patriots went 5-11 in 2000, Belichick’s first year with the club, and while there was still a little grumbling about whether Belichick had the ability to be a successful head coach, for the most part things were pretty quiet. That spring, the team had used a sixth round draft pick on Michigan QB Tom Brady, who spent the season stashed away as the fourth quarterback, no one really paying much attention to him. After the 2001 draft, Belichick was criticized harshly by Globe writer Ron Borges for passing on receivers David Terrell and Koren Robinson in favor of defensive lineman Richard Seymour, sarcastically calling it a “genius move” in reference to Belichick’s reputation as a wizard with the playbook. He said that if you didn’t know better, “you’d think the Jets sent Bill Belichick north to destroy the Patriots from within.” The 2001 season started, and despite moving up to the backup position with a strong preseason showing, Brady seemed nothing more than a spare part behind the strongly entrenched Drew Bledsoe.

Drew Bledsoe had been the Patriots franchise quarterback since Parcells drafted him back in 1993. Over the course of his career, he was known for putting up big numbers, but also for making mistakes at the most crucial times. He was also known for standing in there?both in the pocket and in front of the press, where he always took full accountability for his miscues and faced the media without ducking the questions sent his way. This endeared him to some of the local media, who cultivated a strong relationship with him. Bledsoe was also very close to the Kraft family and was “in the loop” about many things going on “behind the scenes” with regard to the operations of the Patriots. He shared some of this information with some of the media members he was closest to. As a result, the media people always covered Bledsoe positively in their articles, even when he struggled, blaming it instead on his lack of weapons, or having had so many offensive coordinators over the years, or not having enough protection from his offensive line.

When Belichick took over, the “back channel” communications within the organization dried up. He insisted on being the voice of the Patriots, not allowing the press access to his assistant coaches, and limiting availability to his players, practice session and team executives. Even owner Bob Kraft, who had been out front and center in the past, now seemed to have disappeared. None of this pleased members of the press who had relied on these “sources” to compose their stories. The Patriots lost their first game of the season in Cincinnati and were on their way to defeat in the second game to the New York Jets when “it” happened.

Mo Lewis is held in some New England circles as a folk hero. It can be argued that the Jets linebacker’s massive hit on a scrambling Bledsoe in the fourth quarter of that game launched the Patriot dynasty. What is certain however is that the hit spelled the end of Drew Bledsoe’s tenure as the starter in New England, and also launched open season on Bill Belichick by certain members of the sporting press.

While Bledsoe was recovering from his internal injuries, which nearly cost him his life, Tom Brady stepped in and led the Patriots to a 5-2 record. There was considerable talk during this time on the radio, TV and in the papers about what would happen when Bledsoe was ready to return. While Bledsoe was out, some other things changed around the team. Bledsoe had always held his mid-week press conferences at a podium, where he was the focus, away from his teammates. Brady opted to hold his sessions at his locker, with his teammates around him in the room. Bledsoe talked during this time about when he recovered and got “his” job back. The medical staff declared Bledsoe fit to play, but on Monday, November 19, 2001, Belichick declared that Tom Brady was his starter for the “foreseeable future”.

This marked another very clear turning point in the relationship between Belichick and certain members of the press. By this time, many had taken their sides. They were either “Brady guys” or “Bledsoe guys.” Interestingly, many of the “Bledsoe guys” were the veteran reporters that had been around the team for some time. Guys like Ron Borges and Nick Cafardo of the Globe and Kevin Mannix of the Herald, men who had developed a strong relationship with the quarterback. The “Brady guys” were some of the younger, newer guys on the beat, such as Michael Felger of the Herald. The Bledsoe backers immediately cried foul at Belichick’s decision. Ron Borges wrote in the Boston Globe of November 22, 2001:

So the facts are simply these. He lied to Drew Bledsoe about what the competitive situation would be when the quarterback regained his health. There was no miscommunication. There was no misunderstanding. There was no hedging of the bet. He fibbed.

Whereas Borges had been somewhat critical, but at times supportive of Belichick up to this point, from that day until now, Borges has been on a seeming crusade to discredit everything the coach has done. Belichick had lied to his friend, Drew Bledsoe. Belichick had now crossed two of the media’s favorite people in Bledsoe and Parcells. Borges made numerous attacks of the coach and young quarterback for the remainder of the season. The Patriots made it all the way to the Super Bowl and as a show of his displeasure with the team, Borges in his pick for the game said that the Rams would win 73-0.

The Patriots of course won the Super Bowl, defeating the Rams in one of the most thrilling games in the history of the event. In the weeks following the win, Borges and cronies continued to try to discredit the victory and both Belichick and Tom Brady, saying that they only won by a field goal, and that Tom Brady?s winning drive was nothing special, as he didn’t even have to go half the field. Brady was dismissed as nothing more than a “system quarterback” who can only “throw sideways.”

That spring, Drew Bledsoe was traded to the Buffalo Bills. The critics had a field day on this one, criticizing Belichick for only getting one first round pick for the quarterback and worse, trading him within the same division. This they said, was the ultimate sign of Belichick’s arrogance, which would certainly come back to bite him. The Patriots went on to a 9-7 record in 2002, tying for the division lead and missing the playoffs by a tiebreaker. The critics were gloating. The Patriots were a one-year wonder. Brady was just a system quarterback. (Despite throwing for 28 TD’s and leading the league in that category) In addition, Bledsoe got off to a fast start in Buffalo, which just fueled the fire of the skeptics.

The following season, the Patriots signed safety Rodney Harrison in the offseason, and people wondered where they would play him, as they already had a top player at that position in Lawyer Milloy. The week before the Patriots regular season opener in Buffalo against Bledsoe and the Bills, Belichick announced that the team had released Milloy after failing to come to a contract adjustment. The critics were all over this. Kevin Mannix led off his column the next day in the Herald thusly:

Bill Belichick is pond scum again. Arrogant, megalomaniacal, duplicitous pond scum.

It was again open season on the Patriots coach. To top matters off, Milloy went off and immediately signed with the Bills, who then trounced the Patriots in the season opener, 31-0. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson made his infamous remark that the Patriots “hate their coach.”

Not much has gone wrong for the Patriots since that day, as they have only lost three games since and have won consecutive Super Bowl Championships. Yet the bashing and shots at Belichick continue. The Globe writers have written repeatedly about Belichick’s policies of not allowing his assistants to speak to the media, arguing that hindered their ability to get head coaching jobs. Yet this season, both of Belichick’s coordinators were hired as head coaches, Charlie Weis at Notre Dame and Romeo Crennel with the Cleveland Browns. Now that those two are gone, the critics question how Belichick will do without them. They still constantly bring up Belichick’s tenure in Cleveland, even recalling negative events from that period to use today, such as a piece that ran in the Sunday Globe this spring that brought up a time that Belichick supposedly scolded now-Dolphins coach, then Browns assistant Nick Saban for something he said to the media. We’re also reminded that the Patriots have won three Super Bowls by the margin of a field goal. As if that should somehow take away from the achievement.

It seemed like for a while there were weekly reminders in the some articles that Belichick’s career record was right around .500. The last two seasons have quieted that particular item, but the newest one that is heard daily on the Eddie Andelman show now is that Belichick has never won without Tom Brady, and that his record without Brady is 16 games under .500. I can tell you that right off the top of my head because it has been repeated so many times on that radio show. Of course, the irony here is that these are the same people (i.e. Borges) who were calling Brady a “system quarterback” a couple years ago and saying the team made a huge mistake in trading Bledsoe. Now he, not Belichick is the one most responsible for the success of the franchise. He is also accused of mistreating and underpaying his stars and heartlessly cutting players who have meant a lot to the franchise. This is an attempt to appeal to the emotions of the fans, who have attachments to the players. In reality, Belichick has yet to release a player who has gone on to really burn him. Most of the time, his assessments have been dead on, and the team’s salary cap has benefited as a result. Yet to writers such as Nick Cafardo, who pride themselves on getting close to players and agents in the game, the Patriots business-like manner of approaching things is distasteful. They would rather see “their guys” get taken care of. It seems like they have no concept of the salary cap.

It certainly seems curious that such a successful coach who seems to do things the “right way” would come under such constant negative scrutiny and criticism from certain people. Why do these people continue? At times they seem like the Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” They have had all their arguments cut out from underneath them, yet they continue to stubbornly refuse to retreat. It can be traced back to a few things already mentioned. First, Belichick crossed their darlings, Bledsoe and Parcells. Secondly, they’ve gone this far in their stance, its too late to change now?besides they get attention they seem to crave so desperately by being “different” and standing out from the Belichick admiration. Third, Belichick has proven them wrong time after time, made them look foolish. For them this is enough reason to hate the man. Fourth, he doesn’t make their job easy. He doesn’t feed them “she” quotes and fill up their notebooks with glib quotes. Access is limited to his coaches, practices and team. The media is forced to do some work to get their stories. Some reporters thrive with this, (see Reiss, Mike) while others chafe and choose to complain instead. Fifth, things change in the NFL, this we know. At some point, the Patriots are likely to have a down year, or heaven forbid, suffer a key injury to someone they cannot afford to lose (Brady) or just get beaten by a superior team on a given day. When that day comes, you can be sure that the critics will be there, declaring that they were right all along. Bill Belichick is merely overseeing a house of cards up here in New England.