By Jason Keidel
The split-screen drama performed by the Patriots has our nation scratching its head and perhaps grabbing other organs at the twin presses provided by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
First we had the ornery coach, swathed in his hobo-chic wardrobe, grunting his way through another staring contest with the dreaded media. But unlike most times, when a monosyllabic exchange would suffice, an nth iteration of “we’re onto Cincinnati,” he was expected to at least attempt an explanation for the 11 doctored balls found after the AFC title game. None of the balls used by The Colts were altered, of course.
He quickly threw up his semantic curtain and curtailed all questions. After his brief me-know-nothing monologue, he whacked every reporter over the head with his childish mantra, “I’ve told you all I know on the matter.”
It’s eerily reminiscent of the SpyGate scandal. You may recall he refused comment at first, hiding behind the “I can’t comment while the NFL is investigating” wall. Then, once he and the team were punished, he cobbled together a new, dismissive slogan, “the NFL has spoken, and I have nothing to add to the matter.”
Belichick is a control freak. He can tell you if his backup punter got chicken pox as a child, if a practice squad player has the runs, but he doesn’t know who handles something as vital as the game balls during the AFC title game.
Then we had Tom Brady, the NFL version of James Bond – a man of few vowels who is well liked, spoken, dressed, and the eye candy of men and women around America. while his presser was just as weak as his coach’s, his was exponentially more disappointing because we expect the truth from him. As is often the case with celebrities, we assume they are not only imbued with looks, talent, and temerity, we also project biblical virtue upon them simply because they appear on our TV screens on Sundays.
As your wife will tell you, Brady is a handsome and charming man. He tried to grin his way through the team’s malfeasance, hoping his wide white smile would sedate the masses. But there’s too much history and histrionics to just sweep Deflate-Gage under the rug.
We’ve strolled down Miscreant Lane with these chaps before. Particularly Belichick, who has SpyGate on his bio, which personally cost him half a million bucks. Don Shula, the front face on the Mt. Rushmore of winningest coaches, called the Patriots coach “Belicheat” – BEFORE the Colts game and mutating footballs.
But there was a certain symmetry to it, the twin faces of the franchise for the last 15 years, trying to talk their way out of the web they spun around themselves, belching bromides of ignorance and innocence. It had a Clintonian tone to it. You remember our former president engaging in a similar, semantic dance over a scandal of similar heft but entirely different dimensions. By the time he was done, we weren’t even sure what “it” is anymore.
Your past matters. We assume good things of Boy Scouts and less of crooks. And, in a purely football regard, the Patriots are career criminals. Just ask Marshall Faulk, who still winces from the Super Bowl his Rams lost to the Patriots nearly 15 years ago.
The Hall of Fame halfback said the Pats knew nearly every play the Rams were running in the first half. Yet once they changed their play-calling vernacular they were unstoppable in the second half. And surely we all agree Faulk doesn’t come across as paranoid, or a member of the grassy knoll group who sees conspiracies behind every touchdown.
“Plausible deniability” is the concept du jour these days, with the Patriots’ HC and QB assuring us they’ve never doctored a ball beyond league specifications. Belichick went as far as to say he has no idea what even happens to game balls, where they reside or with whom they reside. Nonsense.
Unlike the contest against the Colts, this is not a game they can win. If a ball or two doesn’t meet specs you can chuckle your way past a few platitudes about pressure and temperature and how Gronkowski literally knocked the air out of the ball when he spiked it. Brady said, on the record, that he loved Gronk to slam the ball on the ground so that the pigskin would be easier to grip. Harmless enough. Until it becomes a preamble to this black hole of a horror show.
We’re not naive here. If you’ve followed football – or any major team sport, for that matter – you know a pro player, coach, and team finds some rules to be most malleable. Bend them until they’re about to snap. Pitchers have scuffed baseballs. Basketball players get bumped in the lane then collapse as though they’ve been bashed with a polo mallet.
A team can make the visitor’s locker room arctic cold or jungle hot. Heck, players go so far as to send hookers to the opposing star’s hotel room, in the hopes that the subsequent activities will render him inert in the big game. And, of course, countless players used PEDs, often injecting equine potions that would make Seabiscuit blush.
But when he gets the knock on his hotel door, he can ask the young lady to leave. When the team staggers out of the sweaty locker, the field is even. When Sammy Sosa’s corked bat cracks and scatters across the infield, he is ejected and punished. Likewise for the player busted with steroids.
And it’s not like Brady or Belichick denied the balls were doctored. Maybe the most appalling part was the indifference with which they addressed the scandal. They didn’t care that their reputation is taking a whipping. They didn’t even vow to prove their innocence.
They didn’t once mention that they planned to speak to someone in or out of the organization to find out what happened, to clear their names right before a game that would otherwise have catapulted them into the thin air of the greatest HC/QB duet of all-time.
And it’s not as if they needed the doctored footballs to defeat the Colts. it just shows the team’s epic allergy to the truth, a gratuitous flouting of the rules just because they can. I recently compared Belichick to Winona Ryder, walking into Saks Fifth Avenue with 20 grand in his pocket, yet still lifts the watch, slips it into his pocket, and strolls out.
The Patriots Apologist will say this is hyperbole, a gotcha game perfectly contoured for haters who have been waiting for the team to fall through an obscure, legal loophole.
Nonsense. You don’t finish 14-straight seasons with a winning record if you don’t pay neurotic attention to detail. Perhaps the most common trait among the most successful people is their monolithic/OCD dedication to their craft, which often comes at the expense of friends, family, and happiness. If one lace were frayed on the game ball, the two preeminent Patriots knew about it.
The saddest part isn’t that Belichik hasn’t learned his lesson, but that he’s now dragged Brady down to his level. And, it turns out, that level was a lot lower than we could have ever expected. A caller from Mike Francesa’s show joked that they should hand Robert Kraft a deflated trophy should the Patriots win the game.
So what do we do about this? Do we suspend Brady or Belichick or both for the Super Bowl, thus handing the Lombardi Trophy to Pete Carroll? Banning Belichick or Brady would make the Super Bowl little more than an exhibition, a de facto victory parade for the Seahawks.
And you, the fan, deserve a good game. Even if good people aren’t playing in it.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.