For years Bill Belichick has said nearly nothing to the media. Yes, he attends press conferences and sits for mandatory interviews. And yes, he is happy to go into great detail on certain topics. These include football history, legends of the game, and the evolution of long snapping. When discussing those types of topics, Belichick transforms into a passionate professor. But when it comes to discussing the team he is running, the New England Patriots head coach has a way of talking without saying much of anything at all.
This is not a criticism of Bill Belichick. In fact, it’s something I’ve always appreciated about him. Reporters will ask him specifics about a plan to stop an opponent, then be confused why Belichick isn’t willing to spill the beans. Do folks expect him to broadcast his team’s game plan?
It seemed Belichick would occasionally say things, or not say things, to protect his players. Even if it was obvious to the outside world that somebody had been benched in New England, Belichick would not specifically address the reasoning. Often he would not even acknowledge a player had been punished. It is probably easier to say, “He got benched because he made a terrible play.” But how would it benefit his team to have reporters run with a quote that made it look like he was publicly bashing one of his players? It wouldn’t. And nothing seemed more important to Belichick than putting his team in the best position to succeed.
But what is happening recently with Bill Belichick recently feels like something new entirely. It doesn’t feel like being secretive, it feels more like lying. And it doesn’t seem to be serving any sort of purpose.
Easier When Things are Going Well
When things were going good for the New England Patriots, as they did for two decades under Bill Belichick’s watch, he deferred credit to his players. After a big win in 2016, Belichick asked, “Who do you think goes out there and runs the ball and blocks and tackles and throws and catches? It’s all the players. Who else does it besides them?” And when things haven’t gone as smoothly, he hasn’t thrown his players under the bus. Instead, Belichick has often used the refrain, “We all need to do a better job, and that starts with me.”
Bill Belichick’s public persona is generally that of a curmudgeon. Rarely is he seen smiling. There are times when being short with the media seems unnecessary, though he opts for that approach anyway. But it was always difficult for just about anyone to criticize Belichick and be taken seriously. Did they think they knew more than the greatest football coach who ever lived? Unlikely, to say the least.
So nearly everyone quietly agreed it was fine for Belichick to behave disinterested in human interaction. His job was not to give great sound bites or win over critics anyway. His job was to win football games. And for a very long time, nobody did it better. As with nearly every aspect of life, and certainly in the sporting world, people are willing to overlook a lot as long as the person is producing. Fans and media alike are more willing to let things slide for a winner.
Those who don’t like the short, annoyed answers by Belichick are usually the same people who will always find something to complain about, so why listen to them anyway?
But Tougher to Please During Rocky Times
The 2023 season has been the worst one for Bill Belichick in New England by a mile. The Patriots have been both bad and unenjoyable to watch. There have been more mistakes, uncharacteristic of a Belichick-coached team, than ever seen before. These have shown themselves in the form of mental mistakes, foolish penalties, missed assignments, and costly turnovers. Mistakes like these, with incredible consistency, is the antithesis of the “Patriot Way.”
Although 2023 has been an aberration in terms of quality of play and results, one thing has remained consistent. When things have gone south in New England, the persona of Bill Belichick is no longer embraced.
In 2003, ESPN’s Tom Jackson famously claimed of the Patriots players, “they hate their coach; their season might be over.” It was said after the Buffalo Bills (with former Patriots Drew Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy) embarrassed New England 31-0 in the season opener. The 2003 Patriots would go on to win the Super Bowl that season. Twenty years later, Bill Belichick is still in New England.
It would be far from the last time Bill Belichick’s way of doing business was questioned. Google ‘Belichick losing the locker room’ to find stories found from just about every down point in his coaching career. In some cases, like 2003 and 2018, Belichick’s teams would go on to win the Super Bowl and everything would be temporarily forgotten.
But in case people haven’t been paying attention, the 2023 New England Patriots will not be lifting the Lombardi Trophy.
So, What is Different Now?
Lately there is something different about Bill Belichick, and it’s not just his record. Whenever he was curt with reporters in the past, there could be some defense of it. There doesn’t seem to be any benefit to some of his recent behavior. And at least some of it seems downright dishonest. Specifically, the story around this past Sunday’s starting quarterback.
Belichick claimed that the Patriots gave both Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe plenty of reps in practice. He repeatedly said, “I’ve told everybody to prepare and be ready to play.” Obviously, everybody should be ready to play every week. When Tom Brady was the New England’s starting quarterback for nearly two decades, his backup should have always been prepared to play, even if the chances of him playing were nearly nonexistent. But Belichick never split first team reps in practice to make that happen.
Chris Mason of MassLive wrote earlier this week that doing so actually goes against what Bill Belichick himself said back when there was uncertainly involving the New England Patriots starting quarterback situation in 2001. Mason quoted Belichick directly from the Brady-Bledsoe days in his piece:
Belichick’s Comments in 2001 (from Chris Mason’s article)
“I don’t think you can really get two quarterbacks ready,” Belichick said at the time. “I think you can get one ready and that is what we have to do. We have to get one guy ready to play and that is my responsibility to the football team.”
“Last week, the way the practice was split up… I don’t think we did a good job of getting our starting quarterback ready last week,” Belichick said. “That is not a commentary on the players, it is a commentary on the coaches. I feel like for us to get our starting quarterback ready, whoever it is, that we need to give that player the majority of the reps and the majority of the looks in practice to get so that when those looks come up in the game then we can expect him to execute it.
“When you divide the tray and split it up too thin, then inevitably you are going to get situations in the game where you look back and say, ‘Well he really didn’t see that in practice and maybe he would have read it a little quicker if he had seen it’ and that is a coaching problem. That is not a playing problem.”
So, if Bill Belichick acknowledged that having quarterbacks split reps in the practice is best for neither the quarterbacks nor the team, why did he go that route?
What is Belichick Trying to Hide?
Belichick was not interested in defending his decision about splitting up reps in practice or elaborating about what the plan was heading into the game. He would say only (repeatedly), “I thought they both deserved a chance to play.” Does that mean Mac Jones deserved to start, and after things didn’t go well Bailey Zappe deserved a chance to see if he could do better? Or heading into the game, did both deserve to play? Nobody knows because Bill Belichick wasn’t saying.
If there was an advantage to be gained by keeping the quarterback a secret from the public, it is unclear what that is. Would the New York Giants have prepared differently if they knew in advance that Mac Jones was going to start? Doubtful, but pretend that’s true for a moment. Everyone can agree it serves no purpose to keep the player’s in the locker room in the dark on the decision, right?
According to Belichick, at least originally, the player’s were informed about the starting quarterback during the week, before the team left for New Jersey. However, tight end Hunter Henry said that he did not find out who the starting quarterback would be until game time. This is especially noteworthy since Henry is one of the team’s captains. If he did not know, it is safe to assume none of the other players did either.
When asked about Henry’s comments, Belichick said, “I don’t know.” He then added that offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien meets with the offense. So is Belichick claiming he assumed O’Brien had told the players, but he must not have? Seems like a stretch.
Now Credibility Can Be Questioned
If Bill Belichick is dishonest about something as simple as telling players who the starting quarterback will be, what else will he lie about?
Against the Washington Commanders, cornerbacks J.C. Jackson and Jack Jones were benched for disciplinary reasons to start the game. Belichick would not acknowledge that at the time, saying only, “everybody played,” which was technically true. That falls under the ‘protecting players’ umbrella, which is understandable. He didn’t lie.
When New England played on Sunday, Trent Brown was active for the game, but began it on the bench. Conor McDermott started, but was eventually replaced by Brown. When asked about this, Belichick responded as he did with the quarterback situation. He said, “I thought they both deserved to play.” Was this protecting McDermott, by not saying he performed so poorly he preferred Brown on one leg? Or was he protecting Brown by not disclosing a disciplinary issue?
The problem with these “they both deserved to play” comments is this has never been the way Bill Belichick operates. He believes the player that gives the team the best chance to win should play. If that is not happening, it is for disciplinary reasons. It has never been because the head coach believes it is fair or kind.
Can we now believe Bill Belichick when he says the entire organization was on board with drafting Mac Jones? Or that he doesn’t already know where he will be coaching in 2024?
For New England Patriots fans, it is easy to long for the days of winning more football games. But it is surprising that the 2023 campaign has reached a point where Bill Belichick answering inquiries with “we thought that was best for the football team” and “I’m not going to get into that” are suddenly missed as well.