FOXBOROUGH - The new boss, a man fascinated with details, walked into a room and went off on the Patriots. He said he wasn’t impressed with them. He told them that fans and sportswriters would tell them they were better than they actually were. They would mine out “the positives” and he wasn’t interested in fuzzy optimism when there was so much work to be done.
He singled out players, testing them, seeing if they would offer the wrong answer to his loaded question: “Do you think you had a good game today?” For his ears, the correct answer for everyone should have been an emphatic no.
And that, folks, was Bill Belichick’s postgame mood on one of his good days - July 31 - following a 20-0 exhibition win over the 49ers. The players should have known then that this football savant, who studied college game film when he was 11 years old, was difficult to please. Imagine what he had to say yesterday at Foxboro Stadium when his players embarrassed him and themselves on national television.
Once again, the romantics will try to frame the latest Patriots loss, 21-16 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with uplifting could-have-beens. They will tell you that with one second remaining in the game, Drew Bledsoe had a chance to lasso an unlikely win. What they won’t mention is that even on that last heave to the end zone, Bledsoe had to have some Maurice Greene in him just to escape the Buccaneers’ linemen, who had stalked him for three hours.
What the new boss knows is that his first regular-season day at the office was hell. When he gazed across the field, he saw filmmaker Spike Lee - director of “The Original Kings of Comedy” - on the Buccaneers’ sideline. That was fitting, because Belichick’s own team put together a documentary of inexcusable errors, the worst one coming when it was done in by a phantom spike.
The Patriots gave up a silly touchdown late in the second quarter when they thought quarterback Shaun King was going to fire the ball into the turf to stop the clock. King didn’t spike it. He threw it to Reidel Anthony for a touchdown.
This is the NFL’s version of a shell game. Baseball has the hidden-ball trick and (talk to Johnny Bench about this one) sneaking a strike past a batter who is expecting to be walked intentionally. Soccer, hockey, and basketball have theatric flops from players trying to influence the officials. You never want to be victimized by the gimmick plays. They become bloopers fodder, placed on the shelf next to such classics as the Cal-Stanford “band” game. You know you’ve been had when the blooper has its own name.
“It was the `Dan Marino Fake Play,’ “ Lawyer Milloy said of his team’s breakdown. The New England safety was referring to the Hall of Fame quarterback’s sly move against, ironically, Pete Carroll’s New York Jets in 1994. Marino pretended he was going to throw the ball to the ground. He pumped once toward the turf, saw the flat-footed Jets, and went to the end zone for a touchdown.
That play happened six years ago, but a casual fan can still see Marino passing to the right side of the end zone. You may have watched the highlights and wondered how a team could flat-line like that in the final minutes of a game. You may have also known that it was the kind of loss that could end a team’s season as well as Mr. P.C.’s Jets career.
So here was Belichick, after a half day on the job, being linked indirectly to Carroll. That’s not good.
“We didn’t react well to the play at all,” Belichick said. “We obviously blew it.”
Milloy said that if he knows his coach as well as he thinks, the Patriots will be going over that play constantly in practice. Milloy, one of the team’s captains, said there was no one to blame on the play. Kato Serwanga was helpless, in single coverage, when Anthony ran past him. The only way anyone else could have reacted better, Milloy said, is if they could “run 2.2 40 [-yard dashes].”
Tampa Bay safety John Lynch said that the Buccaneers once fell for the play in practice, so coach Tony Dungy had them practice against it for weeks. “Fortunately,” Lynch said, “we haven’t fallen for it in a game.”
Unfortunately for the analytical Belichick, the play was not his only problem. The New England coach enjoys solving things, so it will be a busy Labor Day for him. Belichick once called his buddy, former NBA coach Mike Fratello, because he couldn’t understand why teams were so inconsistent in their double teams of Karl Malone. He’ll probably need to contact an entire tribunal to find out what ticks inside of his offensive linemen.
The optimistic view is that the team ran into a rare creation: a defensive line with power and quickness. Or maybe these guys aren’t very good. The offensive line provided the Buccaneers with a brief tough-guy facade before collapsing, making Bledsoe - who was sacked six times - look like one of the characters in “Run, Lola, Run.”
It was as if the Patriots were having a public identity crisis. Last year, they blamed unprepared coaches and arcane schemes for their problems. Yesterday, they certainly seemed to be trying to stuff themselves into their silhouetted 1999 profiles. Bad running game. Bad pass protection. A dependable defense. A harassed Bledsoe. A remarkable Troy Brown (the team has to figure out a way to get him the ball more often). A blitz not picked up by a back (Kevin Faulk). A loss that was close to becoming a win, but didn’t make it.
Belichick is not what you would call a public personality. After Warren Sapp had danced on the field, and after Keyshawn Johnson had talked trash with Willie McGinest and Ty Law, Belichick stood in the Patriots weight room. The private man then delivered this analysis of his team: “I think we need to shore up every area. We had some problems on defense. We had a few problems in the kicking game. And we had some problems on offense.”
If he said that publicly, try to imagine what he said in private. Maybe the coach is so demanding of his team because he views them as aloof gifted students: talented but underachieving. That has to be it, because these New England Patriots cannot possibly be as bad as they looked on Belichick’s Day 1 in Foxborough.