LONDON — Bill Belichick was the Dour of London on Friday, as the Patriots arrived to play a different brand of football than the one of Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, and David Beckham.
On a quintessential overcast London morning, Belichick, the man that Bill Parcells nicknamed “Gloom,” looked and sounded as enthused as Kate Middleton caught in her knickers at a photography convention about being in Merry Old England to play the St. Louis Rams on Sunday at Wembley Stadium.
If the NFL was looking for its preeminent coach to act as a good-natured goodwill ambassador for expansion in the United Kingdom, it made a miscalculation. A bleary-eyed Belichick, more chary than cheery, offered the requisite niceties and name-checks during his press conference at the Grosvenor House Hotel. But it was more than just jet lag that left him lacking genuine enthusiasm about or appreciation for the opportunity to export the NFL to the London.
“It’s good to be in London . . . Excited to be here. We’re looking forward to the game and facing the Rams — and London. It’s always nice to be in London,” said Belichick, sounding rehearsed.
People who are excited about a destination tend to want to get there sooner. The Rams have been here since Tuesday, carrying the NFL flag. The Patriots arrived Friday. New England had the same travel itinerary in 2009, when it defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 35-7.
If the NFL is serious about becoming part of the fabric of the British sports scene, it has to mandate that the teams show up by Wednesday for more media coverage. There isn’t a coach in the league who wouldn’t like to show up at the Super Bowl on a Friday, have one day of media access, and play the game on Sunday. But the NFL would let Jonathan Vilma become commissioner before it let that happen.
There was not a great deal of buzz here about the big American football game at Wembley Stadium this weekend. Friday’s Times of London had 24 pages of sports and the only “football coverage” was about the previous evening’s Europa League games — roughly the major European club soccer equivalent of the NIT tournament — in which three English Premier League sides participated, including John Henry’s Liverpool club.
It’s clear Belichick doesn’t buy the idea of American football catching on in the United Kingdom, although he is smart enough not to say it directly.
He dumped a cup of cold Earl Grey on the local reporters who wanted his stance on whether a potential NFL franchise in London, a stated goal of commissioner Roger Goodell, would be attractive to players and coaches. The league, which has staged a regular-season game in London annually since 2007, will play two games at Wembley Stadium next season.
“I’m not really sure. I haven’t really thought about it,” Belichick said. “I’m just trying to coach the team I’m on, and I don’t know about all the rest of it.”
It’s good to know his non-answers work on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Playing in London is a control-freak coach’s nightmare. It flies in the face of their maniacal adherence to routine. In a sport whose bedrock is habit and repetition, this game represents anything but. There is the urge for players to sight-see and potentially lose focus. There is the feeling of being on vacation, not vocation. Everything is foreign in a game that craves familiarity.
Plus, the NFL’s London contest is as much about commercialism as it is competition.
Spreading the gridiron gospel on an international scale probably isn’t high on Belichick’s list, considering his team is 4-3 and has offered unconvincing performances each of the last two weeks. He has a leaky pass defense to fix, and an offense that leads the league in points but lacks a killer instinct.
That could be why the Patriots canceled a scheduled walkthrough at a cricket oval and then held an “impromptu” walkthrough in Hyde Park at 2 p.m. The official explanation from the team was that the ballroom space at their hotel proved too small when it couldn’t be cleared in time, so at 1:25, Belichick called an audible and took the boys to the park.
The royals wish they could dodge the media so deftly.
Quarterback Tom Brady openly spoke about the responsibility of proselytizing American football. “That’s why we’re here, to kind of be ambassadors for the NFL,” he said. “I think the players understand that. The players are excited about that. But at the same time we realize our main goal is to win a football game. It will certainly be a much longer flight home if we don’t take care of business.” Belichick was a much more reluctant NFL envoy.
You can’t blame Belichick for refusing to enhance the hype. It falls under the category of “best interest of the team,” which isn’t necessarily what’s best for owner Robert Kraft and his 31 partners trying to spread the NFL brand.
“Are you excited to be in London?” one UK inquisitor asked Belichick.
You could have subbed “Buffalo” or “Jacksonville” or “Cleveland” for London in his answer.
“We’re excited about being in London. We’re excited about playing the Rams. We’re excited to get on the field,” said Belichick. “We play once a week. We practice all the rest of the week. We get one opportunity a week to go out and perform, and that’s always an exciting time.
“That’s what you put in all the practice, training, and hours of preparation for, is that one opportunity to play during the week. Whenever it comes — and it’s coming on Sunday in London — we’re excited to play, as we are every week.”
It seems as though Belichick is more excited some weeks than others.