Who was the reporter brave enough to ask head coach Bill Belichick if he wanted to share his New Year’s resolutions after the New England Patriots lost a big game to the Buffalo Bills?
No stories named her, so I asked Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who asked Patriots spokesman Stacey James. Her name is Juliet Pennington, and she’s a regular contributor to the Globe and the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, where she often writes features about the Patriots. This encounter, which went viral, illustrates not only the power that grumpy Belichick exerts over the press and the willingness of many in the media to bow to it — but also what it takes to break from the pack. Pennington told me she has done the New Year’s resolution story many times before. But this year, because of COVID-19 protocols, she was forced to ask the question in a group setting, where she knew the beat reporters “would sneer” at her.
People have been nicer, she said, after Tom Brady, the former Patriots quarterback who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, quipped: “I want to be as brave and courageous as she was, asking that question to Coach Belichick after a loss. That’s what I want for the new year.” Remember, Pennington didn’t ask a tough question about some perceived Belichick coaching flaw. She just asked a non-sports question: “Football aside, I’m doing a story about New Year’s resolutions. I was wondering if you had any you wanted to share with your fans and our readers?” Not surprisingly, Belichick didn’t.
Check out the video, and the coach’s response isn’t quite as ugly as it could be: “Yeah, no, not right now. Maybe next week,” he said, looking pained and grim, but not borderline explosive, as he often appears under media questioning. But after it was asked, the media oozed disdain. As WEEI’s Alex Reimer wrote, “Serious Sportswriters who write about snap counts and red zone performance” felt compelled to issue some snarky tweets. Apparently, they were upset that someone dared to ask something other than whether the “struggles defensively were unique to the abilities of [Bills quarterback] Josh Allen” — a reporter’s polite way of asking Belichick why the Patriots defense collapsed against the Bills. Besides that query and the New Year’s resolution question, Belichick took four other questions, all carefully phrased so as not to upset him. Of course, tip-toeing around the Great Man didn’t change anything; as Shaughnessy wrote, the press conference lasted less than 3½ minutes.
Belichick’s taming of the press is legendary. Many mayors, governors, and presidents would love to have the same power to keep press conferences to the topic of their choice. But Belichick goes a step beyond that. Especially after a loss, he says little or nothing in extremely painful fashion. And he’s celebrated for that. When he recently issued an unusual apology for brusque responses at a press conference, Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Belichick means never having to say you’re sorry.” It was funny, and true. By the way, Belichick began that famous mea culpa with these words: “Look, fellas, I apologize if it seemed like I was a little short with you after the game.” Presumably, only men were present at the time of the offense, or worthy of his apology.
This season Belichick seems slightly more expansive, as if watching Brady grow more relaxed with the media makes him think he should do the same. The two are competitors now for everything, including adoration and football victories. Meanwhile, Brady is partaking in some playful trolling, as indicated by his comments about Pennington’s question.
To be honest, questioning Belichick doesn’t look easy; it looks hard. That’s all the more reason to admire a reporter who steps up and asks a question needed for a story, no matter what anyone else thinks about it. Watching a Belichick press conference also brings to mind an old-fashioned tenet of journalism, that the job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Remembering that is my New Year’s resolution.