In 2012, after several receivers dropped key passes from her then-husband, quarterback Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots lost Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants, Gisele Bundchen famously said, “My husband cannot [expletive] throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.”
In other words, she blamed the playing, not the coaching, for the defeat.
A decade-plus later, the losing record of the Patriots is all on Bill Belichick, who has gone, as The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, writes, “from the greatest coach ever to a man just trying to coax a 2-7 team into competence.” Those who once adored Belichick for his sourness and dourness can’t wait to see him replaced, as if all it will take is a younger, more cheerful coach to stop lumbering quarterback Mac Jones from throwing another interception.
For sure, Belichick is accountable for his management of what former Patriots coach Bill Parcells called the “groceries” — the roster of players picked and dismissed, or mysteriously benched. But the idea that this losing season is all about a 71-year-old coach who is too old and out of touch vs. a team that can’t put it together on the field seems unfair to this non-football expert.
Obviously, the Brady-Belichick combination was magic. They played to each other’s strengths and weaknesses in a way that is hard to duplicate, and the Jones-Belichick matchup falls miserably short of that. But does that mean Belichick is done as a coach and all that he achieved is reduced to nothing? If that’s true, it says as much about the Boston-Massachusetts-New England psyche as it does about Belichick. The Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy has written a lot about that over the years, noting in 2010, after the Patriots lost a wild-card game that would have given them a playoff berth, “Truth be told, there’s been a sense of arrogance and entitlement about Boston sports fans in recent times. Success did not become us. We were lovable losers back in the day, but gracious winners in good times.” Since then, the arrogance and entitlement of the region’s fan base has only grown worse.
As a coach, Belichick is not a gracious winner or loser, which makes him unlovable to anyone but a rabid Patriots fan. However, when he was winning, everything he did was taken as a sign of genius, including his rude, unpleasant demeanor at postgame press conferences. If you want one, you can still buy a “Faces of Bill Belichick” hooded sweatshirt, showing nine images of the same surly visage above different emotional states, from angry to happy, from sad to confused. But how many Patriots fans want one now?
It could be, as others have written, that the football world has moved on from where it was when Belichick started coaching. Maybe a slogan like “do your job” is no longer enough to motivate today’s football players and harsh postgame judgments about which players didn’t do their job — for which Belichick is famous — do not inspire better performances. If so, that, too, reflects a generational change in workplace culture. In most lines of work today, what once was tolerated as the price of entry to a much-sought-after career can now trigger complaints about a toxic workplace. Maybe that translates to hurt feelings in the locker room, too.
Belichick’s story — in this case in the realm of sports but one that is true in many other areas of life — is part of the natural rise and fall that often accompanies fame. You’re fortunate to have a great run and even more fortunate to leave on your own terms. To make a less Boston-centric point, remember New York Yankees manager Joe Torre? He won four out of five World Series, but after 10 mostly successful years, the Yankees unceremoniously fired him. Glory is fleeting in the best of times. And what about CEOs? Chris Licht was gone a year after he took over CNN.
Belichick will get his due when this is all over, but at the moment, the ending doesn’t look good. To me, he’s more interesting as a losing coach than as a winning one anyway. How does he handle the kind of adversity he has not experienced in a very long time? What does he really think about the players who dropped the ball this season — or the one who can’t throw it?
In “The Education of a Coach,” the late, great David Halberstam wrote this about Belichick back in 2005: “In his professional role ... he thought he had to win football games, not hearts and minds. ... That which made him most human and revealed his personality, he shielded from the public.”
That is still true today.