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Patriots Way headed down rocky path
Bill Belichick, in the aftermath of yet another Super Bowl letdown at the hands of the New York Giants, should contemplate the following two questions. Patriots fans should hope he takes the second one as seriously as the first.
1. What went wrong in Super Bowl XLVI that again cost him, his star quarterback and his team another notch at even more lasting greatness?
2. What went wrong afterward — from the quarterback’s wife to the team’s tight end to the revelation of Belichick's strategic mistake — that allowed an organization steeped in silence and secrecy to allow so much of its personal business to be displayed for all the world to see?
What, exactly, happened to the Patriots Way?
First we had Gisele Bundchen, after the emotional loss, spouting off about the wide receivers who failed to catch her hubby’s passes. She let this not-so-keep-it-private tidbit loose in response to an annoying fan: “My husband cannot (expletive) throw that ball and catch the ball at the same time. I can’t believe they dropped the ball so many times!”
This is not a dissertation on whether Brady’s supermodel wife was wrong or right to let her emotions unleash themselves in such a way. My colleague Jen Engel already wrote a great piece on that very matter.
This is mentioned only because it was the opening act in a series of events this week that’s seen the Patriot Way go decidedly sour.
Belichick built a football legacy that includes three rings, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and an aura of invincibility by creating at the same time a system and philosophy as off-putting to some as it was successful against almost everyone.
The Patriots Way was about silence and loyalty — about top-down management, about control, about an almost freakish need to guard information and about a CIA-like approach to the media, other teams and other outside influences that might pollute the rigid and private culture Belichick created from sheer willpower.
Control, always, was the Belichick way. He dispatched Terry Glenn without fanfare or ceremony in 2001, going so far as to ensure Glenn did not receive a championship ring despite playing four games that season. He cut the talented but some say troublesome Albert Haynesworth. It was the family way or the highway, and guys like Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco were allowed in only if they understood. Once anyone did not — like Moss — they were out.
Not every political system lasts forever, and not everyone can be exported elsewhere. Ask Scott Pioli and the Kansas City Chiefs how the Patriots Way is playing in the Midwest.
But it worked for Belichick, to the tune of five Super Bowl appearances since 2001 and three championships. His evasive mumbles and monosyllabic, death-stare answers seemed as much a part of New England’s success as Brady’s greatness.
One voice. No leaks. Team first. Outsiders last. Family business always discussed among the family. You could almost imagine, in the early days of the Patriots dynasty, Belichick leaning quietly into one of his deputies who’d said too much and muttering, Godfather-esque: “What's the matter with you? I think your brain is going soft with all that comedy you are playing with that young girl. Never tell anyone outside the Family what you are thinking again.”
Well, Don Belichick, the family suddenly has a problem.
Gisele’s criticism of the Patriots wide receivers was just the start of the fun. That night, after the Giants had claimed their 21-17 win, tight end Rob Gronkowski decided to get down at the after-party with some topless dancing — Gronkowski being the topless partyer. His oft-discussed and apparently injured ankle, it should be noted, looked fine in the video that leaked out.
It’s not necessarily that a guy who has just lost the Super Bowl must refrain from a celebrity dance — though that’s certainly up for debate — or that he tore off his shirt. It’s not that he boogied on that ankle, particularly since he played.
It’s that, in the Patriots Way, we should never have known that dance, shirt or otherwise, happened. That’s family business. That tape isn’t supposed to make its way to outsiders.
This is all disconcerting enough, but then Thursday it was revealed Belichick was caught on tape during the game saying the plan in the closing and key moments of the fourth quarter was to ensure that the Giants be forced to throw to Mario Manningham.
“This is still a (Victor) Cruz and (Hakeem) Nicks game,” Belichick said in audio recorded for NFL Films. “I know we’re right on them. It's tight but those are still the guys. Make them go to Manningham. Make them go to (Bear) Pascoe. Let’s make sure we get Cruz and Nicks.”
Make them go to Manningham
Well, they sure did go to Manningham — for a spectacular catch that changed the tide of the game.
Again, Belichick is entitled to coach as he wants. And to make mistakes. And to get burned, sometimes, by those mistakes. Football is a high-paced game played against some of the best sports’ minds and athletes in the world under enormous pressure and a ticking clock. Crap, as they say, happens.
It’s not getting outfoxed that’s stunning. It’s that the secret of it is out for all the world to process, along with Gisele’s antics and Gronk’s dancing.
Belichick caught on tape talking so openly about family business — especially family business that might have cost the Pats a championship — would be like listening to Don Corleone caught on tape saying, “I really like that Barzini guy. See if he can take care of Michael until this trouble is over.”
Criticize the Patriots Way all you like. It worked. Belichick and his system were as impenetrable as the Corleone family. You even got the idea, when players and front-office types left to start their own families, that perhaps Belichick allowed them to kiss his hand before he granted them permission.
Thing is, the problem with a system that works is that it always works — until it doesn’t. A few chinks in the armor, a scent of weakness, and the whole thing can change. It’s why the Godfather kept everything in the family secret, why he told Michael to trust no one, and why until now Belichick did all he could to do the same.
Once they sense you're weak, they come after you. No doubt.
Take what happened earlier this week, when an online pawnshop dropped 900 pounds of Butterfinger candy bars off at Copley Square in Boston to mock Wes Welker and the key fourth-quarter drop that surely prompted Gisele’s comments.
Is she to blame for the mockery — for the fact the Patriots have become ordinary enough to warrant, to some, that level of disrespect?
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
What’s certain is, following a setback, the New England Patriots failed to keep it in the family. And that alone could be enough to change the Patriots Way indefinitely.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.