For Bill Belichick, the AFC championship was more than a lost game. It was another lost opportunity to erase the darkest blotch, maybe the only blotch, on his remarkable coaching career with New England.
Belichick has won three Super Bowls, and if you are part of Patriot Nation, you most likely prefer to ignore the fact that all of them were won before the so-called Spygate became big news in September, 2007.
Many others, the inhabitants of other “nations,” have never forgotten it and have placed asterisks next to those victories.
Belichick’s longtime practice, in defiance of NFL rules, of video taping and studying opposing teams’ defensive signals may or may not have given the Pats any distinct advantage in rising to a dynastic program that produced those three league titles in a four-year stretch starting with the 2001 season. Who knows?
The Patriots were nonetheless branded as cheaters, and those titles were tainted in many eyes.
New England returned to the Super Bowl twice since, could have won both, but dropped a pair to the New York Giants. That’s why last weekend’s 28-13 loss to Baltimore in the AFC title game was a missed opportunity.
Regardless of whether he would admit personal redemption as a reason, Belichick badly wants to win a post-Spygate Super Bowl.
As the story goes, after the huge fines, penalties, and embarrassment, New England owner Bob Kraft asked Belichick how much, on a scale of one to 100, the snooping may have helped the team. Belichick supposedly said the answer was one.
“Then you’re a schmuck,” was Kraft’s reported response.
Whether the Pats were the only franchise to take scouting to such lengths is a good question. We’ll never know, but they were the only ones to be caught.
“I didn’t know it was wrong,” was Belichick’s shoulder-shrugging, monotone defense then.
Supposedly the brightest guy in the business was confounded by a pretty straight-forward rule? Of course, the NFL was tipped off by an opposing head coach who was a former Belichick assistant.
The crime was in getting caught, perhaps. It’s not the like Patriots lost much more than face after the incident. That 2007 team went 16-0 and was on the verge of a perfect season before falling in the Super Bowl.
Including that year, New England since is 76-20 during regular seasons but 5-5 in the playoffs. Maybe the biggest stunner was when the 14-2 Patriots in 2010 lost to the Jets in the divisional round about six weeks after routing them by 42 points.
Some NFL insiders insist Belichick is still the smartest guy in any room. He’s certainly no schmuck. But the genius thing wears thin at times.
Just this season, he had star tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field for a meaningless extra-point attempt with a 59-24 lead over Indianapolis and less than four minutes to play. Gronk, who happens to be quarterback Tom Brady’s security-blanket receiver, broke his arm on the play.
He returned after six games. In the playoff opener against Houston, he landed on the arm awkwardly and suffered a refracture just above the plate surgically inserted to fix the first break.
Think Brady, who looked rather ordinary surrounded by a beat-up team, could have used Gronk against Baltimore?
Think a touchdown, not a field goal, might have helped if not for a horribly mismanaged clock late in the first half?
Schmuck? No way. But Bill Belichick sure could use another championship.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.