DENVER -- Bill Belichick would not leave the microphone. That was ... weird. Usually you need armed guards to get him near a microphone.
But here, in the aftermath, there was silence coming from the assembled media; there were no more questions to ask. Bill Belichick was free to go. His New England Patriots had been overmatched in Denver. They lost 26-16 but it took late scores to make the score look even that close. Peyton Manning and the Broncos had obliterated New England’s beat-up defense for 400 passing yards -- the first time any Belichick defense going back to his defensive coordinator days with the Giants had ever given up 400 net yards passing.
Meanwhile, the Patriots’ star running back, LeGarrette Blount, who had rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns in the Patriots first playoff game against Indianapolis, was stuffed for six yards. Total.
There were no questions left to ask.
“We didn’t do a good enough job,” Belichick said.
“We needed to score more points,” he said.
“They did a better job than we did,” he said for the fifth or sixth time. And there was a long silence. And still he would not leave the microphone.
Belichick has always been one of those people in sports who fascinates and offends in more or less equal measure. He’s an utterly brilliant coach. His biggest attacker would concede that. Every single year since 2001, his Patriots have won more games than they’ve lost. In 11 of those 13 seasons they have made the playoffs. In eight of those, they reached the conference championship game. In five of those they went to the Super Bowl. In three of those, they won the Super Bowl. This is a combination of longevity and consistency that is unmatched since the NFL became America’s biggest sport.
He has shielded his brilliance behind a hoodie and a grumpy mask and a powerful unwillingness to let anyone too close to what’s going on inside his head. His ability to speak and say nothing is legend. The now ubiquitous “It is what it is” quote might have first been used long ago in Erich Fried’s poem “Was Es Ist (What It Is)*” but it was Belichick who gave the words power and universal application. For Belichick there isn’t a single question that cannot be answered by “It is what it is.”
*Fried’s poem translated loosely:
It is nonsense
It is what it Is
So it is all but impossible to say what Belichick FEELS. He breaks down film, and he designs singular game plans, and he makes cold decisions for the good of the team, and he pushes the edge. Everyone knows he was once fined a half-million bucks and had a first-round pick taken away when the Patriots taped the New York Jets’ defensive signals. Everyone also knows that he gets players to come together and perform beyond their limits.
In the Patriots five Super Bowl appearances, they’ve had four different running backs lead the team in rushing and five different receivers lead the team in receptions. Twice they had what was probably the NFL’s best offense, twice they’ve had what was perhaps the NFL’s best defense. He has seen his coordinators become head coaches in both pro and college, but it never seems to affect how the team plays.
This year, coming into the Denver game, everyone felt like this might have been the best Belichick coaching job of them all. Player after player dropped out. The team’s best receiver, Wes Welker, left for Denver during the offseason. The team’s great tight end, Rob Gronkowski, couldn’t stay healthy. The team’s other overpowering tight end, Aaron Hernandez, is in prison where he cannot even watch the games. Former first-team All-Pro linebacker Jerod Mayo got hurt. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer got hurt.
Injuries are part of the game -- a big part of the game, in fact -- but the point is not the injuries. The point is that a seventh-round pick who had started six total games in four years named Julian Edelman suddenly caught 105 passes for more than 1,000 yards. An undrafted free agent who had been in St. Louis, Danny Amendola, became something resembling a deep threat as did a rookie named Aaron Dobson. A 27-year-old veteran named Aqib Talib, who had been suspended for using performance enhancers and had been a general disappointment in Tampa Bay, became a Pro Bowler.
And the team kept winning games. They beat Buffalo by two, Atlanta by three, New Orleans by three. They beat Denver in overtime during the regular season, beat Houston by three the next week, somehow won a game that was lost against Cleveland.
They kept finding ways all the way until Sunday, when they ran out of ways. The crusher was probably when Talib was hurt after Wes Welker slammed into him -- “That was the key play in the game,” Belichick said -- but the Broncos are just a better team than New England, especially at home. The Broncos have had injuries too, but they have depth, they have three or four big-play receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher, and Peyton Manning who set an NFL record with 55 touchdown passes. “Best offense in NFL history,” Tom Brady called them. The Patriots defense managed to hold that Denver offense to field goals for much of the game, which kept the score reasonable, but the Patriots never could stop them.
What did this whole season mean to Belichick? What did the abrupt ending mean as he once again came close but did not win it all? He’s 61 now, has been in the league for almost 40 years, his star quarterback Tom Brady has only so much time left. Teams like this don’t come along often. “Too soon,” when asked if he could sum up this season, but still he wouldn’t leave.
“We’ll move on,” he said when asked how long this one will hurt. “We have to. ... So starting tomorrow we are on to 2014.”
And still he stood there in silence waiting for another question. You got the sense that he wanted to say something, but he wasn’t quite sure how to say it. He had talked about how proud he was of this team. He had talked about how tough those players were. But, you sensed, he still wanted to say something else, but just didn’t know how. Then someone asked him if this was the toughest team he had ever coached.
“I don’t know about ranking them ... but this team worked hard from the first day,” he said. “They worked hard daily, all day long, and I think improved. I think that’s how you do improve. You take the instruction you’re given, you work hard on it, you get positive results. Then you build on those, correct your mistakes. You build on those and keep going. I think as a team they’ve done that ... making corrections working hard, moving on, trying to get better, not getting caught up in what happened in the past.”
He spoke in a flat voice, but you sensed he was getting to something, something he does not ordinarily let out, something emotional.
“I just wish we could have done a little bit of a better job today,” he said.
And then, barely a whisper, he added: “Especially me.”