What’s Bill Belichick thinking when he’s refusing to answer?
In those ever-lengthening pauses where disembodied Belichick rocks, sighs, and narrows his eyes, time is filled by wondering what Bill wishes he was saying when he’s not saying anything.
Those silences and Belichick’s responses to the irksome questions have been among the most memorable moments of this 2020 season.
Years in the future, people will remember Year 1 A.B. (after Brady) for COVID, Cam, missed playoffs and pissed-off Bill.
We’ve seen irritated, gruff, dismissive Belichick plenty of times over the past 20 years. But this year’s model is different. With playoff hopes extinguished and Cam Newton’s passing labors continuing, the question about who’ll play the position in the final two games is elementary.
Belichick aggressively doesn’t want to hear it. And when responding, he sounds more like a an exhausted dad telling his kids he'll "turn this minivan right around!" than the most successful coach in NFL history handling a tenderly-phrased question about a position that’s gone sideways this year.
On Friday, ESPN’s Mike Reiss asked and Belichick replied, “Mike, we’re not answering this question every day. We’ve been through this for a month.”
On Monday, WEEI’s Lou Merloni took the scolding with Belichick saying, “Yeah I mean we’ve talked about that. … We’ve talked about that question. It’s been several weeks and we continue to ask the same question. I’m done with it.”
Belichick did indeed answer the question on December 11 after the Patriots got drilled by the Rams and Newton was lifted early in the fourth quarter. “Yeah, great question, Mike. Really glad you asked that. Cam’s our quarterback,” said Belichick.
Since that loss – as Reiss and Merloni both pointed out in their exchanges – the Patriots circumstances changed drastically. There's no shot at the postseason. Newton's floundering. Second-year player Jarrett Stidham is still low on game experience. The question’s - snarkily answered the first time with no explanation of "why" - is pertinent again. And since then, Belichick hasn’t answered it. He’s only fielded it. Angrily.
On WEEI last Wednesday, I asked Michael Irvin – a huge Belichick admirer and someone who’s both in the media and felt its wrath – if we were wrong to press Belichick this way.
“No. No one’s wrong,” he said. “It’s just new. Bill has been (being prickly) forever and you can get away with it when you’re winning. But when you’re losing, ‘Dude, you gotta come up with some answers now. We wanna hear something.’ And that’s the situation that’s going on.
“You people wanna hear answers,” Irvin continued. “You want to hear a plan to get back on track. Before you didn’t need to hear a plan to get back on track. You were running the whole track. So whatever he said in interviews you just went with it because he was out front.”
I asked Irvin if he thought Belichick – based on his record – might believe he was above being challenged.
“What would you be saying?” asked Irvin. “You’d be saying: ‘Have I not gained any leeway here? I’ve given you 20 years. And in those 20, half of the time you were in the Super Bowl. I won six of them. Like, c’mon. If I haven’t gained any clout nobody has.’
“So yeah, I understand Bill having his chest poked out when people are trying to push him around right now,” said Irvin. “I understand him laying on his history and saying, ‘Check out my record. I don’t wanna hear this right now. Give me time. I just lost the goat and I gotta restock.’ This is the ebb and flow of it.”
Belichick – it’s become very obvious – isn’t enjoying the scrutiny, criticism, backseat driving and 2020 hindsight that accompanies an ebb. And not only is he out of practice in with dealing with it, he’s 68. He’s coached in 12 Super Bowls. He’s been on the winning side in eight of them. He’s the greatest coach in NFL history. He’s a living oracle as witnessed by his inclusion and domination of all analysis in the NFL 100 All-Time Team show.
If there were a thought bubble over his head when he falls silent during our video conferences, it might say this…: “All due respect, I forget more about football in a night’s sleep than the whole miserable lot of you will ever know. So I’m sorry if I don’t feel compelled to explain why I choose to do what I do. You’ve had a nice run thanks to me. Don’t push it.”
When Belichick did open a vein and shoot straight this year, he chose to do so in an interview with his former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Of course, Weis would rather gargle razor blades than ask Belichick anything that would be deemed mildly challenging. But Weis’ question about “young guys playing because you like them or because of the world we’re living in…” drew a detailed response.
“A combination of reasons,” Belichick began during the October 31 interview. “We were pretty heavily invested in our team in the past few years. From a salary-cap standpoint, we didn’t have much flexibility at all. I think that was obvious on the Cam Newton contract. Then we had some opt-outs, so we lost some players there that would normally have been giving us significant amount of play time. And then like every year, a couple guys are banged up and we’ve missed some guys here and there in certain games ….
"Again, because of our cap situation in this particular year, this is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years,” Belichick added. “We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years.”
If you google, “What’s the difference between an excuse and an explanation?” you get myriad results. The upshot, though, is this: An explanation shows responsibility and conscious action. An excuse makes it sound like some confluence of circumstances beyond your control put you where you are.
To me, the Weis answer read like an explanation.
To former Patriots tight end and WEEI personality Christian Fauria, it read like an excuse. And he said so while talking to Belichick.
"I didn't say it as an excuse. I never said that," said Belichick when pressed by Fauria. "Look, we paid Cam Newton a million dollars. It's obvious we didn't have any money. It's nobody's fault. That's what we did the last five years. We sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth, and played in an AFC championship game. This year we have less to work with. It's not an excuse. It's just a fact.”
Excuse, explanation, whatever it was, Belichick deviating from “the past doesn’t matter” to “check my record” did signal a change. And it didn’t start with the Fauria exchange.
Last January, after the playoff loss to Tennessee, Belichick responded to a question about Patriots fans sticking with the team through “thick and thin” by noting there “hasn’t been a lot of thin around here.” Which was at once accurate, petty and hysterical.
When asked about recent drafts yielding few impact players, Belichick said, “I’m not going to apologize for our record over the past 20 years."
It’s obvious Belichick views negative-tinged questions about the present as assaults on his overall record. So discussions as to why the team’s floundered recently with top-100 draft picks and has no clear plan at quarterback are third-rail issues. That Brady’s on his way to a 40-touchdown season in Tampa Bay, meanwhile, probably won’t ease Belichick’s defensiveness.
One can say – very accurately – that this is how Belichick has always been with the media. Prickly. Suspicious his answers will be bastardized and sensationalized. Unwilling to play the game because, really, it is a game and if he’s not winning he’s not playing.
Does Belichick even pay attention to media coverage? Of course. His letter of support to Donald Trump on the eve of the 2016 election centered on what Trump had to overcome: “You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully – beautifully.”
Belichick himself is now dealing with a lot of people he believes have short memories and nice careers built around something he created.
The past two decades, when people came at him demanding answers for why he did what he did, his team’s success would provide by proxy the “STFU” that he couldn’t.
This year, it can’t. Whether it will be able to next year is also debatable. Until it can do so once again, the only recourse Belichick has for dealing with questions he sees as insolent? More of the silent treatment.