The Patriots locker room was choked with media Wednesday afternoon. We mostly milled in small crowds of three or four with nothing to do but chat until a player stopped long enough to signal a willingness to chat.
Then, like ants on a dropped popsicle stick, we’d swarm. Inevitably, a question about what happened in the Cleveland press box last Sunday would be lobbed up. The answer would be some variation of, “Not my department,” accompanied by a shrug.
Away from the throngs, I buttonholed two different Patriots starters.
I asked how much the swirl caused by an independent contractor for Kraft Sports Entertainment shooting video of the Bengals sideline from the Browns press box was impacting the team.
“F--- that shit,” said one. “I’m thinking about playing good on Sunday. I’m thinking about the Bengals. I have enough to think about. Not a concern.”
The other just shook his head and offered a pitying smile as if to say, “You don’t really think that’s on our plate, do you?”
It wasn’t technically Bill Belichick’s department either, but it has very much been on his plate all week.
If any of the 31 other franchises made headlines for doing what the Patriots did Sunday, the general reaction would likely be along the lines of, “Wow. That seems boldly stupid given the nuclear fallout from the Patriots sideline filming in 2007.”
For the Patriots to do it, given the nuclear fallout from their sideline filming in 2007?
It was like an SNL skit. It couldn’t be real.
Not surprisingly, Belichick is beside himself about it for a couple of reasons.
First, he tolerates the intrusion of Kraft Sports Entertainment because he grudgingly understands that promoting the brand is important to the owner. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of anything he’s doing with, you know, the actual football team, he’ll scowl but bear it.
But spending time entertaining questions about what he knew and when he knew it in the wake of a second consecutive loss to an AFC division leader? Those are brain cells suddenly occupied by something that not only has nothing to do with football, but which puts him in an awful light.
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And that’s the second reason Belichick is so angry. He understands that a huge swath of football-watching fans and commentators stand at the ready, waiting for a chance to dredge up SpyGate, the jaywalking offense that was prosecuted like a felony assault on professional football. It’s the second time in five years Belichick’s had to stand up and say, “I know nothing…” about some alleged impropriety and he knows the response from too many will be, “Sure you don’t…”
At 66, he’s a living coaching legend. His involvement and enthusiasm in the NFL’s Top 100 Players production feels like an embrace of that. It’s obvious he’s flattered by it and he was willing to share the best side of himself in each episode.
But this very preventable controversy in which he had no part means a dredging up of past sins, both real and imagined. Stern words from Roger Goodell about a “thorough investigation” and the inevitable penalty — whatever it is — is a scratch on a legacy that won’t be buffed out for those that want to fixate on them because they don’t like the man.
So of course he’s livid, furious, and any other adjective you’d like to use that’s a synonym for monumentally pissed off.
You can blame the Kraft Sports Entertainment personnel in Cleveland last Sunday for bad judgment in that instance.
But you can’t blame ownership for trying to promote and advance its brand, which is what the “Do Your Job” videos do. With a salary cap near $200 million projected for 2020, every team needs to exhaust its revenue streams. Mini-docs on the inner workings of the famously clandestine Patriots are a layup idea. The execution on this one was … off.
How will the NFL react? It’s probably a boon for the Patriots that NFL owners were meeting this week in Dallas. That allowed Robert Kraft to explain directly to Goodell and fellow owners what precisely happened face-to-face. Maybe that minimizes the number of teams who ring up Goodell to demand the full weight of discipline land on the Patriots regardless of the details.
The NFL doesn’t need this issue hijacking its season. The Patriots have already been in the headlines enough for off-field drama this offseason between Kraft’s incident in West Palm Beach and the Antonio Brown saga.
The league as a whole would be best served if its investigation is quick and transparent. A reasonable punishment that hits the team with a fine and leaves football out of it would be the best way to tie it off tidily.
But there’s no guarantee personalities involved at the league level aside from Goodell — league counsel and Patriots antagonist counsel Jeff Pash, for instance — could be looking for another pound of flesh from the Patriots' hide.
Confiscating some of Belichick’s precious draft picks would surely make the coach apoplectic especially since it’s the business arm of the organization that did the deed. And while some of his ire would be directed at the league, most of it would probably be directed in-house.
So there’s a lot of tiptoeing past the coach’s office going on right now.
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