The Media Column: Inside the strange week where Bill Belichick denied reality about Josh Gordon trade

Alex Reimer
September 21, 2018 - 10:34 am

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Patriots reporters lived in an alternative universe this week. On Monday afternoon, the Patriots and Browns reportedly completed a trade sending the talented, yet enigmatic wideout Josh Gordon to New England in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. It was the biggest sports story of the day, and both clubs sent out press releases seemingly confirming the deal before the close of business. 

But Bill Belichick, amazingly, wouldn’t acknowledge the trade for three days. It was an eye-popping look at the lengths he’ll go to control the message out of Foxboro, even if it comes to denying reality. 

There’s a misconception out there that Belichick has no use for the media. But he uses the media like everybody else, albeit in shrewder terms. Deflategate is a perfect example of that. In the immediate aftermath of ESPN’s phony air pressure report, Belichick stepped up to the podium at Gillette Stadium and deflected all of the blame onto Tom Brady. “Tom’s personal preferences on footballs are something he can talk about in detail," he said in an eight-minute opening statement. No followup questions were answered.

Recent books from Mark Leibovich and Ian O’Connor that chronicle the Deflategate saga report that Belichick harbors doubts about Brady’s innocence in the matter. Plus, as O’Connor outlines in his unauthorized Belichick autograph, the Hoodie knew his legacy couldn’t handle another scandal. If Spygate was going to stick with Belichick forever, then Deflategate was going to be about Brady. 

That’s exactly what happened. Brady labored through an excruciating half-hour press conference directly after Belichick, fumbling through questions about whether he prefers his balls to be hard or soft. The performance was so bad, it brought ESPN analyst Mark Brunell to tears

Then, one day later –– and eight days before Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz. –– Belichick temporarily removed Deflategate from the discourse with the most captivating press conference he’s ever given. For several minutes, the notoriously dour Patriots head coach introduced the country to the Ideal Gas Law during an impromptu press briefing, and even slid in a reference to Marisa Tomei’s character in “My Cousin Vinny.” 

While Deflategate continued to dominate headlines for another year and a half, it was off the table for the Patriots. Belichick presented the NFL’s science as faulty, so there was nothing else to ask him. Besides, Brady is in charge of the footballs, anyway. Don’t forget that. 

When it comes to Gordon, it’s apparent Belichick didn't feel there was any advantage to addressing his presence this week. But under usual circumstances, the coach would’ve at least offered some banal platitudes about his new player. Then he would’ve commented on Gordon without actually saying anything, and the questions would’ve been quelled. 

But that didn’t happen this time. Even those who have interviewed Belichick for decades, such as Glenn Ordway, were shocked at his obstinance. Belichick called into OMF for his weekly spot roughly one hour after the Patriots had distributed their release, and proceeded to swat down four opening questions about the deal, claiming it wasn’t official, even though it was. 

“I was so stunned when it happened,” Ordway told me on the phone. “He was supposed to be live in the studio, but he had to do something, and then we heard he hasn’t going to be in the studio, so I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s left the office, and doesn’t know the press release is out and the deal is done.’ I figured he did not know and was out of communication with the office. So I started reading him the press release.”

Even that didn’t cause Belichick to budge. He kept insisting there were conditions that needed to be met. As it turns out, the teams were haggling over a seventh-round pick, which Cleveland officially agreed to send to New England on Wednesday.

Still, Gordon was listed on the Patriots’ official roster Monday afternoon. Belichick was effectively calling his organization’s announcement fake news.

The act continued Tuesday and Wednesday, with Belichick refusing to even reference the move during his mid-week conference call and press conference. The scene Wednesday was particularly odd, with Belichick insisting the trade wasn’t finalized just 90 minutes before Gordon took the practice field. Reporters even got to see his locker, which is located next to Brady’s. 

“I thought the approach was going to be a little different, in the sense of –– I think I had sent an email to someone in the company and I said, ‘On Wednesday, I can almost tell you what he’s going to say: He’s a big receiver, he’s had production in the league, he was available, and we’ll see how it goes,’” veteran ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss told me in a phone call. “I thought that was going to be the standard response, and it wasn’t. I was actually wrong, and part of me feels like the way it was approached made it possibly a more interesting story. It wasn’t just that he didn’t comment. It was the way he approached it, saying it’s not final, which is why he wasn’t going to talk about it. That actually made it interesting, comparing that to what I thought he was going to say.”

The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin thinks Belichick was strategically taking attention away from Gordon. When the trade first went down, coverage focused exclusively on Gordon’s litany of suspensions and failed drug tests. By Tuesday, however, the focus shifted towards Belichick. 

“The Patriots are the masters of timing things,” Volin said to me on the phone. “Adam Schefter magically had the report that (Julian) Edelman was going to be suspended like four minutes after Brady and Edelman had stopped talking. So (Wednesday) at around 11:00 a.m. Belichick says he can’t talk about it. By 12:30 p.m., reporters get to practice and what would you know? Gordon is out there. Then Belichick doesn’t talk again until Friday morning. So that’s strategic. Now there’s going to be two more days of newscasts without Belichick talking about Josh Gordon, and I think that’s because they don’t want to put any expectations on this kid, because they know how quickly things can go awry. 

“Now for two days, we’re talking about why Belichick didn’t want to talk about it instead of the player and acquisition and all of that.”

It quickly became obvious Belichick wasn’t going to offer even the most perfunctory insight on Gordon. Still, reporters had to ask, and employed a variety of strategies to try to crack Belichick’s shell. During Tuesday’s conference call, NBC Sports Boston’s Phil Perry repeated to Belichick one of his cardinal expressions about “dependability being more important than ability,” but no avail. The coach said it was a “pretty vague and general question” before moving on. 

On Wednesday, NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran, who’s been on the Patriots’ beat for nearly 20 years, cited the misreported Jamal Anderson signing from the mid-aughts, in an apparent attempt to get Belichick to at least explain why he wasn’t talking about Gordon. No dice. 

“It's not completed. So, I don't understand how we don't understand that,” Belichick told Curran. “When it's completed, it's completed. If it's not completed, it's not completed. And right now, it's not completed. So, next question.”

Reiss also tried to broach the Gordon topic in a different manner Wednesday, asking Belichick if he’s even met with the player. He got the “next question” treatment as well.

“I call it 'professional persistence,’” Reiss explained to me. “If the idea of, ‘OK, he's saying it's not final, but by all accounts it is final,’ so how do you reconcile that as a journalist covering the team? It’s a totally fair question to ask –– how is it not final? I think Glenn asked the same thing. I think that's all fair. I would've been disappointed if nobody did that, if we just accepted the explanation. I don’t think we would’ve been doing our job. If we accept that, it's like, ‘OK, we just want to be professional when we ask questions, and how fare do you want to take this professional persistence?’ Obviously, I would say my question was close to the line, because he had made it clear he wasn't going to talk about (the trade) until it’s done. But from my standpoint, it’s like, ‘Well, why isn’t it done?’ I think it’s a fair question, ‘Have you even talked to him?’ If it’s not done, it felt like that was a fair and professional question. We can’t control his answers, but we can control the quality of the questions that are asked.”

Oftentimes, asking Belichick about hot-button topics is a fool’s errand, especially when he makes it clear he’s not interested in expounding on the relevant issue. Yet, Patriots beat writers say they feel professionally obligated to still try and get answers. It creates a delicate balancing act: where is the line between professional persistence, as Reiss puts it, and self-aggrandizement?

“Sometimes there definitely needs to be a follow up,” Volin said. “But everyone in that room, we’ve all been there for a while, and we know when he’s going to play the game and not going to play. So OK, you address a topic, you get a follow up, and then are you going to hammer it home for eight questions? What’s the point? It can turn into a ‘look at me’ type of thing, and everyone will roll their eyes and be like, ‘Look at this hero.’ There is a fine line. We’ve all beaten down to the point where we know he isn’t going to address a topic, but you can’t let him win, especially because they send out transcripts nationally, and reporters are going to look at it and be like, ‘What the hell are people in Boston doing? Not even asking him about whatever?’”

In the more informal radio interview setting, Ordway says he finds it useful to have former Belichick players ask him about historical precedent in an effort to gain insight about a particularly issue going on with the team at the moment. 

“Belichick will open up about history. That’s where Christian (Fauria) is really good with us, and Steve DeOssie has been very good with us in the past,” Ordway said. “You can relate something that’s going on with the team now to something that happened when Christian was there or when DeOssie was with the Giants. And then Bill will go into specific detail about what happened in that case, and how they solved it, because he doesn’t have to address the players who are playing for him now.”

While clever strategic moves might be moderately successful, Volin says he doesn’t try to overthink it. He’s learned Belichick is either going to open up about a topic, or shut it down. There’s no middle ground.

“I’m so sick of the notion that we have to phrase the question the right way to get an answer from Belichick. Give me a break,” Volin said to me. “The best questions are when you ask him directly: ‘Hey Bill, what happened on 3rd-and-4? Hey Bill, what happened with Patrick Chung’s concussion?’ And he doesn’t give you a good answer, because it’s a hot topic he doesn’t want to answer. But they don’t keep score. They don’t say, ‘Well, Volin asked a poorly worded question last week.’ If it’s a topic he wants to engage in, he’ll engage regardless of who’s asking the question. It’s not my job to ask a question he wants to answer. It’s my job to ask the right questions.”

Sure enough, Belichick did eventually opine about Gordon –– kind of. In Belichick’s weekly team-sponsored “Coffee with the Coach” segment with radio analyst Scott Zolak, he finally acknowledged Gordon was on the team. 

"I think everybody feels like this is a talented player. We'll see how it goes,” he said. 

It probably isn’t a coincidence that Belichick decided to first mention Gordon with Zolak, opposed to his scheduled Friday press conference. This way, he doesn’t have to open himself to followups, and can already say he’s talked about the player. 

Belichick’s is just as strategic with the press as he is when plotting a defensive scheme. But with that said, he probably doesn’t have to go as far as he does. Would it really have killed him to offer that platitude to OMF on Monday, or the beat reporters on Tuesday and Wednesday?

“I think there’s always a purpose behind it. I don’t think it’s ever personal,” Reiss told me. “(But) would it shock me if 20 years from now and his tell-all book comes out and there’s some nugget where he turns to somebody before a news conference and had said something like, ‘Hah, watch what I do today with the media?’ I wouldn’t be shocked to read that.”


Doxing the Pats assistant who insulted Brady in Belichick biography: Perhaps the biggest bombshell to emerge from excerpts of O’Connor’s Belichick biography is the quote from an unnamed former Patriots assistant who says Belichick believes he could win with any top-15 quarterback in the league. 

Obviously, that’s an incredible shot at Brady. But consider the likely source. On “Kirk & Callahan” Wednesday, a caller theorized the ex-assistant is former QB Chris Simms, who spent the 2012 season as an offensive quality control coach for New England. As a media member, Simms has been one of Brady’s bigger critics in recent years, laughably insisting TB12 isn’t a top-five quarterback.

Simms was also quoted on-the-record in an O’Connor story last year about Aaron Hernandez’s trial. When we asked O’Connor on K&C whether Simms was his source, he chuckled and said he couldn't divulge that information.

Sometimes nervous laughter says 1,000 words. 

Peter King's outrageous Josh Gordon take: Legendary NFL scribe Peter King told "Dake & Keefe" Thursday he doesn't think Gordon is worthy of the Patriots' franchise. It's fine to dislike the trade, but what in the world?

In case King forgot, Aaron Hernandez wore Patriots blue for three seasons. The moral high-ground at Patriot Place was vacated long ago.  

Woke Peter Gammons: Over the last several months, visitors to Peter Gammons’ Twitter feed have been greeted with a side of liberal politics to go along with his usual baseball insights. Earlier this week, Gammons shared a tweet that said CNN anchor Anderson Cooper “shredded” Donald Trump Jr. over his claim that CNN exaggerated the impact of Hurricane Florence. In between that message, Gammons mixed in his usual baseball stats, along with some swipes at Trump for his comments about Hurricane Maria and Supreme Court justice nomination Brett Kavanaugh. 

“Kavanaugh says being a Supreme Court Justice is like calling balls and strikes,” Gammons tweeted. “Ok, then put Joe West on the Supreme Court. Better at balls and strikes, hasn’t perjured himself.”

In a phone conversation with me, I asked the previously apolitical Gammons why he's decided to start speaking out publicly. The Commissioner now has a far more polarizing feed than when he was sending out pocket tweets –– that's for sure.

Alex Reimer: Why have you decided to become more politically outspoken?

Peter Gammons: The extremism of both sides. Trump, obviously, I find it very hard to respect him. But it’s the extremism on both sides. Where are we going, and what are we accomplishing here? Over the years, liberal friends of mine have said, ‘How can you be friends with George W. Bush?’ Well, it’s really easy. First of all, he’s a good guy. But in his heart, he really cares about people. He did try to do things to (help people). It wasn’t extreme, and that’s how most people were. But now –– whether it’s Jim Jordan or the socialists running for office in the Democratic party –– there’s got to be a middle ground where people come to together and remember we’re not trying to win, we’re trying to help people. 

After years of working with programs in the city, I find it very hard to watch people who can’t fight back get beat up. That could be people in Marlboro who have no way out, or people in Roxbury. It’s not a race thing. It’s just, ‘Who has a chance and who doesn’t have a chance?’

AR: Yeah, it’s sad. That kind of stuff shouldn’t be partisan, but it is these days. Do you ever worry that you’re turning people off with some of your more political tweets?

PG: It concerns me. I get encouraged by a lot of people to do it –– whether it’s managers or players. There are people who like it. I actually made the decision that I can’t get angry about things and tweet it. Usually, I do it to have fun. I try to find something funny about it. But there isn’t a lot of sense of humor in politics.

AR: I feel like NBA and NFL players are very outspoken and socially conscious. It doesn’t seem like there’s nearly as much of that in baseball. Why do you think that is?

PG: I would say the majority of Major League Baseball players are very insecure. It’s also an everyday thing –– they don’t want to have outside things interrupt them, really to the point where guys don’t want to talk in a batting cage. It’s such a daily grind and daily routine, they just don’t want to deal with it. You’ll have some guys who say things, but not many. 

I never think they’re not conscious. A lot of players do a lot off the field with their foundations. It’s more of a tendency to block out politicians and take care of things they really care about. But there’s not as much downtime as there is in basketball or football.