Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports

Bill Belichick's refusal to expound on coaching mishap appears to only bother media members

Alex Reimer
December 11, 2018 - 11:10 am

Bill Belichick refused to explain why he benched one of his best cornerbacks for the Super Bowl. He didn’t answer after the game and failed to entertain the topic during training camp. And for a fleeting moment, it seemed like Belichick would pay a price.

For the first time, Patriot Place began to show some signs of dissension. Tom Brady ruminated about whether he still possessed enough conviction to play; Rob Gronkowski told departing wideout Danny Amendola to “be happy, be free.” Gronk did not commit to playing this season until around the NFL Draft, which is when Belichick reportedly agreed to ship him to the Lions. The trade was nixed, because Gronk supposedly threatened to retire.

Then the Patriots started 1-2, falling to both the Jaguars and Lions on the road in embarrassing fashion. For us digital muckrakers, it was tempting to tie their struggles back the Malcolm Butler benching, and Belichick’s stubbon non-explanation. 

But the window has passed, at least for now. The Patriots, winners of eight of their last 10 games, are the No. 2 seed in the AFC. If they can defeat the reeling Steelers at Heinz Field this week –– where they haven’t lost since 2011 –– they appear destined for another 12-4 campaign. It doesn’t seem like Butler’s benching has carried over. Hell, he was an afterthought when the Patriots matched up against the Titans last month. Brady barely targeted him.

Butler was hardly mentioned in the deluge of panic-stricken coverage that followed the Patriots’ woeful loss at Tennessee. There was caterwauling about Brady’s so-called “noodle arm” and Gronk’s feeble health. Critics were panning the lack of talent on defense. But Butler not playing in the Super Bowl? That was months ago.

It’s important to keep this recent history in mind when chastising Belichick for playing Rob Gronkowski instead of Devin McCourty on the Dolphins’ crazy game-winning touchdown Sunday. Ben Volin excoriated Belichick in the Globe Tuesday, writing about the lack of accountability in Foxboro. 

The Patriots’ coach, who demands perfection out of his players, dismissed the “Miracle in Miami” when he was on with OMF Monday.

“I’d say that’s the least of our problems in this game,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of other things we can do better. Certainly that was a big issue, but there’s a lot of other things in this game that weren’t good enough.

“Look, it’s the National Football League. Nobody died.”

It’s human nature for one to downplay his own errors. Publicly, that’s what Belichick is doing. Brady did the same thing on "Mut & Callahan," saying he wasn't going to "overly dwell" on his costly sack to end the first half. 

Belichick’s track record gives him the leeway to stonewall the press. In theory, sportswriters act as a conduit on behalf of the fans. But in reality, Patriots fans like it when Belichick verbally spits on the beat writers who occasionally report disparaging information about their beloved team. That will change if they start losing, but for now, another home playoff game in the Divisional Round is on the horizon.

Yes, the Patriots likely lost their chance to clinch home field advantage with their stunning defeat. But the players didn’t show apparent signs of frustration towards Belichick after the game. Gronk even said he “has to make that tackle,” which he doesn’t, because he's a tight end.

It seems like much of the internal offseason rancor is long gone. ESPN’s Jeff Darlington says even Brady and Belichick are “vibing” much better this season. “Based on the conversations that I have had, there has been no watershed moment, but suddenly these two guys are communicating better and getting along this year,” Darlington said on “Sunday NFL Countdown.”

Brady also backed up Belichick in his weekly Monday conversation with Jim Gray, saying he appreciates his coach's calm perspective. Maybe he's won some "Patriot of the Week" awards this season.

“I think (Belichick) always takes accountability when we lose," Brady said. "He wishes things he could have done better. There’s things I wish I could have done better. It’s not one play. You can obviously point to one play at end of the game, which was a play that was a statistical anomaly. It’s incredibly hard to pull off. We practice those plays, too. It’s just hard to ultimately score the touchdown. There’s a lot more than that one play. There’s another 59.5 minutes that go into the game that we’re all apart of. Everyone loves to point at one play, one player, this, that, but the reality is football is the ultimate team sport and we as a team have always tried to rebound from really tough losses. This was a tough one. We had another pretty tough one last year that we rebounded from and we’ll see if we can do that again this week.”

An early playoff exit could rankle the Patriots’ foundation again. But it appears to be holding strong in the aftermath of the debacle in Miami, with Belichick and Brady both wanting to move on.