LaDainian Tomlinson got it right the first time regarding Bill Belichick’s character and the culture of the New England Patriots. That was eight years ago.
Let’s step back to the 2006 season when Tomlinson was still with the Chargers. San Diego was the No. 1 seed with a 14-2 record, but the Chargers were upset in the AFC playoffs Divisional round with a 24-21 loss at home (a haunting defeat that was San Diego’s best shot at a Super Bowl in Philips Rivers’ era as the Chargers’ quarterback and subsequently Peyton Manning’s only Super Bowl title).
The Patriots celebrated in a manner that angered Tomlinson. They danced on the Chargers’ logo at midfield and mocked outside linebacker Shawne Merriman’s “Lights out” dance. Tomlinson surged toward a couple dancing Patriots and had to be restrained by other Patriots players and a teammate.
After a cooling down period in a press conference setting, Tomlinson was still hot.
“I would never, ever, react in that way,” he said when asked about the incident. “You guys know me -- I’m a very classy person. I wouldn’t have reacted like that. So yes, I was upset, very upset. Because when you go to the middle of our field and you start doing the dance that Shawne Merriman is known for, that’s disrespectful to me, and I can’t sit there and watch that. So yeah, I was very upset — just the fact that they showed no class. Absolutely no class. And maybe that comes from their head coach. So you know, there you have it.”
He couldn’t have said it any better – and maybe that comes from the head coach -- but eventually the moment and words faded away. The Patriots, previous winners of three Super Bowl titles under Belichick, kept winning. That’s the best tonic for preserving a reputation that’s been sullied.
Keep in mind this happened one season before Spygate in 2007, an incident that revealed what Belichick is – a coach willing to cheat to win by taping an opponent’s defensive signals. This isn’t open to debate. The NFL declared Belichick guilty. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 – the largest ever imposed on an NFL coach -- and docked the franchise a first-round draft pick.
Spygate should be considered an extension of the Patriots’ arrogance that led to the 2006 incident in San Diego. And now we have Deflategate -- the accusation of letting air out of balls below NFL rules to handle the ball better.
Does anyone sense a pattern? When did this begin with the Patriots? Where would it end if not for Deflategate coming to light?
This next incident I cite sounds nebulous on the surface, but in that same 2006 New England-San Diego playoff game the Patriots remained lined up in the Qualcomm Stadium visiting team tunnel leading to the field when they were introduced. The public address called them again and a third time – still no movement.
Finally, the Chargers were introduced to cheers by the hometown crowd and the Patriots ran out at the same time. It’s minor, yes, but it’s part of the Patriots’ long-standing mindset under Belichick.
Did Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers or Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers resort to such petty tactics? I was in the press box that afternoon and wondered what was going through the mind of Patriots offensive guard Stephen Neal – a San Diegan I’ve known since high school and the portrait of a sportsman. A lot of nice high school kids turn into arrogant pro athletes, but Neal has remained unchanged upon winning back-to-back NCAA wrestling titles, a 1999 World Championships gold medal and playing 11 NFL seasons.
But the Patriots kept winning. Soon all was forgotten.
All that mattered in the hagiographic NFL was the winning records of Belichick and his quarterback joined at the hip, Tom Brady. Belichick and the Patriots are so arrogant they think they can get away with deflating balls to help Brady’s throwing grip and the receivers’ hands.
Belichick, a control freak, and Brady, a craftsman at a position where quarterbacks are known for sensing minute differences in balls, both say they are “Shocked! Shocked!” to learn cheating and bending the rules may be taking place in Foxboro. (Has there ever been a movie character quoted more often that Captain Renault in Casablanca?)
If we’re to believe Belichick and Brady, some unknown figure is roaming around the Patriots Complex undetected. He’s duped Belichick and NFL security, although the latter is easier to believe when considering the Ray Rice investigation.
An example of the protection Belichick and Brady have received is the number talking heads/apologists on TV who point out that legal balls were used in the second half when the Brady completed more passes and the Patriots outscored Indianapolis 28-0 in a 45-7 victory. That’s meaningless. He’s a future Hall of Famer! He should pick apart an inferior opponent without relying on cheating. There’s something in football called momentum – Big Mo as Don Meredith impishly described it long ago on Monday Night Football.
One ESPN commentator who deserves praise, though, is Mark Brunell. He’s the one who has told us quarterbacks notice the minute details in a football. He said he doesn’t believe Brady.
The first time I was suspicious of Brady’s complicity was when I heard an ESPN replay of his weekly Boston radio show. His laugh sounded forced when asked about deflating balls. He also said he wouldn’t dignify such a response – which is what guilty people always say.
Belichick said Thursday he was “shocked” on Monday morning when he heard the Deflategate accusations. Yet it took him and Brady four days to meet with the media. They must have been getting their stories straight – just like Belichick did when he explained Spygate by saying he misunderstood the rule.
The only thing that surprises me about Belichick's latest episode is his background as the son of a long-time Navy football coach. Steve Belichick coached in Annapolis 24 years. Didn't Bill learn anything about character and honor growing up around the Midshipmen?
The person to feel sorry for in all this is the Patriots’ equipment guy who is about to take the fall for the Deflategate.
Belichick and Brady have taken a page from the late Henry Ford II’s playbook on handling criticism:
“Never complain, never explain.”