A decade-plus of nearly unprecedented success. Wins in 72% of their games. Three Super Bowl victories. Five total Super Bowl appearances. Eight Conference Championship appearances. A share of every AFC East division title since 2000. And then in 2014, the New England Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick stumbled out of the gate.
The knives came out. The media, both nationally and locally, quickly rushed to commence dismemberment of the organization.
Shalise Manza Young, a Patriots beat reporter for 9 years, reported late last week that second-year receiver Aaron Dobson was deactivated (i.e. suspended) for the Patriots’ games in Weeks 3 and 4 because of a confrontation with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Belichick and Dobson both have said that the report is completely false. Manza Young is standing by her story and others see validity in her report, with 98.5 The Sports Hub radio host Marc Bertrand saying, “[The organization] can deny it all they want; I don’t believe them.”
“Sources say Brady is uncomfortable with the personnel and coaching changes, the consequences have led to tensions between Brady and the coaching staff, with Brady’s input into gameplans, personnel packages, formations, pre-snap adjustments being significantly diminished. Has the staff lost faith in Brady? Or is it simply the residue of shaky personnel decisions, including the undeniable fact that since 2002, the Patriots have used 11 draft picks on wide receivers and only two — Deion Branch and Julian Edelman — have made any impact.”
Ignoring the final sentence that proves Mortensen can’t count (David Givens?) and deliberately omits draft picks used in trades to acquire receivers (Randy Moss? Wes Welker?), the piece makes an incendiary statement that Tom Brady is being ignored by the coaching staff. An incredible claim, as it contradicts nearly fifteen seasons of reporting on the Brady-Belichick relationship including video tape of how they work together in meetings. When asked earlier in the week about their working relationship both Brady and Belichick, in their own inimitable styles, dismissed any dramatic subplots invented by the media and instead, as always, blamed their poor performances on themselves. When asked about the report following Sunday night’s emphatic 43-17 victory, both Belichick and Brady refuted a rift and reiterated their mutual respect and healthy working relationship.
Accountability ‒ it’s boring. And the sports media business cannot tolerate boring.
Despite the demand, writing a “beat” for a sports team is actually a fairly awful job. Almost all novice journalists are assigned to cover an amateur team, usually from a local high school or college. They must churn out content daily, whether or not there is a “story”. Famously, ESPN’s Bill Simmons started out this way until he gave up on the long grind and hung his shingle out on the internet. Many of us who want to write about sports have no interest in covering high school field hockey. Very quickly, professional sports writing goes from something you love to something that is your job, filled with the annoyances and frustrations that accompany most vocations. The worst jobs are the ones where nothing happens, where content needs to be produced but there is no compelling reason to write ‒ except that you have to.
Ron Borges might be the finest boxing writer in America. For years, his coverage of the sport in The Boston Globe was literally without peer and his insight and knowledge at the last turn of the century rivaled legendary figures like Bert Sugar and Larry Merchant. But no one buys a newspaper (ha!) for the boxing column. So, Borges had to double up, taking on the Patriots beat. Churning out new content every day is difficult and one of the things that makes it easier for the reporter is having sources who can “fill a notebook.” Borges cultivated relationships with the important figures in Foxboro at the time, principally, quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Together with front-office sources (like Bobby Grier), Borges’ daily workload was drastically reduced. Knowing what was going on with the team now required a phone call and the occasional press conference, not the daily slog of speaking to multiple players, staffers and other “insiders” to get the story. That this “free time” allowed Borges to apply his attention and considerable talents to his primary passion ‒ boxing ‒ is a significant factor in what happened next.
Bill Belichick does not fill notebooks. In his first stint as a head coach in Cleveland, he deservedly acquired the reputation for being “unfriendly” to the media. Belichick admitted that he made many mistakes in Cleveland, among them taking an adversarial stance with the reporters covering the team. Yet that experience did not change Belichick’s monomaniacal focus on coaching, and, after arriving in Foxboro, he continued to give no information to the media that he did not have to disclose. Belichick, rightly or wrongly, believes knowledge of any player’s health status may give his opponent an advantage, so he refuses to discuss it. Even in March.
Mike Ditka once said of NFL legend and Chicago Bears owner George Halas, “he throws around nickels like manhole covers.” Replace “nickels” with “information” and it’s a fairly accurate picture of Bill Belichick and his relations with the media. Granted, when he wants to, Belichick can deliver a 10-minute soliloquy on the history of run blocking and answers most football history questions with gusto. But he has never answered a question about a player or an opponent with more than a grunt (audio link) and the shortest possible answer.
Belichick’s distancing makes the media’s job harder. Rex Ryan is more “loved” by the press because he almost always says something; bluster, blather, and bluff are tools of trade for Ryan and the New York beat writers can depend on some easy copy from Rex each week. Belichick’s reticence makes reporters’ work more difficult; his restrictions on players talking to the media further complicates the ordeal.
So, when Borges had to spend more time seeking out stories ‒ after his front-office sources dried up or were replaced and Bledsoe, his main man in the locker room, was traded ‒ he decided that Belichick had to go. This was not how things should be done: coaches should answer questions, leave franchise quarterbacks alone, and fill up notebooks. Had the 2001 Patriots not caught fire at the right time and rode to a Super Bowl title, Borges would have led the mob to ride Belichick out of town on a rail. But 2001 did happen and once Borges had staked out the “Belichick is awful at his job” ground, he somehow felt that he had no choice but to play it out, regardless of how stupid and stubborn and lazy and mean he looked while doing it. And in the course of running his agenda, he has ruined his reputation. Meanwhile, Belichick and Brady reeled off one of the most successful runs in NFL history. And as the winning continued, the job of a beat reporter got no easier.
One of Borges’s most devoted acolytes is Albert Breer, now of the NFL Network. Breer parlayed his stint as a Patriots beat reporter into a high-profile job as an “NFL Insider,” where his talent for self-promotion has him appearing on numerous radio programs around the country, including locally on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Nowadays, Breer shows up in Foxboro anytime the hint of blood appears in the water to ply his stock-in-trade: the “look at me” series of questions. Breer poses his useless, pointless queries and then goes about beating his chest and proclaiming his willingness to “ask the tough questions” while decrying Belichick’s lack of accountability, perverting the meaning of the term in his effort to take on the mantle of the pointless agenda Borges began so many years ago.
When the Patriots stumble (as they did for the first month of 2014), the frustration of local reporters who wish they had a job where the coach made things marginally easier for them boils over. National pundits, wrong so many times before about the demise (video) of the Patriots dynasty, trot out the latest conspiracy theories based on unnamed sources that conveniently confirm long-held prejudices. And, gleefully, the media seeks to make Bill Belichick’s job harder. Because who doesn’t enjoy tearing down the arrogant jerk who makes your day-to-day job more challenging than it has to be?
Of course, this behavior misses the point. Belichick’s job is to win football games, something he is indisputably the best of his era at doing. It is not to fill the notebooks of the media who cover the team. Somewhere along the way, the reporters who cover the Patriots (with few exceptions, Mike Reiss, Doug Kyed and Ben Volin among them) forgot that their job is not supposed to be easy and that Belichick’s attitude toward the media is entirely irrelevant to fans who are enjoying this unprecedented run of success. Instead of abandoning the agenda, fans are treated to a week of the media flogging Belichick’s blunt “we’re on to Cincinnati” answers and asking questions that amount to “Bill, tell us about how Tom Brady’s inner child is feeling”?
Borges began his crusade against Belichick honestly; he yearned for how easy his job used to be and crafted an agenda to get the man who made it harder fired. As the years went on, his increasingly irrational stances, insistence on carrying on the agenda and his numerous failed attempts to discredit Belichick have rightfully ruined his reputation. The next frustrated generation of like-minded reporters, led by Breer, have given up hope of ousting Belichick and have instead turned to manufacturing controversy to benefit themselves and their careers. Meanwhile, fans who would like to know what’s going wrong on the field are treated to more media whining about how Belichick won’t tell them things. Controversy drives clicks and when none can be found, some seem happy to manufacture it with unnamed sources. And, when those reports are discredited media members can just declare “I don’t believe him”. After all, what’s important isn’t reporting facts, it is carrying on the agenda.
Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.