Thank God for Bill Belichick. Thank God for his brilliance and his deviousness and his ruthlessness and his power. Thank God that, as the sociopolitical and cultural ground shifts beneath our feet every day, as our major institutions try to adapt to and survive a pandemic and an economic crisis, as our sports leagues accommodate players who might not want to play and fans who might not want to show up to stadiums, as the coronavirus changes how we interact with each other and whether we interact with each other and how we live our lives, Bill Belichick does not change.
Bill Belichick is not putting a runner on second base to start the 10th inning. He is not allowing his players to wear social-justice messages on their jerseys. He is not giving the No. 1 pick in the draft to a team that happens to lose in the playoffs’ qualifying round. Bill Belichick is still doing what Bill Belichick does, in whatever form that might take at a given moment.
In this moment, it took this form: The Patriots have reached a one-year contract agreement with quarterback Cam Newton. ESPN reported the transaction on its website at 8:04 p.m. Sunday. Exactly 15 minutes later, the network broke another piece of major news: The NFL had punished the Patriots for having their television staff film the sidelines and field of a Dec. 8 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns. The league fined the Patriots $1.1 million, took away a third-round pick in next year’s draft, and banned David Mondillo, who had been the TV crew’s senior coordinating producer.
Both of these developments are quintessentially Belichickian. Let’s deal with the latter first. Throughout his 20 years as the Patriots’ head coach, Belichick has trod the fine line between two kinds of behavior: innovative and ethically suspect. He prefers to use a left-footed punter because most punters are right-footed, which means the spin on the football, once it leaves a lefty’s foot, is less familiar to the returner and harder to track. In 2010, he drafted two strong, swift tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and put them on the field at the same time, forcing opposing teams to make a choice: Do we try to cover them with slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs? The examples are numerous. He seems always a step ahead.
Yet from Spygate to Deflategate to mysterious headset malfunctions to this filming incident, he has shown little to no hesitation about crossing that line. The NFL keeps hammering him for these transgressions, and he keeps committing them, with the same measures of brazenness and arrogance. The TV crew was caught filming the Bengals one week before they were scheduled to host the Patriots in Cincinnati. The Bengals? The Patriots needed an against-the-rules edge against a team that, at the time, had the worst record in the NFL and has long been one of the league’s most bumbling franchises?
Apparently, it just wouldn’t be any fun for Belichick otherwise. The Patriots won’t even bother contesting the penalties, and besides, the team already had fired Mondillo, as if he were the mastermind behind the plot, as if he were really the one responsible. Please. He was the last henchman left on the plummeting plane after Bane stole the secret plans and crashed it. They expect one of us in the wreckage, brother. The fire rises. Go, Patriots.
As understandable as it is to resent Belichick and the Patriots for such unscrupulousness, though, there’s no getting around that their decision to sign Newton is a smart one, another of the low-risk, high-reward moves in which Belichick specializes. Now, instead of relying on Jarrett Stidham to rise or fall as Tom Brady’s successor, the Patriots have Newton, who as recently as 2015 was the league’s most valuable player. Because of shoulder and Lisfranc injuries, Newton has played in two games since the middle of December 2018, but those injuries and the risk they presented also enabled the Patriots to sign him to an incentive-heavy contract. His reported base salary will be just more than $1 million.
If Newton never quite recovers from the foot surgery he had in March, if he turns out to be the quarterback version of Chad Ochocinco and not Randy Moss, then the cost to the Patriots is minimal. But Newton is still in the prime of his career, or should be. He turned 31 last month. Having been cast off after nine years with the Carolina Panthers, he is well motivated, or should be. And if he isn’t, Belichick will probably have an answer for that, too.
In a memorable scene from his book Belichick, the definitive work on the coach’s life, Ian O’Connor describes the Patriots’ first team meeting before the 2007 season, in which New England won its first 18 games before losing in the Super Bowl. Seated next to each other in the meeting were the Patriots’ two newest wide receivers, Moss and Donte Stallworth, who were stunned as Belichick rolled film of a succession of errant passes by Brady and ripped into the quarterback over the mistakes.
“Moss and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, s---,’” Stallworth told O’Connor. “We sat up in our seats. We were like, ‘Holy s---.’ Like a movie. … If Tom Brady gets this, everyone can. It set the tone for the season.”
In these crazy times, there is something comforting about learning that Belichick broke the rules once more, about envisioning him back in that darkened room, slicing up Newton or Stidham in front of the entire team, filling every player with the fear that he might be next. Bill Belichick is still Bill Belichick, the villain we need right now. Would it be a good thing if, in a few months, the Patriots were in the mix to win another Super Bowl? This much is certain: It wouldn’t be a bad thing. It would mean there was an NFL season. It would mean things were normal again, for a little while.