As Asante Samuel of the New England Patriots raced down the sidelines with Peyton Manning's errant pass early in the 2nd quarter of the AFC Championship game Sunday, staking New England to a seemingly insurmountable 21-3 advantage, I was filled with a sort of bemused foreboding. It had been my sincere belief that Manning was finally going to snap open the insoluble braintrap that has long characterized his tortured rapport with the Patriots, but now that they were running them out of their own building, there could be little doubt as to what they would do to Rex Grossman and the Bears in the Super Bowl. It seemed to me at that moment that this team was going to win an infinite number of championships. “My God, they are going to have to change the name from the Lombardi Trophy to the Belichick Trophy!” A peculiar thought for sure. I attempted to conjure the image of the new Super Bowl blue ribbon prize- the bronze bust of a discount hooded sweatshirt, a pullover number which vaguely obscures the inexpressive face of a befuddling madman.
I don't know if Bill Belichick is a madman or not, but watching his highly particular collection of twitches and tics as the Colts drove down the field for the game winning score, one is given considerable pause. Some coaches, like Tom Landry, are the picture of corporate calm and reserve in every instance. Others, like Bill Cowher, wear their emotions on their sleeve. I don't really know what Belichick does. He seems flustered and irritable when things are going poorly, but only moderately more so than when things are going well. In his theory of comedy, Henri Bergson speaks of a certain sort of stock character who does not exhibit a full range of human attributes, but instead responds in the exact same way in every situation: the automaton. Belichick is funny, and creepy, in very much this way.
Like public figures of every stripe, many coaches are profoundly suspicious of the media, and inclined towards an antagonistic and dismissive bearing in their dealings with them. We have become accustomed and even a bit inoculated to the acerbic, bullying condescension of “old school” characters like Bobby Knight and and Belichick's former longtime cohort and bete noir Bill Parcells. They rant angrily and press conferences are reduced to full-scale amazement whenever anyone has the temerity to question their judgment, regarding matters on the field or off. The boorish clucking of these asinine philistines can make for an amusing segment on SportsCenter, but takes on a more chilling character when much of the same pseudo-macho posturing is adopted by individuals of genuine influence like Dick Cheney, the gravel-throated tough-talker who is always ready to launch the next war, but could never actually find the time to actually serve in one. One by one these foolish men are ushered off the stage and into antiquity: Parcells into shrugging retirement, Knight now in the relative exile of Texas Tech University, and Cheney to history's shortlist of irredeemably failed public lives, though tragically not soon enough to save lives senselessly lost in Iraq.
Belichick strikes me as another kind of animal entirely. In some ways he is every bit the irritable curmudgeon with the media as these other men, but his projected persona is not a caricature of machismo that the “old school” types convey. Rather he reminds me of an academic who has risen inexorably to the height of his field, despite a handicapping flaw with respect to personal charisma that would render even slightly lesser geniuses to permanent hidden status in the mail room. He does not so much suffer fools as misunderstand them. There is an Occum's Razor-like elegance to many of the answers Belichick provides which can be mistaken for extreme arrogance, but I think it is more his desire to expedite matters than any true malignancy at work. Asked to explain how his vaunted defense gave up 32 second half points in losing to the Colts, he answered succinctly and without apparent feeling: “They are a difficult team to stop.” This utter absence of hand-wringing or even emotional tonality drives many reporters crazy. Belichick is veritably impossible to sentimentalize, a characteristic which cuts against the most fundamental tropes of sports journalism. While it is apparent by his methodical drive and amazingly consistent results that Belichick cares viscerally about winning, he apparently fails to see any role for emotion or even loyalty in this process. During his tenure he has repeatedly parted with amongst the best and most popular players on his roster when he felt they fell on the wrong side of his cost/benefit analysis. In 2004, when Belichick was unable to come to terms with beloved team leader and Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy, he simply cut him a week before the beginning of the season. So unconventional was the gesture that pundits league-wide predicted widespread dissent in the locker room and serious consequences on the field. Instead the team won 14 regular seasons games en route to a Super Bowl victory over the Panthers. In subsequent years he has parted with stalwarts like Adam Vinatieri and Deion Branch to similarly little consequence. Most teams try to lock up their key veterans into long-term contracts before they can reach the free agent market and be priced out of consideration. The Patriots just cut them and get someone else. The league remains stupefied by the team's seemingly singular ability to get away with this kind of tactic.
Despite the Patriots surprise flame -ut in the second half of the championship game, the 2006 season was another unqualified triumph for Belichick. With a typical amount of roster turnover, not to mention the further raiding of his coaching staff (top lieutenants Eric Mangini, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel have all left for high-profile head coaching jobs in the previous three years) the Patriots still ran way with AFC East and came within a minute of advancing to the Super Bowl. More importantly to Belichick's legacy, however, was the continued inability of Bill Parcells to win without him. Belichick was defensive coordinator on of Parcells' championship teams, and over time an encroaching view in league circles is that it was really the trick bag genius of the coordinator's stratagems which compelled those teams to glory, rather than the legendary, Patton-style mind games of Parcells. Unsurprisingly, the two were never close in a personal sense, and in recent years something like an open hostility has broken out between the two of them. So stark has been the difference in their fortunes while they were apart — three championships for Belichick, zero playoff wins for Parcells — that there is even serious talk that the Big Tuna, once on a short list of all time great NFL coaches, is no longer a lock for the Hall Of Fame.
The line trend continues unabated in professional sports, away from questions of team chemistry, pep talks, motivational techniques and other unquantifiable phantasms to something resembling the sheer unfeeling of science of plotted graphs and algorithms. One imagines this must sit very well with Belichick indeed — maybe even better than a fourth Super Bowl title would have. Following countless years of ceding the glory to the headline grabbing fire breather Parcells, the man behind the curtain has stepped out quietly, inscrutably and without the remotest inkling of a human touch to become perhaps the finest coach in NFL history.
Guest Footie Rant: Welcome to America, Becks
By Derek Keogh
According to one very noted Paul Wilson of the Observer newspaper in Jolly Old England, “Newspapers love David Beckham. So do television stations, magazines, advertising agencies and anyone else interested in gaining attention. A famous face, a winsome smile and an absolute mountain of money do the trick every time, as will shortly be demonstrated in America.” Really?
True, there have been a few excited high-pitched squeals from the odd Californian TV station, but is this really the man to visit the last chance saloon and try where Best, Pele, Beckanbauer Cruyff and even Trevor Francis have all failed — to escalate the sport of soccer (ie Football) in the hearts and minds of the American public? By taking this mission to the Galaxy far, far away, Beckham has turned his nose up at AC Milan, probably the most famous club in Italian Football. The heart of the Berlusconi empire. The chance to once more grace the world stage at the highest level. To play in front of the fabled San Siro crowd full of Italian passion and colour. Instead he’s decided to drop the u from colour and head to the 20,000-seater stadium that “Cobi Jones built.”
It’s relatively easy to see why. Fact is, David Beckham is past it. He’s been past it for a few years now. Alex Ferguson sold him to Real Madrid as he was on the slippery slope down. His celebrity and column inches were growing in the gossip magazines whilst they were falling in the sports Pages. True, Beckham has immortalised himself in British sporting iconography with his last-minute free kick against Greece to qualify England for a tournament they should never have been in, the 2002 World Cup. Their subsequent performance in that tournament, the 2004 European Championships — when Beckham bottled it by missing a penalty against France — and their utterly incompetent displays in the 2006 World Cup under his captaincy have only served to underline the fall of King David as a footballing force.
As Paul Wilson pointed out in his Observer, at the time of the World Cup, he was accosted via telephone during legendary Irish broadcaster Eamon Dunphy’s radio show. Dunphy barked down the phone at him over the Irish airwaves. “’You English writers know nothing about football anyway, You're all in love with David Beckham.'” Wilson tried to argue that it wasn’t the English sportswriters who were in love with Becks but the tabloid editors. Now it’s the turn of the Americans.