Sunday, August 30, 2009

Injury Report: The Coach is Always Day-to-Day

If Bill Belichick were more dishonest, he wouldn't have such a bad reputation with some people.

Yeah, I know, he broke a rule and got caught. That's not the kind of dishonesty we're discussing here. The coach of the Patriots has a stern if somewhat unusual moral code about his trade. He won't tell lies. He seldom even spins the truth. Yet, like all coaches, Belichick regards knowledge as power and wishes to keep public information about his team to the minimum required by NFL rules.

So confronted with direct questions he'd rather not answer, Belichick stonewalls, evades, and parses words like Bill Clinton on acid. This makes some reporters angry, which is childish on their part, and often makes Belichick look ridiculous, which is unfortunate.

Belichick's remarks yesterday on Tom Brady's health were an excellent example of this phenomenon. To anyone with the slightest familiarity with pro football in general and Belichick in particular, the facts of the situation spoke for themselves as follows.

1. Tom got an owie in his shoulder when Albert Haynesworth fell on him.
2. The owie was not severe enough to require a medical procedure which Belichick would have to make public or get in trouble with the league.
3. Therefore, by virtue of temperament and several good reasons, Belichick wasn't going to say squat.

(A brief pause to explain a very good reason for not revealing too much detail on a minor injury to a vital player. It's a good way of turning it into a major injury. Why not just paint a target on it? Defenses SAY they respect stars like Brady too much to try and deliberately hurt them. Pro football history says otherwise.)

So Belichick stood in front of the microphones and gave his best impression of Michael Corleone testifying before a Senate subcommittee. He's an excellent non-answerer, and the press corps never laid a glove on him-until the bout was over. ESPN News re-ran highlights of Belichick's dodging on an almost continuous tape loop, and frankly, the anchors made little pretense of hiding their laughter. "Here's the great coach being weird. Isn't it funny?"

You know, it is, really. Belichick did look weird. But so what. All football coaches are weird, and the greater they are, the weirder they tend to be. It's an occupational hazard. Wide receivers tend to be high-strung. Linebackers have been known to be hostile. And coaches go paranoid -- on the job anyway. All of them.

There can't be a coach in football with a more different public image than Belichick's than his immediate predecessor with the Patriots, Pete Carroll, the wildly successful coach of USC. Carroll is seen as bubbly, enthusiastic, open, pretty much what Jerry Garcia would have been like if he'd picked up a headset and clipboard instead of a guitar. There's some truth to that image. But let me tell you a story.

When Carroll coached the Pats, the old Foxboro Stadium was still around, and the media work room was one of the end zone so-called luxury boxes overlooking the field. Before the start of actual practices on Wednesday, Carroll would stage little walk-throughs of plays he deemed important on the field before everyone booked over to the Wrentham school fields.

If you've never seen a walk-through, it's pretty much what it sounds like. The scout teams on defense and offense walk through the most salient plays of the upcoming opponent at a speed slightly slower than a square dance. After this, everybody stops, and coaches speak to them. It's gripping viewing.

You may recall that in Carroll's first year, the Pats started off 4-0, than ran into difficulties. After the second loss, we came into the work room one Wednesday to find that the windows had been covered up. Clearly, the Patriots were losing because we the media could watch Carroll describing the enemy's plays to his own troops. Otherwise, I guess, the enemy would not have been familiar with its own plays. In what I thought was a nice touch, the windows were at first covered with old sports sections. Postmodern secrecy.

That's nice, candid Pete Carroll. His predecessor, Bill Parcells, would look you in the eye and point to the west where he saw the sun rise if he thought he gain an advantage. Frankly, as a reporter, I always preferred a stonewall or evasion to a fib. You can extrapolate the truth from the former more easily.

Making fun of football coaches is easy and satisfying. I've done it myself often enough, God knows. Because he takes football so seriously (and why not?), and because of his mastery of the non-response response, Belichick is eminently mockable, which I've also done myself, and I think a lot of fans have too.

But it's really not fair to coaches, and I'm trying to cut back. Coaches are engaged in the endless and futile struggle to create order out of a sport that is essentially chaos with a clock and scoreboard attached. They're paranoid and secretive because their job makes them that way. Mocking them for it is akin to laughing at bomb disposal experts who don't like loud noises.

It's not as if any further information on how Brady's shoulder feels today is going to answer what's the truly relevant question here. If Belichick knew how Brady will feel September 14, he wouldn't be nearly so evasive.


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