No matter how many wins he racks up, how many Super Bowls his name is attached to, how many Coach of the Year trophies he is awarded, Bill Belichick will never be able to expunge Spygate from his otherwise sterling NFL coaching résumé.
Not until, and unless, he is willing to fully explain it someday.
It's as much a part of his legacy as winning seasons, hooded sweatshirts, situational football, defensive brilliance and oft-repeated bromides. Around here the whole sad and sordid signal-swiping saga has been mostly forgotten. We have more pressing Patriots matters, like finding a pass rusher and a third wide receiver.
But outside of these provincial parts there is a perception that the Patriots and Belichick never fully atoned for their sins, that they washed them off and walked away. That sentiment is obviously shared by the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell. Peter King's paean to the Commish in Sports Illustrated reopened an old wound.
Yesterday, Belichick was named the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year for the third time and deservedly so after coaxing a young, retooling team to a 14-2 season. Yet the honor was a footnote to Spygate. In the SI profile, Goodell revealed that he felt "deceived" that Belichick did not delve into more details about his actions.
As part of the punishment Goodell levied in 2007, which included $750,000 in fines and stripping the Patriots of a first-round pick, he expected Belichick to convey his contrition for the matter in a more public manner than the terse four-paragraph, 165-word statement the team sent out after the ruling.
Join the club, Mr. Goodell.
Outside of his years in Cleveland, it is perhaps the only time that Belichick's stolid approach at the podium came back to bite him. It was the one time he should have broken from his playbook of non sequiturs.
The day after the ruling, Belichick was asked repeatedly in his press conference about the circumstances of the signal-stealing operation, why the team had engaged in it and whether he acknowledged wrongdoing. At one point, he was asked if he would at least admit he made a mistake? His response: "I've made a statement, and I think all of that has been covered."
Talk about tone deaf.
In fairness, Belichick did eventually fall on his sword in an interview with CBS that aired on May 16, 2008, telling Armen Keteyian, "I made a mistake. I was wrong. I was wrong." And in a Feb. 2008 interview with the Globe, he delved deeper into the process of the signal taping, explaining that finished films weren't even completed until the Thursday or Friday of the week following the game they were taken. And that these films had "minimal" impact.
It's absurd to attribute all of the Patriots' success under Belichick to electronic espionage. The Patriots won three Super Bowls because they had a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback combination, clutch performers like Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison and Willie McGinest and the requisite amount of favorable fortune that all great teams need.
They've lost three straight playoffs games because of a combination of being outplayed and outcoached, because luck switched sidelines (see: Tyree, David) and because they simply don't have as many pressure performers as in the past.
Yet, Belichick makes it easier for his critics to point to the candid camera as the reason for his success because he's never fully explained why the Patriots were doing this in the first place. If there was no advantage then why waste the time and effort? If it was as minimal as Belichick has previously stated then why not explain why its minimal?
The everybody-does-it defense might have some truth to it, but it's a childish excuse. The only other team to be caught and punished by the league for illicit use of video equipment is the Denver Broncos, fined $50,000 by the league in November for taping the San Francisco 49ers walk-through before the two teams played in London in October.
The coach of the Broncos at the time was Belichick disciple Josh McDaniels.
When asked why the Broncos got off easier than the Patriots, NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash said:
"Here you had, as best we can conclude, a single incident as opposed to, in New England, years of activity. You had an incident that, as best we could identify, was carried out by a single employee without direction from the coaching staff or anyone else at the club. That's obviously different from what we saw in New England where the head coach was actively supervising the activity."
Don't think those words won't haunt Belichick someday in a Hall of Fame voting debate. Make no mistake, Belichick won't get the Pete Rose (gambling) or Mark McGwire (steroids) treatment. Our canonized coach will end up in Canton, but not before Spygate is dredged up again.
America is a country that eats up contrition like fried fast food. The only thing enjoyed more than the fall of a hero is his ultimate redemption. Look no further than a pair of bad boy quarterbacks from Pennsylvania, Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger. A hysterical headline from the satirical news site "The Onion" said it all.
Belichick's violation of the integrity of the game pales in comparison to the criminal conduct of Vick and the alleged sexual misconduct of Roethlisberger. Yet, both are probably viewed more favorably nationally because they've thrown themselves at the mercy of the court of public opinion.
That's not Belichick's style. He needs to realize accountability isn't just found in a final score. No amount of wins equals "I'm sorry."
During the infamous post-ruling press conference, Belichick was asked whether he thought that if he wins, will everything else will be forgotten. He answered, "There is nothing you can do about the past."
You can't change the past, Bill, but you can change how people view it.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.