Column: The 'new' Belichick lasts less than a week

February 6, 2012 - 2:15 AM
APTOPIX Super Bowl Football

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left, turns away after greeting New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin after the NFL Super Bowl XLVI football game, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012, in Indianapolis. The Giants won 21-17. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Turns out the "new" Bill Belichick looks and sounds an awful lot like the "old" one.

Especially when he gets beat.

During the week leading up to the Super Bowl, there was plenty of buzz about how the dour Patriots coach was a changed man. His players kept hinting that the latest woman in his life was responsible for smoothing out some of the rough edges. Instead of his usual non-answer answers, Belichick actually seemed to be enjoying some of the give-and-take during interview sessions. Instead of dressing like Mike Tyson climbing into the ring — hooded sweat shirt, sleeves cut off at the elbow — Belichick turned up in a natty suit and a violet tie one day and a lilac patterned shirt the next.

Wild and crazy? Not exactly. But he was seen smiling on occasion.

That guy was nowhere to be found Sunday night. Belichick took a calculated gamble with less than a minute left, allowing Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw to roll 6 yards into the end zone for an uncontested touchdown and a 21-17 lead. His Patriots got the ball back for one final drive with more time than they would have had otherwise — 57 seconds left after the kickoff — but couldn't march the length of the field. Their chances at a comeback were batted away when New York safety Kenny Phillips did just that to Tom Brady's last-gasp heave into the end zone as time expired.

Asked afterward if the Patriots conceded that final score, Belichick said, "Right."

Asked to explain the thought process behind the decision, he replied, "No."

A second later, he added, "Ball was inside the 10-yard line, a 90 percent field goal conversion (rate from that close)."

Asked if he would second-guess that or any other decision, Belichick said breezily, "Sure, could have done a better job in a lot of things."

At least there was a consensus among most of the Patriots on that.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo, who handles the defensive calls on the field, said the decision to surrender the final score right away, rather than make a goal-line stand, or force the Giants to attempt a field goal, was "situational ... the only choice."

That came as news to more than a few of the Giants.

"I didn't realize it at the time," New York guard Chris Snee said. "But when it (the New England defense) parted like the Red Sea, I saw it was their strategy. But right away? No, I didn't know."

Bradshaw, too, didn't figure out what was up until he reached the goal line. He spun halfway around, trying to stop his own progress and use up more of the clock. But his momentum carried him the final step.

"I was fine with the way we handled it. My only regret," said Pats lineman Gerard Warren, "is that he didn't fall over sooner."

But not all of his teammates felt the same way.

"It killed me," linebacker Brandon Spikes said. When the call came in to let them score, I was kind of like, 'What? I'm here to do my job and it's my job to play defense and let them score?'

"It was tough," he added. "It definitely was tough."

There was a very interesting echo to the episode.

In this same building in December, 2009, ahead by six points against the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning in a regular-season game, the Patriots faced a fourth-and-2 at their own 28-yard line with 2:03 left to play. Rather than punt the ball and dare Manning to score, Belichick called a run by Kevin Faulk that came up just short. With a short field, that Manning — just as his little brother, Eli, did Sunday night — won the game. Belichick's genius — almost an article of faith across the NFL before that — was mocked and debated for weeks.

If there was any benefit to losing that game, Belichick joked more than once this week, it was that Colts fans in Indianapolis treated him much better than they had before. But he could not find consolation in anything by the time this one was in the books.

Afterward, he was asked more than two dozen questions. It almost doesn't matter what the subject was, since Belichick answered nearly everyone in a barely audible monotone with one of the following phrases:

"It's not a good feeling. ... I don't know. ... You'd have to ask them. ... We played hard. ... We competed. ... We came up short. ... The Giants are a good football team. ... They have good football players, too."

It wasn't until a moment near the end when someone asked Belichick if he would have retired after this game if the Patriots had won their fourth Super Bowl during his tenure. He blinked.

"I'm just here to talk about the game," Belichick said.

The back-and-forth of the last week was already a dimming memory. Belichick narrowed his eyes, scanned the reporters crowded in front of him and said with more than a little edge back in his voice, "Any more questions about the game?"

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.