DENVER — Bill Belichick normally runs at all cost from news conference controversy. He spends them mumbling the obvious, tossing a few roses in the direction of the opposition, generally treating the media like a thorny distraction.
That’s what Belichick did Sunday after the Broncos routed his Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. And that’s what makes what he did Monday after the wheels set down on a dreary flight home so fascinating. Without being asked a question, the Patriots coach ran to controversy, embraced it, kissed it square on the lips.
And guess what?
He went way overboard. He kissed hyperbole at best. At worst, he spit sour grapes and demonstrated a genuine distaste for a player he once so admired.
There is no doubt the hit that former Patriots receiver Wes Welker put on cornerback Aqib Talib early in the second quarter was a key play. As Belichick said Sunday, the key play. And there’s little doubt that having lost Rob Gronkoswki, Aaron Hernandez, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and, yes, Welker … the one thing the Patriots couldn’t afford was to lose their best cover guy, too.
“I was asked about the hit on Talib and I feel badly for Aqib,” Belichick said in his postseason wrap-up at Gillette Stadium. “The way that play turned out, I went back and watched it, which I didn’t have a chance to do yesterday. It was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib. No attempt to get open, and I’ll let the league handle the discipline on that play. It’s not for me to decide, but it’s one of the worst plays I’ve seen. That’s all I’ll say about that.”
Wow. Belichick has been watching football for a half-century, and he ripped Welker for one of the worst plays he’d ever seen?
C’mon, Bill. Are you conveniently overlooking, say, the entire history of the Oakland Raiders?
I watched the play over and over, slowed it down to frame by frame to conclude, yes, it does appear Welker initiated his hit on Talib a microsecond before Peyton Manning ‘s pass hit Demaryius Thomas in the chest. So with the benefit of technology, OK, I’ll go along and say it was pass interference on Welker. At game speed, it’s so bang-bang it’s totally understandable the officials didn’t throw the flag.
“That is not a foul,” tweeted Mike Pereira, former NFL vice president of officiating and current Fox rules analyst. “Ball was touched by 88 about the same time as contact, Can’t be OPI.”
Others saw it differently.
“I felt the contact was before the ball contacted 88, former NFL official and supervisor Jim Daopoulos tweeted. “If early, it’s a foul. If after, not a foul.”
“Looked like Welker was on a suicide mission on that route,” Bills safety Jim Leonhard tweeted. “Unreal pick he set, not sure how not a flag.
As evidenced by that bubble-boy helmet he’s wearing after his second concussion of the season cost him five weeks, Welker’s entire career is a suicide mission. As he hauled in hundreds of Tom Brady ‘s passes over the middle for years, didn’t we think it would be the diminutive Welker who would be the one knocked out a game that determined the Patriots’ season? Of course we did.
It’s crazy in the NFL. Violent, nasty, unforgiving … and that’s only a Richard Sherman postgame interview. Over the middle? It’s a suicide mission. The more accurate that NFL quarterbacks have grown, the more NFL defenses have turned to man-to-man coverage.
The NFL offensive response? Have receivers run basketball-like picks on defenders. Greg Bedard wrote a must-read missive on the subject for Sports Illustrated a few days before the AFC Championship Game. It was prophetic. Nobody runs more picks or rub routes than the Broncos with Manning and the Patriots with Brady. Some of the calls are black and white. Much of it is gray. And it was interesting Sunday that Julian Edelman ran a play similar to what Welker did, and Michael Hoomanawanui was called for offensive pass interference for a pick on the New England possession previous to Welker’s hit.
I saw some stuff on social media that made me shake my head. Welker didn’t blindside Talib. Welker didn’t low-bridge Talib. It was shoulder pads to biceps. Yes, he cut off his crossing route to step into Talib’s path, but if Thomas had caught the pass cleanly, not bobbled it away, and Talib hadn’t been hurt, chances are good Welker would have been applauded for a brave hit. Watch the replay. Welker took the worst of the collision. Talib fell over the fallen Welker. It was lousy luck he hurt his knee.
“I can’t even remember how the play went,” Talib said afterward in the Patriots locker room.
“I was trying to get him to go over the top, and I think he was thinking the same thing and I wanted to come underneath, and we just kind of collided,” Welker said. “It wasn’t a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that. I hope he’s OK. He’s a great player.”
Did Welker intentionally hit Talib? Absolutely.
Did Welker intentionally try to hurt Talib? I can’t climb into Welker’s giant helmet, but my call is absolutely not. I don’t even see where the NFL is going to level a fine.
One of the worst plays Belichick has ever seen?
One of the best coaches in the history of the game knows way better than that.
So what was Belichick’s motive? Belichick always has struck me as an underrated sore loser, and that’s praise as much as criticism. Yes, the play was key, but the hard truth is the Patriots offense did squat for three quarters. While Manning was flawless, Brady was not. He overthrew a handful of receivers. The Patriots didn’t do anything on the run. Yes, Thomas did catch six passes after Talib went out and one for 29 yards before he did, but, sorry, Patriots fans, Talib or not, I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how they would have won if Talib wasn’t hurt.
Maybe Belichick wanted to go out of his way to stick up for Talib. He is becoming a free agent, and Belichick would love to have him back.
Or maybe — and this is the juiciest of the theories — Belichick hates Welker. He didn’t even call Welker by name Monday. He called him the “receiver.” That couldn’t be frostier. It grew evident over Welker’s last year or two in Foxborough that their relationship had gone south. Welker is cheeky. Belichick doesn’t do cheeky. Belichick benched Welker for a playoff series against the Jets in January 2011 after his jokes about Rex and Michelle Ryan’s foot fetishes. Belichick certainly didn’t laugh much when Welker, after getting limited snaps early in the 2012 season, caught 13 passes against the Broncos, said, “It’s kind of nice to stick it in Bill’s face once in a while.”
And as Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen, would tell you, Bill and Tom would have a fourth Super Bowl title if Welker had held onto her man’s pass in Indianapolis against the Giants.
The Patriots didn’t budge much to sign Welker last offseason. Welker left for those Broncos. In came Danny Amendola, in came a great workload increase for Edelman. And it would have been all spit and giggles Sunday if the Patriots had won. They didn’t.
The pick, the rub route are going to be hot topics heading into the Super Bowl mayhem. And with the confluence of Manning, Welker and outspoken Seattle cornerback Sherman — the NFL’s most controversial figure — meeting in New York, oh boy. In his postseason misery, Belichick, the Anti-Press Conference, surely will get a kick out of the media horde pressing Welker on whether he’s dirty.