Bill Belichick won something much bigger than an NFL playoff game this past week, and something so much better than even the honors that the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestows on its recipients.
This was the week that Belichick turned down recognition and became dignified in the process. And it’s a moment that will help frame his legacy for the rest of his life.
You can have your postseason win over a 7-9 football team without a mascot. I’ll take this Belichick audible at the line of scrimmage to decline Donald Trump’s White House invitation. Belichick knew exactly which play put him on the wrong side of history, and he had the conviction to make a halftime adjustment.
You might argue that Belichick had no choice, that his franchise and family forced his hand, but you’d be wrong. Turning your back on a longtime friend is one of the most difficult things to do in life. Belichick had already declared in 2016 a “friendship and loyalty” to Trump in the face of significant backlash, and put his PR neck on the line when he publicly supported his campaign with a letter read aloud to a New Hampshire crowd the night before that year’s election.
At the time, Belichick wasn’t budging. He was the immovable object. But this time, Belichick made the hard call to bend away from, as he described them, “the tragic events of last week” in Washington, DC. My-Way-Or-The-Highway Bill adjusted to the moment. We saw the Tin Man with a heart, again.
It’s not the first time Belichick has risen to the occasion and gone outside his normal morose exterior. This Medal of Freedom stiff arm goes right up there with his 2013 head-on address of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest and the 2015 Mona Lisa Vito press conference about DeflateGate. These are now the Belichick’s Bona Fide Big three, the days when he decided to check Barnacle Bill at the door and show some real humanity to the fans.
And this New Edition from Belichick does more than just Cool It Now. It’s a sign that Bill is all-in on his football team, both in terms of walking the walk for social justice and in terms of committing to the rebuild for a run at Don Shula’s wins record. I have no doubt now that Belichick is in for the long haul, ready to roll up the sleeves on the post-Tom Brady retooling.
Had Mr. Belichick gone to Washington, there’s a chance he would have cost himself free agents in the process. It’s not so easy to attract the top mercenaries to New England these days with the pull of The Dynasty diminished and the appeal of playing with Brady gone. Sure, money talks. But culture matters too. Now that he’s dissociated himself from last week’s black eye at The Capital, Belichick can play the free agent field armed with both deep pockets and a perceived deep understanding of what today’s athletes are concerned about.
And while I’d have preferred Belichick stepped in front of a camera to deliver his comments, his statement was strong and had impact.
“One of the most rewarding things in my professional career took place in 2020 when, through the great leadership within our team, conversations about social justice, equality and human rights moved to the forefront and became actions,” Belichick wrote. “Continuing those efforts while remaining true to the people, team and country I love outweigh the benefits of any individual award.”
Those words are a good look for Belichick now, and they will be for posterity. Belichick will be viewed as a man of principle who remained true to his franchise over individual accolades and even close friends who became toxic.
In 2021, it sets Belichick up for a great offseason as he embarks on perhaps the most important one of his Patriots’ reign. Belichick needs to crush it with personnel moves, particularly if he wants to move the needle back to his side in the great Belichick vs. Brady dynasty debate.
Brady made the playoffs and is winning the most recent battle over Bill, but he hasn’t won the war yet. It’ll take more than a win against Taylor Heinicke while equipped with a dream team of weapons to declare this debate decided.
A much bigger moment for Brady comes this weekend in his third matchup of the season against Drew Brees. Losing to the same team three times in one season would be a bad look for Tom and render his first season outside the nest as one without a signature win. A victory, however, and another trip to a Conference Championship, makes Brady’s decision to divorce for a younger model look worth it.
But Belichick’s big legacy moment of the season is already in the books, and it was a powerful statement that declared he’s not ready to lose just yet. In fact, to this point, it was a bigger win than Brady’s had all year.