This is the latest in a series of columns written by award-winning sports columnists, exclusively for nationalsportsmedia.org.
Kyle Shanahan’s backpack was missing. Inside was the game plan for Super Bowl LI. All’s well that ends well, but you know what the conspiratorial thinkers among us were thinking.
Putting aside the notion that transporting the game plan to Media Day was a 13 1/2 on a Stupidity Scale of 10 to begin with, you know the jokes connecting this missing backpack to a certain team whose home stadium is located in Foxborough, Massachusetts would be forthcoming. It was another log on the Patriots’ roaring bonfire: Spygate, Deflategate and now Backpackgate. It never ends. It never will end. There is no doubt some people weren’t joking. The sad fact is many people simply don’t trust the Patriots to operate on the up-and-up.
The truth is that Art Spander simply had picked up the wrong backpack. The funny part is that you’d have assumed that if Art Spander had seen fit to heist a game plan for Super Bowl LI it would have been Josh McDaniel’s, because Art Spander is the most celebrated media representative the Bay Area has to offer. Any conceivable personal loyalty this man might have would have been directed toward the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, not the current head coach of the New England Patriots. Art Spander, age 78, is the official institutional memory of Bay Area media folk, having spent more than 50 years covering sports for such entities as the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Examiner since 1965. No way Art would have been in cahoots with the Pats. Or anyone, for that matter. He is a professional’s professional, as decorated a writer as we have in our profession.
Ah, but this is just another day in the life of the New England Patriots.
It would be nice if the Patriots could be celebrated for their excellence and their excellence alone. This is Year 16 of the Bill Belichick era, and this is their seventh trip to the Super Bowl, where they have won four and lost two in the final minute (Yes, and have won one in part due to a brain you-know-what by Pete Carroll). Belichick’s regular season record with New England is a gaudy 196-60. They have won 10 or more in 15 of these 16 years. They have won 12 or more 11 times, including the last seven in succession. They have won 14 or more five times. They even went undefeated once. Etc. Etc. Etc.
But ever since the incident known forevermore as “Spygate” the image changed. Belichick did get caught with his hand in a cookie jar, and it matters not that whatever advantage he could possibly have gained was miniscule. He was perceived as a cheat and thus New England fans were placed on the defensive for the rest of their lives. I stress this about the fans because there is no outward evidence the image bothers the coach himself very much. Through the years he has appeared to be relentlessly comfortable in his own skin. He has no problem being viewed as an envelope pusher.
Then came Deflategate, and even though his name is not invoked in connection with this monkey business, who’s kidding whom? It’s New England, and so people figure nothing happens in New England without Bill Belichick’s say-so. And the extraordinary overkill of the punishment for what was nothing more than the football equivalent of jaywalking suggests that Tom Brady was collateral damage, that the real target was Bill Belichick, who was forced to play the opening 20 percent of the 2017 season without his starting quarterback.
Whatever happens with the Patriots, the head coach remains, well, focused, acknowledging nothing while always making it clear that the past is past and the only thing that matters is the next game. I have little doubt he does indeed discuss things privately, but he has crafted a public persona and he sticks to it, day after day, week after week, year after year and, yes, Super Bowl appearance after Super Bowl appearance. He just doesn’t care that the general public regards him as a condescending and boorish person. He does have a private life and in that guys, he laughs and jokes and acts like, well, a reasonably normal human being. That guy America sees at the podium is a very carefully crafted act. He gives nothing. It’s not important to him. Winning the next game is. Period.
He is also not remotely apologetic for being in the orbit of Donald J. Trump. I’m sure that before the week is over he will be blamed by his enemies for the immigration policy.
But, really, I’m dying to find out why Kyle Shanahan didn’t leave the game plan in his hotel room. I’m sure Bill Beiichick had a good, hearty laugh over that one.
Bob Ryan has been writing about sports since he was a kid growing up in Trenton, NJ. Ryan graduated from Boston College and began working at the Boston Globe in 1968. He became the paper’s Boston Celtics beat writer the following year and spent nearly 14 years covering the team. After a short stint at a Boston television station, Ryan returned to the Globe and the Celtics beat, and in 1989, became a general sports columnist. He gave up his full-time job three years ago, but continues to write columns on a “semi regular” basis. During his Globe tenure, Ryan covered 20 NBA Finals, 20 NCAA Final Fours, nine World Series, five Super Bowls, seven Olympic Games and thousands of other events.
Over the last 20 years, Ryan has been a frequent panelist on ESPN shows The Sports Reporters and Around the Horn, and he often serves as a fill-in co-host on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. He is also the author of 12 books, including Scribe, which was published in 2014.
A four-time National Sportswriter of the Year as voted on by his peers in the National Sports Media Association (NSMA), Ryan was inducted into the NSMA Hall of Fame in 2012. He is also a member of the United States Basketball Writers and New England Basketball Halls of Fame and among many awards, has received the Curt Gowdy Award (Basketball Hall of Fame), the 2000 National Sportswriter of the Year (Associated Press), 2006 Dick Schaap Award for Outstanding Journalism, and the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing (2015).
Ryan lives in Hingham, MA, with his wife Elaine.