Wednesday September 24th, 2008

What is so wonderful about sport is that it takes your mind off of all the terrible things -- and, Lord knows, 2008 has been one whale of an annus horribilis, what with wars, oil, hurricanes, mortgages, Putin, Mugabe, Eliot Spitzer and Paris Hilton. That's why it's so wonderful to get away from it all and turn to the sports pages and see that . . . .

. . . O.J. Simpson is back again on trial!!!!! Oh no!

Yes, now we know: 2008 is utterly unredeemable.

But, that being the case, it's a good time to discuss sport's reigning sourpuss: Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. Coach Belichick, our saint of the perpetual frown, even dresses for work in the athletic attire most closely resembling sackcloth and ashes -- standing there on the sidelines in his colorless, tattered, hermit-chic pullover. So he perfectly represents the glum national mood -- all the more so that Belichick's handsome quarterback, Tom Brady, has been lost for the year.

Brady was injured in the first game of the season, to be replaced by an anonymous young man who -- this is the truth now -- had not started a game of football since he was in high school. But yes, Belichick had no one else in reserve of the incandescent Brady.

This had the taste of history repeating itself, for exactly seven years ago this week, Brady himself was the deus ex machina who materialized to succeed another famous quarterback, himself injured that day. Then, led by the young Lochinvar, the Patriots went on to win that Super Bowl and two more, and transform Belichick, who had been a bust as a head coach, into a veritable twenty-first century Vince Lombardi.

Nonetheless, it is the curse of winning coaches, that those who have good teams -- which, after all, is what it takes to win -- are often dismissed as button pushers. The example is most prevalent in basketball, where one player can make the difference. Both Red Auerbach, who won year after year with Bill Russell, and Phil Jackson, who first racked up championships with Michael Jordan, were often characterized as coattails.

More recently, in baseball, critics would put down Joe Torre as a mere accountant, tending to a big team payroll. But here now is Torre leading a rather ordinary Dodger team into the playoffs, while his old Yankees have foundered under a new manager.

Belichick, however, may forever be stamped as just a very lucky journeyman coach who hitched his wagon to Brady's star. Don't forget: the one year since Brady became a starter that the team didn't make the playoffs was in 2002 when Brady struggled with a sore arm. Belichick's acclaimed offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, has himself turned out, without Brady, to be a flop as a head coach.

Moreover, because of his dour personality and the fact that he was caught cheating last year, Belichick isn't apt to get the benefit of the doubt from anyone. The Patriots and their new nobody quarterback got clobbered by woebegone Miami Sunday, and so it remains hard to escape the impression that Bill Belichick remains as no more than a Mister Cellophane with earphones, a hoodie . . . and the best meal ticket any coach could have ever dreamed up.

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