Bill Belichick wore flip flops to media day. He even smiled and laughed in an exchange with a 4-year-old reporter from the team’s website.
He appeared relaxed and, in briefly showing some personality, even came across as charming.
Egad! Is that guy in the hoodie really the New England Patriots coach?
“I’ve seen the difference in Bill in the 11 years that I have been here, and I tell him he is getting soft,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “… I think over the years he got a soft heart. He’s more understanding now. I think when you get so used to having a certain quality of players and it changes, it’s hard for you to adapt to change. … I think he had to try to find the identity in what works for that team, and I think he’s done a great job over the years of doing that.
“But at the end of the day, he is still Bill. He coaches the same way. He demands everything the same way. But I think he’s got a little soft heart now. Over time, he got a little softer.”
Chya Mayo, the daughter of injured linebacker Jerod Mayo, asked Belichick what stuffed animals he liked.
“I like a puppet that you can put your fingers in,” Belichick said. “It’s a little monkey, and then he can talk and move his fingers and nod his head, so he can kind of talk back to you.”
Belichick later asked Chya, “Can I ask you one question? Did your daddy fix your hair?” The coach even participated in the laughter that followed.
Belichick, 62, also briefly left his shell during last Saturday’s news conference on Deflategate, with a reference to the 1992 movie My Cousin Vinny.
“I’m not a scientist. I’m not an expert in footballs. I’m not an expert in football measurements. I’m just telling you what I know,” Belichick said. “I would not say I’m Mona Lisa Vito of the football world as [the Marisa Tomei character] was in the car-expertise area.”
It’s a side of Belichick he rarely shows in public.
“I didn’t understand what he was referring to at first,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He does that a little bit with us, too, in our team meetings and sometimes in our staff meetings. He has a great sense of humor, and he usually knows when to pull it out. Whenever he does it, he usually has a great, dry sense of humor.”
Belichick has returned to form, though.
Since Sunday, Belichick has met every question about Deflategate or the franchise’s history of skirting the rules with the same answer: “Our focus is totally on the Seattle Seahawks.”
The coach usually comes across as stoic, grumpy, robotic, tough and demanding.
The results, though, stand as something to behold. Belichick sports a 211-109 record in 20 seasons, the last 15 with the Patriots.
New England has won 12 AFC East titles in the 14 seasons since 2001, with 13 double-digit winning seasons. It has not had a losing record since 2000.
Belichick claimed an NFL-record 21st postseason victory in the AFC Championship Game, getting the Patriots to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in his tenure.
“I agree with John Harbaugh: He’s the greatest coach of our generation right now,” said Brian Billick, a Super Bowl-winning coach who serves as an analyst on NFL Network.
But it has not come without controversy. The league punished the Patriots and Belichick for “Spygate” after it determined that New England had illegally videotaped opposing teams’ sideline signals in 2007.
Then, in the AFC Championship Game two weeks ago, 11 of the Patriots’ 12 footballs were found to be underinflated.
The scandals have left scars on Belichick’s legacy.
“I think so with the Spygate. That was obviously a big situation,” said Tony Dungy, a Super Bowl-winning coach who works for NBC. “I don’t think we know what’s going on here [with Deflategate], and I’m one who believes you can’t jump to conclusions. You’ve got to get the facts and what happened, so we’ll wait and see what’s going on here and what happens. But Spygate was tough. That was tough, though they did bounce back.
“If this turns out to be nothing, then I don’t think it’ll be a long-lasting blemish, but we’ll see.”
The Public Policy Polling, in a recent poll, found that the Patriots had the lowest favorability rating of any NFL franchise at 30 percent. Fair or unfair, much of the country views the NFL’s most-hated franchise as a bunch of cheaters.
But Belichick’s supporters quickly come to his defense.
“He’s going to be the greatest coach of all time. That’s what it is,” said NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, who played for Belichick from 2003-08. “He’s the greatest coach of all time right now by a lot of people’s accounts and standards.
“I love Bill. I love his personality. I love his approach. I learned more in six years with Bill Belichick than I learned in basically 24 years of playing since I was 6 years old. I have so much respect for Bill, and I hate to see anything take away from what he’s accomplished.”
Naturally, Belichick doesn’t seem to worry — or even think — about his legacy. He is what he is.
“We’re just focused on this game,” he said. “We’re not really worried about any of the past games or anything in the future.”