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Week 2 in the NFL

Belichick still reigns as king of New England

While rest of world calls Patriots coach a cheater, team's fans seem willing to forgive, if not forget.

September 16, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Is it Watergate?

Or simply water under the bridge?

That depends on whom -- and where -- you ask. Although the rest of the country was nearly universal in its condemnation of Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and his sideline-filming caper last week, opinion in Boston is split heading into tonight's first regular-season home game, against the San Diego Chargers, a team with which New England has a completely different set of issues.

"From now on, his name is Belicheat," Fred Teritore, a former high school football coach, said as he waited for a seat at the Cask 'n' Flagon, a venerable Boston sports bar.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about," shot back Nick Durso, a Concord, N.H., banker, standing in line next to Teritore. "We're behind [Belichick]. Absolutely."

And so it goes on sports radio, in the sports pages and even in the bleachers at Fenway Park after the unprecedented penalties imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who fined Belichick and the team $750,000 and docked the Patriots at least one high pick in next spring's draft after determining they violated league rules by videotaping defensive signals during last Sunday's rout of the New York Jets.

"It's been blown a little out of proportion," said Ben Holland, an electronics technician from Boston who wore a Laurence Maroney Patriots jersey to his right-field grandstand seat for Friday's Red Sox-Yankees game. "It's just one incident. If this was happening all along, and they prove that, I can see them saying it's a black eye."

But it is a black eye, argues Boston Herald columnist Tony Massarotti. And what's more, he said, it was an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound that has marred all of Boston.

"I don't think there's any question it is" an embarrassment, Massarotti said. Especially since the sideline filming incident comes on the heels of safety Rodney Harrison's four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs and reports that Belichick forced linebacker Ted Johnson to practice last season despite a concussion.

"This perception that the Patriots are perfect is not realistic," Massarotti said. "They've had their share of problems here the last couple of years. But because they win games nobody pays attention to it. And it's not right. It's not fair."

And it probably wasn't necessary either. The cheating, that is.

The Patriots, after all, have won three of the last six Super Bowls and are 71-26 under Belichick since 2001. So the idea that New England must cheat to compete is like saying baseball's best player needs steroids to play well.

OK, bad example. But you get the point.

"I always think there's a certain segment of the population, when you're talking about fans, that will support the team no matter what," Massarotti said. "They're completely blind when it comes to stuff like this.

"It's all about the team and winning games. They don't care how."

Some fans do. But even those fans remain loyal.

"It's really disappointing to find out that the Patriots are doing something below the belt. But I still love them," John Foley, a part-time waiter and college student, said as he stood along Lansdowne Street in the shadow of Fenway's Green Monster, hoping to get a ticket for Friday's game.

Foley's friend, Ann Kerrigan, a graduate student at Northeastern, is equally divided. She can't condone what the Patriots did -- she's just not so sure they did it.

"I'm against cheating. I think it teaches the kids who watch sports negative images," she said. "That being said, the Patriots are a good team. And I think the fact they are such a good team is part of the reason people want to cut down on them more."

So, the argument goes, the problem really wasn't the cheating. It was uncovering the cheating and then writing about it. Just ask Boston Globe columnist Jackie MacMullan, whose e-mails this week have been heavily favorable toward Belichick.

"The overwhelming feeling is that the media's out to get him and that we don't like him," she said. "That's really got nothing to do with anything. The guy cheated. It was the wrong thing to do."

Even more wrong when you consider the NFL issued a memo -- to the Patriots and every other club -- days before last week's season openers specifically warning coaching staffs of sanctions if they did what the Patriots did.

"They just ignored it," Massarotti said. "It's brutally arrogant, and they deserve every penalty they get from it. They were warned, they were told not to do it and did it anyway. It was really stupid. It was dumb.

"This is a big strike against them because they've perpetuated this notion that they're perfect. And they're not perfect."

Which brings us back to tonight's opponent, the Chargers, who would like nothing better than to kick the Patriots while they're down. Because that's exactly what the Chargers said Belichick's team did to them last January, rallying past San Diego in an AFC division playoff game and then celebrating their victory by mocking the vanquished.

Afterward, a bitter LaDainian Tomlinson said the Patriots showed "no class, and it comes from the head coach."

Both sides later apologized -- sort of. But neither has forgotten, with Tomlinson taking obvious delight in Belichick's current problems.

"I think the Patriots actually live by the saying, 'If you're not cheating you're not trying,' " the Chargers running back said with a laugh during a news conference last week. "I mean, I think that's the way . . . they live off that statement. Anything for an edge."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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