FOXBOROUGH -- He is a rumor without confirmation. That's how the Patriots chose to view offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who officially will be named the coach at Notre Dame in a news conference today, after a squeamish 35-28 win over the resurgent Bengals yesterday. Weis is gone after the season, but he must play a role similar to the girlfriend you know is about to break up with you but hasn't asked you to clear your stuff from her apartment yet.
Asked about Weis, stone-faced Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "I don't have any comments. If you want to ask about the Cincinnati game, I'll try to answer those questions. I don't have anything about anything else. I coach the Patriots."
Just this once, don't blame your football team for withholding its true feelings. The tight-lipped policies generally are maddening, but in this case it could be in deference to Notre Dame, which wants a fair amount of pomp and circumstance to accompany Weis's introduction.
Weis's departure is no small development for the Patriots. He has been a fixture in Foxborough for nine seasons, fine-tuning his trickery with an ever-changing cast of talent. Talk to Curtis Martin, Terry Glenn, or Tom Brady, and each will tell you that Weis's imprint is on their offensive resume. Brady, in particular, was shepherded through his maiden years by Weis. The offensive coordinator refrained from asking Brady to do too much. He helped nurture Boston's most popular sports figure into a superstar with equal parts encouragement and tough love.
"He is as hard-working and as diligent as any coach I've been around," Brady said yesterday.
Weis's innovative schemes have provided fans with plays that have been entertaining, risky, (mostly) successful, and occasionally head-scratching. One thing you can count on when you go against a Weis offense: Expect the unexpected.
"I've heard [Miami linebacker] Zach Thomas say that numerous times," said New England linebacker Mike Vrabel. "Zach watches a lot of film. He's one of those guys who is at it until 9 o'clock every night, hoping to get an edge.
"He's told me countless times he can't do that with a Charlie Weis offense. He knows whatever he's watching is something he won't see again."
Just when you think you've got the Patriots' offense figured out, they change it again. By now everyone has grown accustomed to seeing Vrabel and Richard Seymour check into the game as eligible receivers on third-down plays. Vrabel caught a TD pass in 2002 against San Diego, then didn't get another sniff for two years, until he stunned Carolina in the Super Bowl last February with a critical touchdown reception.
On third and goal from the 1-yard line in the first quarter yesterday, Vrabel checked in and lined up as the tight end. The Bengals knew better than to discount him. Seymour lined up behind him as the fullback. Vrabel threw the lead block that enabled running back Corey Dillon to blast through for the touchdown.
"It's fun," Vrabel said. "We're changing all the time."
You wonder what Weis is feeling at this moment. He is rarely available for comment during the regular season. NFL rules stipulate coaches must be allowed to talk in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, and I was always one of the early arrivals at Weis's table, whether I needed a quote or not. It was purely for the enjoyment of listening to this intelligent, witty, and eloquent man discuss his favorite topic -- football.
Weis has wanted to be a head coach for a long time. He underwent gastric bypass surgery in June of 2002 and nearly died from complications, which included internal bleeding and nerve damage that has left him with a mild limp. Weis opted for the surgery because he was concerned the fact he was overweight may have affected his chances to become a head coach. What a shame if something so shallow actually kept teams away.
His contract with the Patriots was up at the end of this season, and the feeling was this may be his best chance to land a head coaching job, a title he hasn't held since he led Franklin Township (N.J.) High to a state championship in 1989. Last year, he interviewed for, but did not land, two NFL jobs. His name likely would have surfaced again during this offseason, but he felt he should grab the guaranteed college opportunity. Notre Dame used to be the most coveted college job in football, but that's no longer true -- unless, I guess, you are a Notre Dame alum, which Weis is.
Immediately after the game, Weis flew to South Bend and arrived at Notre Dame with athletic director Kevin White and signed his six-year contract. He then went to talk to the Irish players.
He actually will be able to speak without restrictions as coach of the Fighting Irish. The folks in South Bend undoubtedly will like what they hear.
"He's a big personality on our offense," Brady said. "Probably the biggest."
That personality was fully evident yesterday. There was a third-quarter Brady handoff to Dillon that quickly turned into a pitchback to Brady, and then a key 9-yard reception to tight end Christian Fauria that eventually led to the touchdown that put the Patriots comfortably in front, 35-14. Just in case you might have thought Fauria was out of favor or out of the rotation, he caught three passes for 33 yards in the absence of the injured Daniel Graham.
"Charlie is just a great play-caller," Fauria said. "In his own special way, he makes sense. When Bill [Belichick] says something, he backs it up with information. Charlie is similar. It's never the same cookie-cutter offense. He's always challenging us."
"He's been a great help to me," said running back Kevin Faulk, who also found his way into the end zone yesterday. "He's helped me grow up in this offense. It's unbelievable the time and effort he puts into this football team."
"The thing with Charlie is you have to keep your mind open," said offensive lineman Stephen Neal. "You never know what can happen -- but it's usually good."
Weis, the rumor without confirmation, will do his best to fulfill his duties with New England as he begins recruiting for Notre Dame. The possibilities are endless. Why not put Brady on the line with a quarterback recruit? Can't you hear Weis now talking to that coveted offensive lineman? "Hi there, Bubba, I'm calling from the locker room of the Super Bowl champion Patriots . . . "
He deserves this opportunity. He's earned the right to pack up his trickery and move on to bigger -- and better? -- things.
The players aren't allowed to say it, but we surely can: Charlie, we miss you already.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.