Mistakes by lake galling
CLEVELAND — Eric Mangini got the Gatorade shower. Bill Belichick was awash in Hater-ade.
This one had to sting.
Losing a Super Bowl and a perfect season is about the worst football-related event in Belichick’s life. The shame of Spygate was a pretty low moment.
And then there was what happened yesterday by the shores of Lake Erie. In the world of Bill Belichick, this was as bad as it gets for a midseason game.
Belichick’s first-place Patriots were humiliated, 34-14, by the 2-5 Cleveland Browns. On the same acreage where Belichick failed in his first stint as a head coach — in a chess match against the apprentice who turned on him (“I know it was you, Fredo, you broke my heart’’) — Belichick’s team was exposed. The Patriots looked ill-equipped and ill-prepared. They were outplayed in the city where Belichick always will have something to prove. And they were outcoached by Fredo Mangini, a man Belichick despises more than anyone else in football.
Belichick would rather spend a week trapped in a Chilean coal mine than lose a game to Mangini in Cleveland. He would rather have dinner with Charley Casserly. He would rather do standup at a comedy club for an audience of sports reporters.
Belichick’s chilly relationship with former mentor Bill Parcells has thawed. He’s found common ground and forgiveness since his nasty divorce from the Tuna. It’s different with Mangini. Bill goes all Sicilian (“He’s dead to me’’) when it comes to Mangini. In the coaches offices at Gillette Stadium, young Eric forever will be He Who Must Not Be Named.
Mangini was part of all the Patriots’ Super Bowl wins. He’s a Wesleyan guy. He was the one Belichick loved the most. But he went to the Jets and raided the Patriots’ staff. Then he broke the code and ratted out the Patriots in the Spygate scandal at the start of the ’07 season. He cost Belichick a first-round pick, $750,000, and considerable reputation. There are crimes of the heart that can never be forgiven.
And that’s why it hurt so much for Bill to see his boys flop in front of 66,292 witnesses on the Cleveland Browns Stadium turf. He had to shake the hand of the man who betrayed him. This had to be Mangini’s best day since he got that cameo in “The Sopranos’’.
“I feel like I’m in that movie, ‘Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,’ ’’ said Mangini. “We had New England this week and the Jets next week. It’s special and it’s special to me because of our guys, because of our team, not because of their team. Because of our team.’’
Belichick said, “I’ll start off by giving Cleveland a lot of credit. They did a great job today. They obviously did everything better than we did, every single thing you could measure.’’
After most beatings, Belichick will swallow hard and grudgingly allow that his team was “outcoached.’’ He did not say his team was “outcoached’’ yesterday. No way Mangini gets that from Bill, no matter what the final score says.
When Mangini was asked what he said to Belichick as they shook hands, the Browns coach said, “ ‘Good game.’ We were making plans for the summer.’’ On a more serious note, the happy Cleveland coach said, “I thought the coaches did a great job of getting them ready.’’
There certainly were moments when the Browns looked more prepared than the Patriots. It’s not often Belichick is beaten by a rookie quarterback (with a “Friday Night Lights’’ name of Colt McCoy). New England’s defense looked particularly inept on Cleveland’s second touchdown, an 11-run run by Chansi Stuckey after a sleight-of-hand exchange involving wideout-turned-quarterback Joshua Cribbs. It wasn’t the Wildcat, and it wasn’t the fumblerooski, but it was abject trickery and the Patriots got caught with their pants down.
“It was a new play,’’ said Belichick. “They hadn’t run it this year. We had prepared for plays like that, but we obviously didn’t prepare very well. It was a good play by them, not a good play by us. That’s all it is.’’
“We had it in this week and practiced it a few times,’’ said Mangini, sounding like Belichick after most wins.
In the loser’s locker room, there was talk of a bad week of practice. Some of the fellows seemed to indicate that they saw this one coming.
“It’s hard to say,’’ countered quarterback Tom Brady. “Every week, some days you have good practices and some days you have bad practices. We just didn’t play that well today. That’s what it comes down to.’’
“We’ve just got a lot of work to do,’’ said Belichick.
Oddly enough, this horrible loss beautifully demonstrates how great Belichick has been this year. Through the first seven games of the season, he had this suspect group compiling the best record in the NFL. Truly amazing. We knew it was a house of cards. How often does the team with the best record in football rank 28th in total defense and 31st in pass defense? Even the hired hands from “The Big Show’’ and the WBZ All Suck-up gang knew this was not the best team in football. Still, it sounded good for the week that it lasted.
Now we all are back to reality. The Patriots are 6-2, tied with the Jets. Next week they are at Pittsburgh. Then they have the Colts at home. Suddenly the SS Patriot looks like a southbound cruise ship.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.