By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — With Bill Belichick at the helm, the New England Patriots franchise has come to be known for one thing and one thing only: winning.
It’s gotten to the point where, really, everyone just assumes the Patriots will at the very least reach the conference championship game, and any season that ends short of a confetti shower and a Lombardi Trophy is considered a disappointment.
It was interesting, then, to see Belichick publicly show off something he normally doesn’t promote: the biggest losses of his career.
On Friday night at the Robert Kraft residence, the 2016 Patriots gathered to receive their championship rings, which they earned by beating the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. (Historic comeback, perhaps you’ve heard it mentioned?)
For Belichick, it was his fifth Super Bowl win as a head coach, putting him at No. 1 on the all-time list, passing Hall of Famer Chuck Noll. No active head coach has more than one Super Bowl victory, so it’s safe to say Belichick will sit atop that list for a very, very long time.
And so, it was rather interesting that on this momentous night for Belichick, the legendary coach busted out every ring from his arsenal. That included, of course, the previous four Super Bowl rings won with New England, as well as the two Super Bowl rings he won as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants.
But he also wore three rings that probably don’t get much daylight: AFC Champions rings from the Patriots’ 2011, 2007 and 1996 seasons.
At first glance, it is an overwhelmingly comical collection of jewelry. But a closer inspection reveals something about the coach.
Ask any player or coach or executive about losing a Super Bowl, and they’ll tell you that the sting never really dissipates. For many people, losing a Super Bowl represents the low point of their careers. For Belichick, that’s surely no different.
But at 65 years old, and with both of his sons being part of this year’s ring celebration, perhaps Belichick was showing off a bit of his sentimental side in dusting off the old AFC Champion rings.
(For those who don’t know, the losing Super Bowl team does receive rings for winning the conference. Images of the 1996, 2007 and 2011 rings are easy to find online. It looks like Belichick wore one of the AFC Champions rings at the Patriots’ previous ring celebration after Super Bowl XLIX.)
To be sure, the whole wearing-rings-from-seven-Super-Bowl-victories thing does make it a lot easier to wear those AFC Champion rings. But the fact that those rings didn’t end up in a garbage can is a bit telling.
Each ring certainly holds different meaning. The 1996 ring came when Bill Parcells re-hired Belichick after Belichick’s tenure as Cleveland’s head coach came to an unceremonious end when he was fired just before the franchise moved east to Baltimore. It was his lone season as assistant head coach and defensive backs coach, and it laid the groundwork for the second act of Belichick’s head coaching career in the NFL.
The 2007 ring might be an unseemly possession to many Patriots fans, but it’s easy to see why Belichick would value it. While yes, the dream of an undefeated season was crushed by the overwhelming defensive line of the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, that doesn’t erase what the Patriots accomplished that year. More significantly for Belichick, the Super Bowl loss doesn’t erase the memory of that entire team rallying around Belichick when he fell under the national microscope during the overwrought hysteria of Spygate. The team was historically dominant, despite the end to the season, and many players made it clear why they were insistent on winning by 50 points whenever possible.
The 2011 ring may not hold the obvious significance of the other two, but you’ll remember that Julian Edelman was a quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-defensive back, playing defense against the likes of Anquan Boldin for much of the afternoon. The patchwork defensive backfield included Sterling Moore and Antwaun Molden playing significant snaps in the Super Bowl. And yet, despite the glaring deficiency, the team came within one play of winning the whole damn thing. The 2011 Patriots were not a great team — far from it, actually — and yet they nearly etched their name in history forever.
There’s also the other historical feat Belichick accomplished, as he became the first head coach in history to win seven conference championships, passing Hall of Famer Don Shula. Three active coaches have two conference titles apiece, so again, this is a record that Belichick will own for at least the duration of his life and likely much longer.
Those are just guesses to the meaning behind the wearing of such rings, because for as long as Belichick is working, he won’t share his feelings on such things. Asking about it at a press conference might evoke a brief comment before the attention immediately gets recentered on the task at hand.
Belichick does many things well, but reflecting on his own personal accomplishments is not typically one of them.
But for at least one night, the 65-year-old Belichick let his rings do the talking. Belichick has always shown a deep respect of the history of his sport, and the ring collection shows he’s appreciative of his place in that history. The coach who’s considered by many fans and national media members as being cold and joyless revealed his sentimental side.