logoby Dan Snapp

We’re eight years along, and people still don’t have the first clue about Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

Monday, Browns guard Eric Steinbach called Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel “classless” for hitting QB Derek Anderson at the knee on a spike play in the final seconds:

“It was a classless act, and you can quote me on that. The play was already dead. It was long after that. You can say it was only one guy, but that reflects on the team. Everyone’s trying to emulate the New England Patriots, and everyone looks up to them in the NFL like they’re the team that does everything right.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. And if you’re a Patriots fan, you’ve heard it and know what’s likely coming next. Somebody says “Classless” and “Patriots” together in the same sentence, and it’s only a matter of time before LaDainian Tomlinson is in front of a camera.

So when was it again that Belichick decreed the Patriots to be the league’s moral compass? That they were all squeaky-clean Boy Scouts who loved their mamas, ate their vegetables, said their prayers and asleep by nine?

Sure, the players contend there’s a “Patriot Way”, but every team has their version of that. No doubt Bob Kraft and his PR department eats this stuff up, too (“Today, we’re all Patriots!”), but you’ll never hear such language coming from Belichick.

Listen to his press conferences. He repeats such tedious truisms (“There’s plenty of room for improvement”, “I’m just concentrating on the next opponent”, “It is what it is”), they become football mantras, soon after repeated by the players. The themes remain constant: respect for the opponent; humility; and always the plan to work harder.

Bill Belichick is a Horatio Alger story for the 21st century: achieving success through hard work, discipline and determination, and then cultivating those same principles in his team. He coached his players to place accountability, sacrifice and team above all other virtues, and then thrived because of it.

Yet somehow his national perception is the opposite: cheater, ogre, bully, lout, and famously, “arrogant, megalomaniacal, duplicitous pond scum.” You name it, he’s been called it. Obviously, “Spygate” added fuel to the fire, but the perception was there long before that.

The media rewards those who help them do their jobs, and punishes those who don’t. Belichick is being punished. Long after the league tried to shut the door on the issue, folks like Peter King, Gregg Easterbrook and Mike Florio keep trying to wedge it open. King wrote Monday:

I think what makes me not want to forget the Patriots’ Spygate story are conversations like the one I had with a club official the other day, a man I respect a lot. “From what I hear, it’s best for everyone in the league if this story just goes away,” he said.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s best for the 130 million Americans who watch some part of the Super Bowl every year to hear an explanation from Bill Belichick or the league about what was found — and whether there was something in the tapes that was a tangible benefit to a team winning any of three Super Bowls by three points apiece. I still think we’re owed an explanation that’s never been offered.

So typical. The club official gives King the wink-wink tidbit (“best for everyone in the league”, and really, what else could that mean?) and King blows it off, instead escalating the Pats’ speculation to start questioning the Super Bowls. Oh, and here’s a good rule of thumb: whenever a writer says he’s speaking for the fans, he’s not speaking for the fans.

Moments after Steinbach’s dust-up with Vrabel Sunday, Belichick made his way across the field to greet his former defensive coordinator, Browns coach Romeo Crennel. Unlike Belichick’s relationship with Jets coach Eric Mangini, he and Crennel remain close, so you can imagine how CBS treated the moment.

Exactly. They didn’t show it.

If Belichick hugs a guy in the forest but the network doesn’t tape it, does it make a sound?

Instead, we were treated to Tom Brady rushing down the sidelines, looking pissed about his afternoon. Most likely, he was caught on the MossCam, always on the lookout for Randy yelling at a quarterback, squirting a ref, or rushing to the locker room before the game was over. Since it was Brady rushing to the locker room, well, nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

We’ll see how the same network treats the Patriots/Jets rematch in December. I’m sure they won’t show that handshake.

This is why the prospect of going undefeated is so compelling. Nobody expects or demands it, but it would be the ultimate defiant gesture to every self-entitled media member looking to extract their pound of flesh, to every delusional playoff opponent questioning the nature of their losses, and to the tough-guy commish, who would rather play Gary Cooper than squelch the whole affair when he had the chance.

The beauty of it is you can be certain nobody’s talking about it in Foxboro. Adalius Thomas will print up the “16-0 is a four-letter word” tee shirts, and Belichick will say, “Does anybody have any questions about Washington?”

So the media will go on billing Belichick as the evil ogre, opponents will go on telling what the Patriots are supposed to represent, and the team will block out both and just concentrate on the task at hand.

It is what it is.