Bill Belichick's absence insult to peers

NEW ORLEANS -- Bill Belichick's absence from Tuesday's coaches breakfast at the NFL annual meeting shouldn't be about a media snub. The message has been heard loud and clear from followers of the New England Patriots: "We don't care about Belichick and his dealings with the press. Get over it!"

That's fair. Take the media out of it.

Now consider the NFL head coaching fraternity. Put yourself in the shoes of the 31 other coaches who entered the Waldorf Astoria Ballroom at 7 a.m., found their reserved tables, then looked to the middle of the room over the next 75 minutes to see Belichick's table empty.

Belichick's absence at the once-a-year event fueled the perception that he views himself as bigger than the rest of the coaches.

The no-show was disrespectful to his peers.

Belichick didn't break any rules, as the breakfast, in which coaches make themselves available to media members, was not required by the NFL. He won't be fined.

Some might choose to frame it as Belichick avoiding the press, but that misses the point. Belichick has been cordial when approached in the hallways here at the Roosevelt, the same hotel the Patriots stayed in before arguably the greatest win in Belichick's coaching career, the 20-17 upset of the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. In particular, Belichick's passion for the game, which percolated while speaking of his opposition to a proposed rule change on kickoffs, was some of the most powerful and widely quoted commentary over the last two days.

So this isn't about a media snub. This is about the feeling among some coaches and executives in the league that there are "Belichick Rules" and there are NFL rules. This is why they sometimes call the league office on various issues and say, "They're not doing it in New England, so why should we do it here?"

So yes, those in the NFL took note that 31 coaches made the time to be at Tuesday's breakfast, despite surely having preferred to be elsewhere. At the same time, those coaches asked about Belichick mostly took the high road.

"I'm just going to try to conduct my business in a manner that I see fit and what I think is appropriate," said Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, turning a question on Belichick's absence inward. "I don't compare myself to any of these men. The battle I fight is a man-versus-himself battle. That's the way I approach my job."

Of course, this isn't the first time a coach has played hooky at the league's annual breakfast, the one time each year when all coaches from a conference are in the same room together with media members. One might check the archives and find a similar story with a different "Bill" as the subject. Bill Parcells missed a few coaches breakfasts back in the day.

None of the league's other coaches went as far as to call out Belichick for his absence Tuesday, but it was certainly noted, with some taking a humorous tact.

When a reporter asked Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey about new Patriots defensive lineman Marcus Stroud -- a former Bills' player -- Gailey looked at Belichick's empty table, smiled, and said, "Ask Bill. He'll know."

When it was pointed out to New York Jets coach Rex Ryan that New England-area reporters outnumbered New York reporters 4-to-1 at his table, Ryan smiled. "I don't know why that is," he chuckled. "We should have put Belichick and I together."

Meanwhile, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh laughed when told of Belichick's absence, saying, "Is that why all the Boston [reporters] are wandering around the room, asking about the Patriots and the playoffs?"

This isn't the first time Belichick has missed a coaches breakfast. In fact, there have been some years he was a no-show for the entire NFL meetings.

This year, it's a bit of a different twist. He's here but simply decided not to attend, later joking with reporters, "Sorry I missed you this morning. Alarm clock just didn't go off." When 31 other coaches are in the room and one isn't, the empty table stands out.

As does the message it sent to his peers in the head coaching fraternity.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.