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President Obama welcomes Patriots to White House

WASHINGTON, DC -- The table behind President Barack Obama was covered in Lombardi Trophies on Thursday, while the hands of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick sparkled with each of his Super Bowl rings.

This ceremony to honor the champions -- a short and smooth event held on the White House's South Lawn -- only helped reiterate the perennial dominance of the Patriots over the last 15 years. Even the jokes sounded similar.

"I'm particularly grateful that coach decided to dress up today," said Obama, recycling a derivative of George W. Bush's comment at a similar 2005 ceremony when Bush joked he was "glad to see (Belichick) owned a tie."

Yes, one decade since Belichick's last visit, the President might have changed. But some things, like the leader of the football world, have somehow managed to remain the same.

"To be able to maintain that kind of consistent excellence is a rare thing in any field, including on the football field," Obama told the assembled crowd. "And that's a testament to outstanding ownership. It's a testament to a Hall of Fame coach."

It is also a testament to a Hall of Fame quarterback, Tom Brady, who was not able to attend Thursday's White House ceremony because of a previous family obligation. Despite Brady's absence, the President still acknowledged the quarterback's excellence.

"An all-time great who couldn't be with us here today -- but who engineered a pair of surgical fourth-quarter touchdown drives," Obama said of Brady.

But for all of the aspects of Thursday's visit to the White House that shared similarities to past visits, it was still unique. For instance, given Brady's absence, only one other player (Vince Wilfork) played for the Patriots when the team visited the White House in 2005.(Cornerback Brandon Browner did visit the White House last year with the Seahawks.)

The faces were new. And so, too, was the controversy facing New England this time around. Would Obama dare mention the investigation into the Patriots' alleged use of deflated footballs? Well, in a very passive aggressive way, the smooth-speaking President found his way.

"I usually tell a bunch of jokes at these events," Obama said. "But with the Patriots in town, I was worried that 11 out of 12 of them would fall flat."

The joke drew a mixed reaction from the crowd -- and a playful "thumbs down" from Belichick -- as Obama quickly attempted to shift back toward celebrating the Patriots' accomplishment.

After the ceremony, tight end Rob Gronkowski acknowledged the President's joke -- albeit in a somewhat confusing way only Gronkowski could seemingly manage. Known for his partying, a reporter asked the tight end if he did any drinking during the White House reception.

"Nah, no drinking," Gronkowski said. "Maybe the President was getting wasted ... But ... From his deflategate joke." Gronkowski then turned toward owner Robert Kraft and said, "We're still wondering as an organization about that, right?"

In general, the afternoon maintained a very light-hearted tone as Obama, Kraft and Belichick chatted their way from the oval office to the site of the ceremony, smiling throughout. Obama recognized the accomplishments of many different Patriots, including Malcolm Butler, who came up with the goal-line interception to save New England's Super Bowl hopes.

"He made an unbelievable play, and showed heart and guts on that goal-line slant pass," Obama said. "Of course, as we also know, and he acknowledged, he had practiced for it.

"So you've got a combination of somebody with toughness and heart, and you've got a great coach and a great organization that anticipates. And so I think it's fair to say that Malcolm has earned a lifetime of free drinks in every "bah" in Boston."

As Obama wrapped up the ceremony, however, he continued to note the significance of New England's consistency. While no doubt still a great honor, the Patriots have found a way to make even these ceremonies feel as close to routine as they could possibly feel.

"That's the story of the Patriots over this past 15 years," Obama said. "There's Belichick and Brady -- the most successful player-coach tandem perhaps in NFL history. There's "the Patriot Way" -- a group that values teamwork and hard work above all else.

"In a league that's known for its parity, they have set a standard for excellence that we may not see again for a very long time."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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