Monday, September 17, 2007

Let's not go to the videotape

New England 38, San Diego 14

If you hear anyone say that they couldn't see this coming a mile away, then don't trust anything else you ever hear from them about the NFL, because they don't know their stuff. From almost the moment the story broke that the NFL was investigating the Patriots for videotaping opposing coaches during games, it was evident that the New England players were going to draw all the motivation they needed, and more, from the scandal. This is the team that in 2003 sustained a grudge for a full season after ESPN's Tom Jackson famously (and incorrectly) declared that "they hate their coach" following a 31-0 opening week loss to the Drew Bledsoe- and Lawyer Milloy-led Bills. This is also the team that two years ago stirred itself into a white-hot rage after Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer "disrespected" them by observing, after an easy 41-17 victory, that the Patriots sure had suffered a lot of injuries.

Someone was going to pay for the past week's negative publicity, and that someone wound up being the poor San Diego Chargers.

As word came out about the NFL's investigation, the news media did what it does best: churn out uninformed speculation, the seeming raison d'etre of the media in the 21st century. Initial reports from inside the Patriots locker room depicted the team as irritated that coach Bill Belichick had put them in this position and annoyed that they had to answer questions about the matter. Fair enough. From what we've been told so far, this scandal rests with the coaches, not with the players. The most popular question early on was: What will this do to Bill Belichick's reputation as a coaching genius? That's also a fair question, but of course no one took it far enough. No one asked: If Belichick is a cheater now, was he cheating when he designed the game plans that won two Super Bowls for Bill Parcells and got him to a third? Does this mean the other coaches on the Belichick tree -- among them Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini in the NFL and Charlie Weis, Kirk Ferentz, and Nick Saban in college -- are cheating, too? No one asked these questions because doing so would complicate what is supposed to be a simple morality play. Especially since Mangini is the one who ratted Belichick out.

It doesn't really matter, though, because very quickly, the question changed. Now, what was being asked was: Does this mean the Patriots' three Super Bowl titles are tainted? And for every player, coach or commentator who said "Yes," poor Philip Rivers took a kick in the head last night. That's because saying the Patriots cheated their way to three titles is saying that the Patriots players weren't good enought -- aren't good enough -- to win the Super Bowl on their own. Hearing that, Rodney Harrison, suspended as he is, may well have gone out in the street and clotheslined passers-by just for the release.

Sunday's pregame shows were full of opinions, of course, much of it sharply divided. Everybody condemned Belichick for what he had done -- no one disputes that he broke the rules and that the hammer should have come down hard -- but there was bitter disagreement within the studio crews over what the effects of Belichick's actions were. Coaches-turned-talking heads Jimmy Johnson and John Madden didn't think the Patriots got much of an edge. Keyshawn Johnson (who is proving himself far, far superior to Michael Irvin and is providing the kind of insight that Tiki Barber only wishes he could muster) said he seriously doubted that videotape gave the Patriots any kind of edge over the Rams, Panthers or Eagles in the Super Bowl, and he stuck to that belief even though I thought it was going to make Emmitt Smith cry. Jerome Bettis now believes that the Steelers had the 2004 AFC Championship Game stolen from them rather than choking it away the way they did the 1994, 1997 and 2001 AFC Championship Games. Terry Bradshaw and Chris Collinsworth both said Belichick will be branded a cheater now and for all time. Howie Long said some people hate Belichick so much that they were just lying in wait for something like this so they could blow it all out of proportion. And Peter King was shitting his pants and insisting that everyone smell it.

The shows quoted several current players as well. During one segment -- on, I think, ESPN -- we saw reactions from three players. First, Michael Strahan, who should know a little something about accomplishments tainted by chicanery, said the scandal makes you wonder whether the Patriots really earned their rings. LaDanian Tomlinson, who after a playoff loss last year picked a fight with the Pats to defend the honor of an admitted steroid user, said the Patriots must believe that "If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying." Donovan McNabb said he wondered if this means he's gonna get a Super Bowl ring, then laughed like he didn't mean it. Hey, you saw what happened to Tomlinson and the Chargers. McNabb's Eagles visit Foxboro for Sunday Night Football on Nov. 25. Strahan and the Giants host the Patriots in Week 17. Don't be surprised to see those quotes again.

Don't let all this make you think I'm defending Belichick. The guy broke the rules, he did it cavalierly, and he did it knowing that the new commissioner is a hanging judge. He got what was coming to him. But that doesn't mean I can't be sick of the story. Because I am sick of the story.

One thing I'm sick of is that every newspaper headline and every onscreen graphic is using some variation of the label "Patriot Games." This is the same label they've been using on every New England Patriots-related story since the movie came out 15 years ago. (The book came out 20 years ago, but headline writers generally aren't allowed to make pop culture references to books.) This story was crying out for the label "Illegal Patriot Act Surveillance," but that might have been a little thorny, as it would have only highlighted the fact that when the NFL catches you involved in illegal surveillance, it punishes you severely, but when Congress catches you involved in illegal surveillance, it rolls over and makes whatever you're doing legal, so long as you ask. And you don't even have to ask nicely.

Another thing I'm sick of is the constant references to the Patriots being caught "spying" on the New York Jets in the season's first week. "Spying" isn't illegal, never has been, and everyone -- everyone -- associated with the NFL acknowledges it openly. It's not only accepted; it's expected. In every game, both teams are trying to interpret the other's signals and gain an edge. If a defense hears the QB shout "Blue 38" before a draw play, they're going to be alert for the draw every time they hear "Blue 38." To paraphrase Tomlinson, if you ain't spying, you ain't trying. What New England was busted for was using video as part of their spying activities. If the Patriots had had a group of assistants watching the Jets coaches through binoculars and taking notes about all the signals they were sending in, that would have been perfectly legal. But they had a kid with a camcorder, and that's against the rules.

At least football people have been willing to admit that players and coaches try to steal the other team's signs. Sign-stealing has been going on in baseball since forever, and baseball people continue to be little girls about it. Every time a guy gets on second base, someone starts carping at the umpires that the guy is trying to steal signs. Of course he is. That's why you change your signs when there's a guy on second. Good God, ladies, get a hold of yourselves.

Belichick was quick to point out that the commissioner had acknowledged that the Patriots hadn't used the video to gain an edge in last week's game against the Jets. This led some of the dimmer bulbs on the tube to wonder what, then, was he going to use it for. Um, maybe the next game against the Jets, duh? This is why Belichick (allegedly) tried to assemble tape of every coach -- so that the next time the Patriots played aganst that coach, he'd look at the tape and try to decipher signals. Opposing coaches could counter this, of course, simply by changing their signals regularly. You'd think this would be obvious, right? Well, you'd think a lot of things that aren't necessarily so. Just think about Super Bowl XXXVII, during which the Raiders left intact much of their terminology even though their former coach -- the guy who had written the terminology -- was coaching the other team. No wonder the Buccaneers picked off five passes. Hell, if he really wanted to blow the other guy's mind, a coach could keep the same signals from one game to the next but strategically change what they mean. Imagine if Mangini had gone this route. He could have goaded the Patriots into throwing into triple coverage or something, or gotten them to run when they should have passed. He could have used his inside knowledge of the Pats' videotaping strategy to win games for his team rather than to just make his old boss look bad.

It isn't just Belichick who's been videotaping the oppostion from the sideline. Peter King estimates that seven to ten teams have been doing it. Some of the Sunday talking heads made similar assertions, and there's no real reason to dispute it. The question that really intrigues me, however, is why Belichick felt compelled to do it. On ESPN's pregame show, Chris Berman mentioned Watergate, which strikes me as the most apt comparison. The Nixon White House didn't have to break into Democratic Party headquarters, or order tax audits of its enemies, or use the FBI for political ends, to ensure victory in the 1972 election. George McGovern's campaign was self-destructing all by itself. But Nixon and friends were paranoid and insecure and wanted every possible weapon at their disposal, whether they needed it or not. So it was with Belichick. I'd be frankly surprised if he even used the tape, but it was there if he needed it, which was the whole point.

And what of the penalties handed down by the league? The loss of one or more draft picks, plus a $500,000 fine for Belichick and $250,000 for the Patriots: Too harsh? Too lenient? I'm not going to argue with the severity (or lack of it). I will, however, question the conditional nature of the draft-pick penatly. If the Pats make the playoffs, they lose a first-round pick. If they don't, they lose second- and third-round picks. Why the difference? Punishment is supposed to fit the crime, not the criminal's ultimate gain. If it's illegal to videotape opposing coaches, then it's illegal regardless of whether the tape helps you get to the playoffs. Back in 2002, when the Buccaneers had to pay compensation to the Raiders for tampering with their coach, the penalty was two first-round picks and two second-round picks, regardless of how well the Bucs went on to play under the coach. (They did quite well; see above.) So it should be with the Pats.

Ultimately, the commissioner, Roger Goodell, acted when he did because he wanted to send a message and redirect fans' attention back to the games. All week, we were asked rhetorically whether the scandal would prove to be a "distraction" for the Patriots. Oh, it was a distraction, all right -- for just about everybody but the Patriots. After Sunday's games, every player and coach was asked about the story. The commissioner was grilled about it on national TV by Bob Costas. Peter King stormed about the NBC set demanding that everyone look at what a big dump he'd taken in his pants. And the San Diego Chargers -- the poor San Diego Chargers -- got the worst of it.

NBC's Andrea Kremer, in addition to reporting on various leaks from senior NFL officials (nice, tight ship you run there, Goodell), explained that Chargers coach Norv Turner was so freaked out by the "spying" that he was slamming the barn door shut long after the horse had gone, even though it was neither his barn nor his horse. Kremer reported that Turner usually gives his offense the script for the first 15 plays the night before the game, but this week he waited until the morning of the game. The script is usually distributed in printed form; this week it was delivered orally. And before the game at Foxboro, Turner ordered the Chargers' locker room closed and wouldn't allow attendants in. So, before one of the biggest games of the year, against one of the best teams in the league, Turner upended his team's routine and played right into the very paranoia that Belichick might have been trying to seed.

The Patriots, loosey-goosey and highly motivated by a week's worth of perceived insults, came out and utterly dismantled the rudderless, tight Chargers. During the game, NBC ran video of San Diego QB Rivers saying that Chargers-Patriots has become something of a "rivalry game." Sorry, Philip, but a hammer and a nail don't have a rivalry.. This is a rivalry in the way the Colts and Patriots had a rivalry before Indianapolis finally won in New England in 2005: The Patriots always won, and the Colts always stewed over it. Perhaps Rivers will inherit from Payton Manning the coveted "Can't-Beat-the-Pats" mantle.

So the Patriots are off and running. Seeing the way they mobbed their coach after last night's game, they've pulled enough "disrespect" out of this episode to sustain them for the rest of the year, and maybe into 2008. Last night Madden said he was pretty certain that there would be no funny business from the Patriots for the ret ofthe year. Of course not. They're on a mission to prove they can win "clean."

The Jets play at New England on Dec. 16.

No comments: