Saturday, September 15, 2007

Law and Order: SGU (Special Goodell Unit)

In his brief term so far as NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell has clearly established that--like the NBA's David Stern and unlike MLB's Bud Selig--he will mete out strong punishments as he sees fit and that he will do so promptly and without consulting committees and advisers. The latest example of this is his ruling in the now infamous "Patriotgate scandal." Goodell fined the Patriots $250,000, fined Coach Bill Belichick an additional $500,000 (the maximum possible) and ruled that the Patriots must forfeit a first round draft pick next year if they make the playoffs this season. Not too long ago these would have been eye opening, jaw dropping punishments but Goodell has been bringing the hammer down so hard and so often that some people are actually suggesting that the Patriots got off easily. That is ridiculous. Belichick reportedly makes $4 million per year, so he just lost one eighth of his annual earnings; that is like someone who makes $50,000 per year forking over $6250--and I don't believe that Goodell is going to let New England owner Robert Kraft cover this marker for Belichick. The loss of a first round draft pick is a heavy blow to a team like New England that does such a good job of scouting. Sure, Cleveland Browns fans feel like their team has been robbed of several first round picks even though their team technically used them but the Patriots actually draft players who get on the field and perform at a high level.

Let's not forget what all of this is about, either. A Patriots intern stood on the sidelines during last week's game versus the New York Jets and apparently filmed the Jets coaches while they were making signals. Let's be perfectly clear; this is not about "cheating." Goodell flatly stated that New England gained no competitive advantage against the Jets and that he has no reason to believe that New England has gained a competitive advantage in an unfair fashion in previous seasons. This is about power, pure and simple. The NFL has a rule against what the Patriots did. It is a silly rule but it is a rule nonetheless. Bill Belichick violated that rule and he did so in a fairly brazen manner. Goodell is the new sheriff in town and if he lets people jaywalk on his watch--which is what this amounts to, no matter how much Skip Bayless, Jay Mariotti or anyone else has a fit--then pretty soon someone will try to shoplift and then there will be muggings and general mayhem. So Goodell sent a loud and clear message to Belichick and every player, coach and owner in the NFL: "I'm the sheriff in this here town and you are going to play by my rules." I have no problem with that approach; I think that the rule that is involved in this particular case is silly but, as I wrote in my previous post on this subject, if the Patriots violated a league rule then they certainly should be punished for it.

However, I vigorously disagree that they should have received harsher penalties than what Goodell meted out. I also dismiss the idea that New England has won three Super Bowls because of an intern filming coaches wildly gesticulating. Let's break this down scientifically:

1) You only play a team once a year unless that team is in your division. That means that unless you have an army of interns filming coaches at various stadiums each week that you are gathering data that will be worthless the rest of the season. Moreover, if a coaching staff has any sense, it changes its signals fairly regularly during the course of a season and also has someone sending in "dummy" signals at the same time the real signals are being sent.

2) Halftime lasts 15 minutes or so. Does anyone believe that any coach can study a half's worth of film, decode all of the signals and then transmit this information to his team in that period of time? Teams prepare their game plans during the week and they plan for various contingencies. At halftime a team can certainly make an adjustment that was within the scope of its preparation but it cannot just come up with something completely new.

3) What is the likelihood that whatever information is gleaned from the "hidden video" is any more worthwhile than all of the hours of "legal" film that Belichick notoriously watches during the week?

So why did Belichick risk his reputation to do something that was of marginal competitive value at best? Frankly, I don't know. My guess is that a combination of factors is involved, with the most obvious being that he is obsessive about preparation and obtaining every little bit of information to the point of diminishing returns. Although cynics may scoff, his surface explanation may also be true or at least contain a grain of truth: Belichick has publicly said that he explained to Goodell that he had a different interpretation of the rule and that he did not use the film for any kind of advantage during the game. Maybe Belichick was studying how other teams send in signals to compare their methods to his own to look for some kind of way to better disguise what his team does. Coaches like to go to other teams' practices--even teams that play different sports--to watch how other coaches do things. Maybe Belichick was doing some master study of NFL signaling tendencies. I've always called him "the mad scientist"; he spends most of the week in his "laboratory" watching film and then he cooks up a game plan that is tailor made to defeat that week's opponent. Remember when all of the Patriots' defensive backs were getting hurt and he was literally grabbing guys off of the street and putting them on the field? He found some use for ex-Browns' cornerback Earthwind Moreland (whose parents, I'm willing to bet, are huge Earth, Wind and Fire fans); during that time, Belichick also turned wide receiver Troy Brown into an effective nickel back. None of that had anything to do with watching the other team's signals, nor did any of the brilliant coaching moves that he made during the three Super Bowl runs.

The bottom line is that this issue is much more about power and control than it is about "cheating." Belichick did not plant a spy or a hidden microphone in the Jets' locker room; he sent an employee to make a video record of the public actions of the Jets' coaches.

The most absurd comparison that has been made regarding this situation is that what Belichick did is the equivalent of a player using performance enhancing drugs. There is a reason that performance enhancing drugs are called that: they enhance performance. Commissioner Goodell already acknowledged that what the Patriots did, although it violated a rule, did not enhance their performance. Furthermore, steroids and HGH are illegal unless they have been prescribed by a doctor. Anyone using or distributing those substances for the purpose of enhancing athletic performance is breaking the law and could be sent to jail. Belichick did not break a law; he violated a silly NFL rule.

Speaking of PEDs, I hope that everyone who is attempting to tarnish the Patriots' accomplishments has also devoted at least as much time and energy to publicizing these stories--stories that deal with bona fide cheating:

Haslett admits to using steroids

Jim Haslett, a Pro Bowl linebacker who later became coach of the New Orleans Saints, admitted to using steroids briefly during his career. He also said that the Steelers of the 1970s--when the team won four Super Bowls in six years--were big steroids users.

Chargers' Merriman suspended for steroids

While LaDainian Tomlinson and the San Diego Chargers--who face New England on Sunday night in what might be an AFC Championship Game preview--accuse the Patriots of being cheaters they have a Pro Bowler on their own roster--Shawne Merriman--who was caught using steroids.

Broncos Penalized Again for Salary Cap Violations

The Patriots obtained no tangible advantage from the rule that they broke but a decade ago the Denver Broncos won back to back Super Bowl titles in no small part because they circumvented the salary cap to retain the services of stars John Elway and Terrell Davis.

Frankly, the story that has kind of been lost in all of this that is more disturbing is that New England's Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison has been suspended for four games for using HGH. That is cheating.

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