Friday, September 14, 2007

From Championship Years to Tarnish on Belichick

By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Sports of The Times
September 14, 2007

I can hear it now, the chorus of Patriots haters shouting: “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. I knew them guys were cheating.”

The justified cynicism will come forth now that N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell has levied a hefty penalty — a $500,000 fine for Coach Bill Belichick, a $250,000 fine for the team and the loss of draft picks to be determined — for videotaping the Jets’ signals.

That’s right, boys and girls: Santa Claus cheats.

Goodell said that because the video was seized in the first quarter Sunday, he did not believe it affected the game. But knowing Belichick, the video was not for that game, anyway, but for an encounter later in the season.

In the wake of the commissioner’s stiff penalty against the Patriots, announced last night, claims that the Patriots’ successes were counterfeit, sadly, have to be considered.

Goodell came down hard, and he should have. In fact, he should have come down harder, given how he has leveled players like Pacman Jones, Tank Williams and Michael Vick. What New England did cuts to the integrity of the game; what those players did makes the game look seamy, but it does not impact our faith that the game is being played on a level playing field.

Given the commissioner’s harsh action against players who have transgressed off the field, I would have suspended a head coach whose actions strike at the integrity of the game. I would have liked to have seen Belichick suspended and the Patriots stripped of a first- and third-round pick. Under the current penalty, the Patriots only forfeit their first-round pick in 2008 if they make the playoffs.

Why the sudden mercy? Because Belichick’s a coach? When the league suspended the Cowboys’ quarterback coach, Wade Wilson, for five games for buying human growth hormone, Wilson said he was told by Goodell that he held authority figures in higher regard than the players. Goodell said in a statement yesterday that he considered a suspension for Belichick but thought the fines and the loss of draft choices was more effective.

Yesterday’s ruling confirms that the Patriots, held up by the news media as the model of how to run a franchise, had a little bit of help along the way. They cheated. So, is the essence of Belichick’s genius: the X’s and O’s, or the hidden cameras?

In any event, the second-guessing has already started. On Wednesday, Hines Ward, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ star receiver, told reporters that he had always been suspicious of the Patriots and that the Patriots might have cheated during the American Football Conference championship game of the 2001 season.

“Oh, they knew,” Ward said. “They were calling our stuff out. They knew, especially that first championship game here at Heinz Field. They knew a lot of our calls."

Maybe. Maybe not. On the one hand, I feel about the camera scandal the way I feel about drugs and great home run hitters: Drugs don’t help eye-hand coordination, but drugs do help.

Similarly, for all of the cameras and improperly taped hand signals, a team still must execute — and the Patriots have.

But a little extra, ill-gotten information in the hands of a coach like Belichick goes a long, long way.

The next question is, how widespread is this?

The former Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak recently told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the Steelers once received a suspicious videotape by mistake from an opposing team during a routine tape exchange. The tape focused on a coach making hand signals from the sideline. Hoak said the Steelers did not report the tape to the N.F.L.

Now you wonder: If the Patriots, the N.F.L.’s standard bearer, stooped to cheating, is the practice widespread? I’m curious to hear what Belichick says about this. Is it widespread and the Patriots simply got caught?

Is every team cheating? Is everyone out there trying to steal signs? Does every team have a camera operator slithering around? I doubt it. At least the cheats were caught.

At one level, I’m tempted to pass this off as the pros just trying to get an edge. Hey, everybody tries to get an edge: Players continue to use H.G.H., and some still use steroids. There are tests in place to catch some of those cheats, although the league does not currently test for H.G.H. The N.F.L. more or less operates on an honor system of sorts when it came to its head coaches because head coaches know how difficult it is to get a W in their league.

On the other hand, an edge in the hands of a coach like Belichick is more than an edge. It’s an ax. My mother used to famously say, “Cheaters never prosper.”

Now, we’re left to wonder.

E-mail: wcr@nytimes.com

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