Thursday, September 13, 2007

Model Franchise Sprouts an Unsightly Blemish

Sports of The Times
September 13, 2007

The biography of the Patriots’ owner, Robert K. Kraft, in the team’s 2006 media guide, brags that the three-time Super Bowl champions “are often referred to as a model franchise.” But no longer.

It now appears to be a model fraud, a model cheat.

Coach Bill Belichick apologized yesterday for the video camera, seized by the National Football League, that taped the Jets’ sideline signals Sunday at Giants Stadium. At least, that was presumably what he was apologizing for, although he never said it in so many words. But that’s Belichick at his vaguest best, or worst.

Whatever the semantics, Belichick was simply copping a guilty plea.

Let’s hope Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t shed a tear. Let’s hope that Goodell remembers that the Patriots not only were the subject of similar videotape incidents in recent years, but that the issue was discussed at length at league meetings earlier this year. It is also the issue that the Patriots apparently ignored until the Jets’ security director, Steve Yarnell, alerted league officials to a Patriots employee suspected of taping signals Jets coaches were sending to their players.

Such defiance might justify Goodell penalizing the Patriots with the loss of multiple draft choices, possibly even a first-round draft choice. Maybe that would impress upon the rest of the N.F.L. how brazen the Patriots were in videotaping the sideline signals, especially during a game against the Jets, whose coach, Eric Mangini, was once one of Belichick’s trusted assistant coaches.

Mangini hasn’t commented to reporters on the incident or even on Belichick’s apparent apology. Mangini surely doesn’t want to answer the obvious question: Were the signals of opposing teams being videotaped for decoding when Mangini was Belichick’s defensive coordinator in 2005, or earlier when he was the Patriots’ defensive backfield coach for five seasons?

If the commissioner were to ask Mangini that question, the Jets coach can’t (and shouldn’t) say “no comment” or take the Fifth Amendment.

In ruling on Michael Vick and Pacman Jones recently, Goodell cited the importance of the league’s integrity. But Vick and Jones were involved in criminal cases outside the pro football realm. The Patriots case is strictly a pro football crime subject to the commissioner’s jurisprudence.

Goodell doesn’t have to wait for an indictment or a trial. He knows the evidence. He also knows that Belichick, often referred to as pro football’s latest genius coach, has copped a guilty plea.

Not that spying is new to pro football. But the Patriots’ method was not only too high-tech, it had been discussed and denounced as blatant cheating.

In baseball, stealing signs from a third-base coach is considered an art, but the 1951 New York Giants’ use of a telescope and a buzzer system to alert batters to the next pitch would have deserved a commissioner’s punishment had it been discovered and proved.

Over the years in pro football, spying was usually confined to suspicion. Going back more than four decades, whenever a helicopter appeared anywhere above a Jets outdoor practice before a game with the Oakland Raiders, Coach Weeb Ewbank would blow his whistle.

“Al Davis has somebody up there watching us,” Ewbank would say, referring to the Raiders’ general managing genius. “Don’t do anything until that copter leaves.”

Harland Svare, the San Diego Chargers’ coach who had been a Giants linebacker, once looked up at a light fixture in the visiting team’s locker room at the Oakland Coliseum.

“I know you’re up there, Al Davis,” Svare yelled. “I know you’re up there.”

Told later of Svare’s accusations, Davis was willing to perpetuate his sinister reputation.

“The thing wasn’t in the light fixture,” Davis said slyly. “I’ll tell you that much.”

Ever since the Giants moved to the Meadowlands, their coaches have wondered if their practices at the outdoor field next to the stadium were being watched by spies peering through binoculars from a room in a nearby high-rise hotel. According to a Giants official, Coach Dan Reeves wanted to erect a wall to block that view.

In 1998, when the Atlanta Falcons, with Reeves as their coach, were about to play the Giants, the Falcons were suspected of planting a spy in that hotel. Just in case, the Giants assigned a club employee with high-powered binoculars to survey the windows of the hotel and a nearby office building. No spies were spotted.

Jim Fassel, the Giants’ coach at the time, solved the issue that week by taking the Giants inside the team’s practice bubble. The Falcons won, 34-20.

Until now, all that spying was mostly mischief that usually was more smoke than fire. But what Belichick and the Patriots did (and got caught at) was a bonfire not normally associated with a model franchise.


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