Saturday, September 15, 2007

Crime and Punishment

'Tis my opinion every man cheats in his own way, and he is only honest who is not discovered. ~ Susannah Centlivre

According to all the hue and cry going around about what an evil, wicked, awful person Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, is. Oh, people are also griping about his getting nailed by the NFL for violating a rule involving videotaping the opposition sidelines.

Before we go too far, let it be know that I am a rules person. I think rules are necessary in sports and in society as a whole to maintain order and some sort of level of fairness. I don't think much, though, of dumb rules. And I'm particularly vexed when a rule is said to have been violated when it doesn't exist.

What Coach Belichick did was have a video camera on his sidelines taping the coaches on the opposing side while they signaled in their defensive plays. The rule he violated is contained on page 105 of the NFL's Game Operations Manual, which says, "No video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game."

I'd link you to the manual, but I can't find it on the web, but the line has been well quoted all over the place, like here. Note that this is not the NFL Rule Book, which covers the actual rules of play; it's a manual of operations that includes such goodies as how many footballs the teams have to provide. Nowhere in this manual or in the NFL Rule Book does it say that it is illegal to steal signals.

In other words, if you put a guy in row 1 of the upper deck with a video camera, he can record whatever he wants.

Of course, it is widely reported that the NFL head of football operations, Ray Anderson, sent a letter out saying, "Video taping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent's offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches' booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game." Notice that this isn't what the OFFICIAL manual says.

Here's my problem: What is so bloody awful about stealing signs? If teams simply shouted the information out to their players, would there be a requirement not to listen? Signaling is essentially an unregulated part of the game, so decrypting those signs is not against any rule. It is, in fact, part of the game.

I've heard this argument in baseball for years, where some managers get all bent out of shape because someone on the other team has figured out the third-base-coaching signals. Now it's gravitated to football. It doesn't make sense. The entire reason for signals to fool the other team. The nature of baseball requires that signs be used because it would take too long for coaches to keep running down to the batter and to the runners to say, "The hit-and-run is on."

In football, signs are completely unnecessary. You want to send in a play? Send in a player. Football players used to be smart enough to call their own plays on offense and defense. For some reason, coaches now feel they have to control every single element of play. Okay, then that's the price you're going to pay.

What's funny is that I suspect the rule originally had another purpose altogether. It could have been to prevent a team putting hidden cameras in the coaches' booth or the opposing locker room to pick up strategy information. Technology would make that an easy task; in fact, I'd suspect it's been done and is being done by any number of teams. But the most likely reason for the rule was to protect NFL property. It's not the teams they worry about; it's to prevent anyone from taking images of the game that could be used without NFL permission.

In fact, it used to be common for local news outfits to put a cameraman down on the sidelines to take shots to use for their evening broadcasts, especially if they weren't an affiliate of the network carrying the home team broadcast. I'm sure the NFL didn't like that.

Why the NFL decided that signal-stealing was evil isn't clear to me. Also unclear is why, if signal-stealing is so evil, there isn't a prohibition against it to begin with. Well, actually that isn't so unclear. If a team is thought to be stealing signals, the opposing team has a simple alternative: change the signs. That could make for some exceedingly embarrassing play-calling.

In fact, the whole idea of stealing defensive signals is ridiculous to begin with. Let's say I know your team's signals. You've got multiple people delivering those signs, so I've got to figure out who is live. Assuming I do that, and assuming you never change your signs, I now have to adjust my play call and relay to my quarterback before his radio gets shut off (I think that happens with 15 seconds left on the play clock). It seems to me that a sign-stealer would be easy to mess up.

Moreover, it does appear that everyone and his dog was aware of New England's habit of taping the sidelines. So what took so long to complain? As if that isn't strange enough, the coach who brought this to a head was Eric Mangini, whose New York Jets got their helmets handed to them by Coach Belichick's Patriots in the NFL opening week. But, it gets funnier. It seems Eric Mangini used to be an assistant coach for --wait for it-- Bill Belichick. And, according to some reports I've heard on radio, the Patriots were doing the video thing when Coach Mangini was in New England.

The guy's been gone for, what, three years? And he complains now after a butt-whipping? Sounds more like sour grapes to me. The NFL's reaction seems more like embarrassed over-reaction, given that the taping seems to have been an open secret. And the moral indignation of fans and newscasters is just plain silly.

I don't care much for the Patriots in general or Bill Belichick in particular, but I have to admit that he's done a good job picking players and coaching them. To say that his "legacy" is tarnished by alleged sign-stealing or that victories should be taken away because of it is absurd. A Pittsburgh player and a Philadelphia player who got beaten by New England in the Super Bowl both seemed to think they would have won if the Patriots hadn't been "cheating."

Let's see. The Patriots didn't play those teams during the year, so they couldn't have taped their defensive signals to know what they were. Are these players telling us that their signals were so simple that they could decrypt them during the game? If so, video taping was hardly necessary.

Bill Belichick broke a rule that has its roots in protecting NFL Films more than in worrying about "the integrity of the game." He's also a bit of a jerk, like most successful head coaches. But let's not get all moral about sign-stealing being the equivalent of mass murder. Once and for all, everybody, stealing signs is not against the rules. Never has been. Probably never will be.

That's probably why the NFL came up with such a Mickey-Mouse penalty. The fines are a blip in the finances of the coach and the team. The Patriots have TWO first round draft choices, so taking one of them is no big deal. Ultimately, Commissioner Roger "Judge Roy Bean" Goodell, who prides himself on being the Law East, West, North, AND South of the Pecos, put on a good show but even he knows that all that was broken here was a procedural rule.

I wonder how much he would have fined them if they didn't have enough footballs for the game?

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