Signal-Stealing debate rages in court of public opinion

Signal-Stealing Debate Rages
Patriots Coach Belichick Releases Statement

The debate on both sides of the alleged signal-stealing incident involving a New England Patriots employee during Sunday's Patriots 38-14 win in New Jersey against the Jets rages on the airwaves and beside watercoolers.

I say "alleged" because, even though media outlets are reporting the league ruled against New England, the league has made no such announcement; and, in fact, the Patriots may have until Friday to present evidence in their defense.

Earlier today, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick released the following statement:

Earlier this week, I spoke with Commissioner Goodell about a videotaping procedure during last Sunday's game and my interpretation of the rules. At this point, we have not been notified of the league's ruling. Although it remains a league matter, I want to apologize to everyone who has been affected, most of all ownership, staff and players. Following the league's decision, I will have further comment.
Belichick refused any additional comment during is press conference later in the day, and Jets head coach Eric Mangini, a former assistant under Belichick, refrained likewise during his press conference.

But the court of public opinion has been in session for a couple days, and there are plenty of hanging judges out there. But there are many others -- not necessarily Patriots fans -- who say this incident is merely a symptom of a much wider and more common practice.

It's easy to find the outraged righteous, who act as though we just found out New England has been doing something uniquely creative and otherwise unheard -- as though the Patriots have been playing with a technological marked deck. Certainly, their teams are incapable of such heinous, underhanded practices.

I love a comment in one of the other threads of the last few days saying that it's not just Colts fans whose faith in humanity is so shaken by the Patriots brazen actions. A New York writer thinks so too!

Wow. Groundbreaking stuff.

But there have been enough (well, "some," probably not "enough") rational voices out there, ESPN's Sean Salisbury among them, who says any advantage the Patriots gained using the alleged practice is negligible. More than that, if teams aren't using video cameras to steal signals, they're employing other methods.

Heck, a guy with a pair of binoculars and a mini-cassette tape recorder can accomplish the same thing inconspicuously. I sat around a table with three other guys who are not NFL players or coaches and we came up with about a dozen ideas to accomplish the same task while staying "within the rules" (as much as we may or may not know them).

Opinions of People Who Know

Many ex-players and coaches I've heard are not surprised by the allegations. Accusations of "information mining" of all kinds have plagued the league for decades, going back to people breaking into opponents' hotel rooms to steal playbooks. This is nothing new.

The same people say that most teams -- those that seem to be a little smarter than apparently some others -- constantly change their signals and codes to make it more difficult to parties attempting to steal them. But if no one else is stealing them, if the Patriots are the only ones guilty, why go to such lengths to protect those "secrets"?

And that's just the beginning of the breakdown of the witch hunters' reprobations.

For all the doe-eyed innocence they try to project, no one is so naive to believe that no other team employs and and every method -- with which it thinks it can get away -- to gain an advantage. But this is a very convenient time to take cheap shots -- not that these sweet, little lambs are capable of such things -- at the one team that's been beating the snot out of them for six years. Well, that team and its head coach against whom you have a vendetta.

I have yet to hear any kind of rational explanation of how this practice delivers any kind of significant edge -- or why this method is against the rules (and so shockingly hideous) while there are so many other obvious ways to do the same job.

Think about it. You have 25 seconds to to snap the ball. How many adjustments can you make in 25 seconds with everything else that's going on? It's not at though guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning can't read defenses, as quarterbacks have done for generations. Anyone who wants to allege that Brady makes a lot of adjustments at the line, calling blocking assignments and recognizing coverages can't ignore other quarterbacks who do the same.

What Gained at What Cost?

Ya. The Patriots got caught. I understand that. That's no reason to blindly accept -- or allege -- that it's not happening otherwise.

I've heard a lot of uninformed commentators exhorting how much videotapes could impact future contests between the teams involved. But if we recount the allegations last year made by Green Bay and Detroit, who made a similar claim the Jets make now, the Patriots don't play either of those teams through at least 2009. When are they going to use the information on these videotapes? What other use are they? Sell them on eBay to other teams?

And what of the tape(s) from Sunday's game? What did the Patriots gain then?

Here are things in the Patriots domination of the Jets that signal-stealing certainly did not impact:

  • Ellis Hobbs' 108-yard kickoff return
  • 5 defensive sacks
  • Brady-to-Moss 51-yard touchdown into triple coverage
Or really anything in the game at all, because the video camera was confiscated in the first quarter before any of the information captured could have been reviewed or made useful. Which would be nothing.

Which means the Patriots beat the Jets, and badly, fair and square.

The whole episode just an excuse for other teams to get as serious a punishment inflicted on a superior opponent and for fans of other teams to take their cheap shots. Another excuse why the Patriots are better than their teams.

Excuses on Both Sides

If the Patriots win the Super Bowl this year, or at least go deep into the playoffs, after being punished, I guarantee the whiners will still have a never-ending list of excuses and complaints while they continue to act shocked, holier-than-thou, "my squeaky clean team is not capable of such atrocities!"

But, unlike the way they pronounce judgment now before all the facts are known, I'll wait until February to draw real conclusions.

You know what? Ultimately, the rules are the rules. Someone, whether it was Bill Belichick or someone else on the staff, broke one of them. More correctly, someone was caught breaking one. And someone, whether it's Belichick or the entire team, will be punished and rightfully so.

Let me repeat that, because a lot of recent visitors seem to have a problem reading anything but the "homerism": THE PATRIOTS WILL BE PUNISHED, AND RIGHTFULLY SO.

But make no mistake. They will be punished, and rightfully so, not because they are the only ones who broke the rules. They will be punished, and rightfully so, because they are they only ones who have been caught breaking the rules.

So just a friendly reminder for those of you calling for unreasonably severe punishments: Your team may be next. And the second offender usually gets a much stiffer sentence. So be careful what you wish for.

* * * * * * * *

Incidentally, I've been unable to decide what I think is a reasonable punishment, because I don't know if Roger Goodell will punish Belichick (if Goodell believes Belichick is ultimately responsible) or the franchise (if he decides some other level of management is responsible).

If Goodell holds Belichick personally culpable, I just don't know. A suspension of a game, even two, seems reasonable. If Goodell penalizes the team, I would expect penalizing New England a 3rd-round pick in 2008 and a 3rd-round pick in 2009. Both punishments, I believe, are more severe than anything Paul Tagliabue would have handed down.

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