Another week, another blowout victory for the New England Patriots.
If you stopped paying attention to Monday night’s beatdown of the New York Jets at halftime, when the Patriots were up 24-0, I certainly won’t blame you. The game was more or less over in the first quarter, there were better things on TV (including plenty of movies with real, actual ghosts), and Monday night was a school night after all.
But if you did turn this one off before the final whistle blew, you missed what may have been one of the most intriguing things to happen during the entire game.
With 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots comfortably up 33-0, New England faced a 4th and 2 at the 33 yard line. Technically, they were in Mike Nugent’s range, but a 50 yard FG attempt no gimme, and there really wasn’t any point in going for a long try that would set the Jets up with field position if Nugent missed. So the Patriots came out to punt.
As teams trying to milk the clock do all the time, Jake Bailey remained motionless as the playclock ran out, creating a Delay of Game Penalty to both take all possible time off and get five extra yards of breathing room on the kick. The Jets, however, declined the penalty in order to keep the distance close and play for the touchback. So, the Patriots false started on the next attempt to get 5 yards. The Jets once again declined. The result was a smirking Bill Belichick and a punt from the 33 fair caught by Braxton Berrios at the 14.
More importantly, though, that sequence ate up almost 90 additional seconds of game clock, even though the playclock is only 40 seconds long, thanks to a weird loophole in the NFL rules that Bill Belichick was well aware of. Because of course he was.
The Jets got the ball back with 9:43 left in a game that was already well out of hand with even less time to mount an impossible comeback because New England’s coach is the best to ever do it and it isn’t even close. In a blowout game, with a meaningless punt, Belichick knew exactly what to do in order to maximize every second of the victory.
In most cases, this kind of knowledge, this absurd, over-the-top attention paid to every single facet of one’s craft, is something to be lauded. It’s proof positive of a true master at work and something we should all consider ourselves privileged to witness.
Unless, of course, it’s the Patriots, in which case Belichick’s level of attention gets warped into a reputation of the Patriots as habitual, serial cheaters who will stop at nothing to gain an edge, even if it means sacrificing any semblance of respectability they had and tainting everything they have ever accomplished.
That sequence of events, maximizing the seconds surrounding a meaningless punt in a blowout game, is exactly the kind of occurrence that has somehow allowed two isolated incidents — filming from outside the perimeter where filming is allowed, and being generally aware that there may possibly have been air let out of footballs even though science tells you otherwise — to translate into two nonstop decades of Bill Belicheat and the New Cheatland Cheatriots being the cheatiest bunch of cheaters that ever cheated.
Because it’s not as much those two events, to be honest; those two incidents occurred almost a decade apart and have bookended other teams getting busted for fake crowd noise and tampering and doctoring footballs and tripping and walkie talkies that nobody seems to care about at all. Rather, it has what has occurred between those two incidents that has painted the Patriots in such an ignominious light: Bill Belichick understanding the rules, knowing exactly how they were written, manipulating the language, and using that manipulation to his advantage.
And no matter how you may try to spin it, there is a massive, massive difference between exploiting loopholes and cheating.
I know that the two are 100% equal in the court of public opinion and in the eyes of those who will stop at nothing to tear down the Patriots at all costs. And I know that New England’s sustained success and general disdain for the media hasn’t done them any favors in the way they are portrayed by reporters and analysts. But the simple, indisputable fact is that exploiting loopholes in the rules the way that Belichick does is perfectly legal, and absolutely any team is free to do it at any time. All it takes is a solid understanding of the rulebook and a firm grasp on how individual rules are worded. Lawyers actually make a massive amount of money to do exactly that to get the court ruling they want (just ask Ted Wells). But the reason that many lawyers, and the coaches of other football teams, don’t do it is because Belichick, and his minion Ernie Adams, are just better at this than they are. And Belichick couldn’t care less about what you think of him or whether or not you find him amicable in postgame interviews. He’s going to do what he has to do in order to win games, even if that means taking advantage of a misplaced semicolon that has you all up in arms about how this team could possibly get away with covering up the tight end with a lineman. And since it never even occurred to you that pretending to call a second timeout in a row was even a thing, it has to be cheating.
You may not like it. You may think it’s underhanded, or devious, or shady, or no way to win a game, or if you’re really enjoying the air up there on your moral high horse, a complete disgrace to the integrity of this glorious sport of professional football. And that’s fine; you’re more than entitled to have, and perpetuate, that opinion as much as you want. But absolutely nothing about it, from faking timeouts to trick formations to bumping receivers at the line to milking the clock via back-to-back penalties and everything in between, even remotely resembles cheating. Neither does perpetuating rumors with absolutely no evidence whatsoever to back them up, like how New England bugs opposing locker rooms or has somehow found a way to hack into the league-run coaches headsets or the way the CBS SportsZone jumbotron at Gillette Stadium is angled just right. It all derives from the same place: Belichick is the best in the game, he’s planted his flag deep inside the brains of most of his colleagues, and his deep understanding of the rules means that he has probably beaten your team using some weird, arcane trickery that the league then makes illegal the following year. It must suck to be on the ass end of it when your team loses to the Patriots on some weird obscure rule only one coach in the league bothered to learn, but absolutely nothing about it constitutes cheating. And I have a funny feeling that if it was your coach who knew the rules so well that he could pull these random loopholes out of nowhere to help your team win games, you’d suddenly have absolutely no problem with it.
That rule from the Jets game will probably be addressed in the offseason; Belichick himself said it’s a dumb loophole the league should close. But in 2019, against the Jets, it was on the books, and so he took advantage of it. If you don’t like it, change it; it has kind of become an offseason tradition for the squares down on Park Avenue. Or even better, learn from Bill Belichick and do the same thing yourself; there’s absolutely nothing stopping you. And you won’t be cheating.
What’s really sad here is that the only people who are actually getting cheated are the ones who are too blinded by personal bias to appreciate true genius when they see it.