Monday, January 14, 2008

Destiny – Greatness and oh yes “Spygate” the 2007 New England Patriots

The 2007 National Football League season didn’t begin innocently for the New England Patriots. The Patriots, who will host the San Diego Chargers Sunday in the AFC title game with the winner going onto Super Bowl XLII, began their march to immortality embroiled in “spygate” after they opened their season at Giants Stadium. The Patriots season will end on February 2 at Phoenix’s University of Phoenix’s Stadium. Once their season does end the Pats will have only won their fourth Super Bowl in the last seven years. At the same time the Patriots will become the second team in NFL history to go undefeated in a single season. Anyway you want to put it – the New England Patriots of this era – appear to be the best team in NFL history. But what if any impact will “spygate” have on the Patriots legacy?

The story first broke in The New York Daily News on September 12, 2007 when the paper reported claims that Jets coach Eric Mangini, a former New England assistant under Bill Belichick armed knowledge of the team's surveillance methods -- and finally decided to act where reported

"[The Jets] knew they did it," the Daily News wrote, citing a person with knowledge of the situation, who sent the newspaper an e-mail. "They caught the guy a year ago, but couldn't do anything about it. When Eric came, he said that's what they used to do. Bill is going to be [ticked] at Eric. He kissed and told."

In August, ran a wide-ranging series on cheating in sports. Jeffri Chadiha wrote the NFL portion of the package. Among the ways NFL coaches try to gain an advantage was trying to descramble signals sent from coach to player according to

"When Marty Schottenheimer coached the Cleveland Browns in the late 1980s, he routinely sent a scout to watch the signals opposing teams used to relay messages from coaches to players. When the scout returned, Schottenheimer's staff would watch the game film and match the signals to the plays that followed.

"[Herm] Edwards said the same is true today. It's common for coaches to watch standard game tapes [which include shots from the press box and end zone angles], sideline tapes [which usually wind up on highlight shows and include footage of players and coaches talking on the sidelines] and even the television shows of opposing coaches for tips."

The story for those quickly spiraled out of control. The Boston Herald's John Tomase reported that, "the Packers and Lions also nabbed the Patriots filming their defensive signals, while the Bills suspected it and now are reviewing last year’s game tapes."

The Herald approached members of the Green Bay Packers asking why they hadn’t reported the Patriots if they believed the Pats had cheated the last time they met the Patriots.

“It bothers you that it’s cheating,” he said, “but it’s not the reason they kicked our (butt).”

It’s interesting to note a pair of comments after that game. The first came from Packers corner Al Harris, who praised the Patriots coaching staff at the time.

“It’s almost like they knew what we were doing, you know?” he said. “You have to tip your hat to them. They ran plays designed for us. They ran plays that made us check out of some things. I don’t know who calls their plays, but Belichick is pretty good. Honestly, he’s pretty good.”

"I think that the Patriots live by the saying, 'If you're not cheating, you're not trying,'" San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson was quoted as saying back in September. "I'm not surprised because you keep hearing the different stories (and) people complaining about the stuff that they do."

According to a September 2007 report – this type of football cheating extends well beyond the National Football League. Videotaping signals has even occurred on the college level. Atlanta Falcons and former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, when asked if sign-stealing occurring in college said: "Yeah, I think so. I think there have been some guys that have been identified in trying to do that. It's not what you're supposed to do. It's unethical and certainly there are always people everywhere trying to break the rules.

"Yeah, you can get an advantage. There's no question about it. We actually had a team last year we played (while at Louisville) that we heard was doing it so we had to have two people on the sideline signaling and going back and forth on whose live and who's dummy because you can certainly can gain an advantage."

"I don't think it's any different from baseball - if you know a guy is going to steal, you're going to throw a pitchout and throw him out," said Mark Whipple, the former University of Massachusetts head coach and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach in a Boston Globe report

"If you know what they're going to do, then you have a chance, and that's why coaches work so hard and work long hours. You try to turn over every rock and stone, and try to find something, especially in the National Football League, the most competitive league in the world.

"It always comes to one play, the fourth quarter, and if you can make that call, at that time, and you know what they're doing, it's a great advantage."

"If you know the coverage’s for the passing game and when a defense is going to come with a blitz, you can have the counter for those moves ready and it sure makes it a lot easier," he said. "Every offensive play and every defensive play has a weakness, and if you know ahead of time, your percentage for exploiting it is that much greater, which in turn increases your chances for success on that play."

The outrage directed at the Patriots (present company included) was based at least in part by a sense Bill Belichick broke not only the rules of the National Football League but the spirit of fair play. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place’. After announcing the NFL’s conduct code on April 17, 2007 Goodell had no choice but to bring the hammer down on the Patriots.

"It is important that the NFL be represented consistently by outstanding people as well as great football players, coaches, and staff," Commissioner Goodell said. "We hold ourselves to higher standards of responsible conduct because of what it means to be part of the National Football League. We have long had policies and programs designed to encourage responsible behavior, and this policy is a further step in ensuring that everyone who is part of the NFL meets that standard. We will continue to review the policy and modify it as warranted."

Before the current NFL season began Goodell suspended Adam Pacman Jones for the entire 2007 season and Chris Henry and Tank Johnson for the first half of the season. (Michael Vick missed the entire 2007 season but has yet to be ‘officially’ suspended). Jones, Henry, Johnson and Vick all were told to stay away after they ran into off-field legal issues. The issue with the Patriots wasn’t legal but was just as important – many believed Bill Belichick impugned the integrity of the National Football League. Coming six weeks after disgraced former NBA official Tim Donaghy was charged with fixing NBA games “spygate” rocked the sports industry.

“This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field,” Commissioner Goodell wrote in a letter to the Patriots when he announced the Patriots would be fined $500,000 and lose their first round pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

NFL policy states that “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” and that all video shooting locations for club coaching purposes “must be enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead.”

In a memo to NFL head coaches and general managers on September 6, 2006, NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson said, “Videotaping 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.”

In his review of the facts, Commissioner Goodell determined that the Patriots’ use last Sunday of the video camera, which was seized before the end of the first quarter, had no impact on the outcome of the Patriots-New York Jets game.

Commissioner Goodell also believes that Patriots ownership was unaware of Coach Belichick’s action, but determined that penalties should be imposed on the club because “Coach Belichick not only serves as the head coach but also has substantial control over all aspects of New England’s football operations. His actions and decisions are properly attributed to the club.”

Commissioner Goodell informed the Patriots that the NFL would closely review and monitor the Patriots’ coaching video program, effective immediately.

“I specifically considered whether to impose a suspension on Coach Belichick,” Commissioner Goodell wrote. “I have determined not to do so, largely because I believe that the discipline I am imposing of a maximum fine and forfeiture of a first-round draft choice, or multiple draft choices, is in fact more significant and long-lasting, and therefore more effective, than a suspension.”

In a classic example of hindsight being 20/20 – it’s funny how time seems to have healed both the Patriots and Belichick’s image. That said – its very interesting to note how so called marketing experts felt about the fallout from Belichick’s actions and spygate four short months ago.

“If the words ‘cheating’ and ‘Bill Belichick’ are in the same sentence in an NFL statement, it could have a substantial negative impact for the brand value” of Belichick, Stephen A. Greyser, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School told The Boston Herald before Thursday evenings NFL announcement.

“I think it does cast a cloud over him,” Bruce Clark, an associate professor at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration said. “If I were a corporate person looking for a speaker, this might make me think twice.”

Michael Braun, a professor of marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, told The Boston Herald he thinks the affair could end up enhancing Belichick’s image.

“I disagree that this kind of offense will damage his reputation,” Braun said, noting that gambling and steroid-use controversies are far more serious and harmful. “It could be one of those things that the Patriot fans will look back on years from now and say, ‘Do you remember that Belichick controversy?’ ”

Braun’s comments make a great deal of sense, as long as you’re a fan of the New England Patriots, you’re likely going to forgive and forget. If you’re a New England Patriots fans who has purchased a replica Super Bowl ring you may have other issues, but one isn’t your loyalty to Bill Belichick.

Four months later the Patriots will win Super Bowl XLII. The San Diego Chargers may have been able to beat the Indianapolis Colts in Indianapolis Sunday but the different between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning is night and day. Brady is what Manning will never be – a winner. While Manning managed to lead the Colts to a win in Super Bowl XLI, today that appears to be nothing more than an aberration. Four Super Bowls in seven years, an undefeated season – that’s true greatness. With all due respect to Tony Dungy – leading his teams to one Super Bowl compared to Bill Belichick is the difference between Belichick’s date in Canton when he’s enshrined into the Football Hall of Fame and Dungy attending the induction ceremonies for some of his players when they are honored at the Football Hall of Fame. There is a night and day difference between a Hall of Fame career and a coach who led his team to one Super Bowl.

So what about spygate and its impact on the Patriots legacy? First and foremost one point needs to be made again – the Patriots didn’t need any help to beat any team during this National Football League season. Twenty, thirty years from now when football fans look back at the 2007 New England Patriots no one will remember spygate – they’ll only think about one of the greatest teams in the history of organized sports.

When the Pats become the second undefeated NFL team in the league’s history in 21 days they’ll join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the greatest team in the history of professional football. It happens so rarely in sports when a team as special as the Patriots comes along. It’s so difficult for an NFL team to go undefeated – that’s why it’s going to happen for only the second time in the league’s long history. Enjoy watching history Sunday afternoon and get ready for what will be an amazing Super Bowl. The games may not be great games, but the 2007 New England Patriots are an epic team – one for the ages – one that comes along so very few times.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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