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Archive for Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Commentary: Belichick a coach, not a criminal

May 13, 2008

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For the past eight years, Bill Belichick has needed to spy on his opponents in order to win football games about as much as Richard Nixon needed to destroy Ed Muskie in order to win the 1972 presidential election.

They both did it, anyway, because they couldn't help themselves. But how much did either of them really help their causes?

In Nixon's case, that question is moot because it's more than just bad form for a president of the United States to spy on his enemies and use the information to destroy them. It's a felony, and besides, you can lose your job.

But for a football coach, it's no crime at all. In fact, it just might win you the Super Bowl.

That's why today's meeting between Matt Walsh, Belichick's former chief of surveillance, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, followed by a news conference and hopefully some sort of satisfactory resolution to the boondoggle known as Spygate, is in many ways a sick joke.

Because much of what Belichick is accused of doing is in fact, quite legal.

There's no NFL rule prohibiting a member of one coaching staff from staring at the hands of an opposing coach, with anything from a cheap pair of kiddie binoculars to the Hubble telescope. He can memorize the various semaphores and gyrations, write down what he learns, even speak his observations into a tape recorder for later reference.

He can then take all of this intelligence and supplement it with 129 other forms of NFL-approved intelligence gathering and submit it to his boss to help him get ready for next time.

The only thing he can't do is use a video camera.

Unlike in Major League Baseball, where it is frowned upon as an act almost as bush league as an A-Rod "Ha!" or a Joba Chamberlain fist pump, sign-stealing is not only permitted in the NFL, it is encouraged. It is considered not only fair play, but smart play. Everybody's doing it, in many different ways.

There is no doubt Belichick did it.

But really, what did he do? Did he somehow hack into the frequency used for the opposing quarterback's headset and intercept the plays on the way in? No. Did he somehow get hold of the other team's playbook and leaf through it on the sideline while the game was going on? No. Did he bug the other team's locker room or hotel rooms or strategy sessions? No.

All he did was what anyone in the stands could have done with a camcorder.

So what is the point of today's meeting? We already know Belichick is a strange, secretive, Nixonian presence, an off-the-rack villain easy to fit for just about any type of crime. We know he will do anything to win, anything to gain the slightest edge, even if it is absolutely extraneous and more than a little bit ridiculous.

The real question is, did any of it make the slightest bit of difference?

Monday, I tapped into my NFL sources - all three of them, one a league employee, another a journalist, the third an assistant coach - and all agreed upon one thing: Nobody knows.

And even if the system went off like clockwork, there was still that little problem of execution.

Bobby Thomson may have known Ralph Branca was bringing heat, but he still had to hit it into the stands. Same thing goes on a football field, where a lot more variables come into play and a lot more things can go wrong.

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