Pulling For the Saints…

I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember.  My first favorite Quarterback to Wide Receiver tandem was Roman Gabriel to Jack Snow.  The two played together for the Los Angeles Rams from 1965 to 1972 so…it’s been awhile.  I ran a Fantasy Football League for YEARS – long before fantasy football was “cool”…or profitable…or easy.  In the early days, we used to have to wait for the stats to come out in the Wednesday paper and add up our own scores.  (No computers to do the work for us and NEVER in real time.  I have to admit, I like the new way better…)  So, as you can imagine, it’s a big deal for me to say that I don’t intend to watch the Super Bowl.

For me, this Super Bowl (number 53 – screw the Roman Numerals) embodies everything that has changed in the game for the worse.  I’m pulling for the New Orleans Saints.  Yeah, I know, they’re not playing.  But every person in the world who knows the game knows they should be playing.  Anybody who knows anything about football knows the Rams are in on a clear foul that was simply ignored by an officiating crew that is normally SO dedicated to detail they can find a football in a pile of human beings and place it within a chain-link of where it’s supposed to be.  But they didn’t see the two-foul penalty everyone else in the world saw.  A multi-Billion dollar operation that got egregiously sloppy for two seconds and changed the outcome of one of it’s most important games.  That seems likely…

Then there are the New England Patriots.  Again.  The greatest team ever with the Greatest Quarterback ever.  Just look at the numbers.  Football fans always measure success by Super Bowl wins.  It’s not an unreasonable measure.  But it can leave a QB with greater career stats and NO Super Bowls automatically below a QB with…sometimes terrible stats but at least one Super Bowl win so it’s not perfect, either.  Through the years, I’ve been exposed to an additional, unexpected statistic: number of asterisks.  I think the higher the number of asterisks that can rightly be associated with your team or players, the lower that team’s standing in the G.O.A.T. conversation.  It’s the first number that should be sorted.  In my mind, the Patriots have three, ‘Spygate’, ‘Deflategate’, and invulnerability to parity, though I’m only going to discuss one – ‘Spygate’ – here.

Inevitably, the  subject irritates Patriots fans.  It shouldn’t but it does.  I’ve had the conversation many times.  I’ve heard many assertions.  I’ve heard so many re-interpretations of Patriot cheating from people I trust, I started to accept some of them as factual.  So I decided to double-check my understanding of events regarding the first of their scandals, the practice that became known as ‘Spygate.’  As it happens, my memory was not entirely correct on the topic.  In fact, the details were far worse than I remembered…

Teams used to use hand signals from the coaches on the sidelines to tell the players what to do.  ALL teams knew that if they could decipher even one of the signals, they could enjoy a sometimes significant advantage during the game.  Trying to decode signals was, really, just part of the game.  But Bill Belichick and his Prep School buddy Ernie Adams had a better idea: what if they could recreate opposing teams defensive playbooks and hand signals for their own use?

Contrary to popular belief, the scheme started in 1991, when Belichick was first hired as the new Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns.  By all accounts, the scheme there failed and Belichick was out after two years.  But by the time he was hired as the head coach of the Patriots in 2000, he and his buddy Adams had refined the system.  Through the years, the details have been softened; a camera was set up where it shouldn’t have been.  Belichick simply misinterpreted a rule.

In fact, a couple of guys were dispatched to opposing teams’ practice facilities where a Videographer would disguise himself as a member of the media or NFL films and record defensive coaches hand signals while another guy would create hand-drawn diagrams of the player positions.  If they got caught, they were told to say they were from NFL films or Kraft Productions.  An honest “misinterpretation” doesn’t require disguises or cover stories, right?  Mostly, they didn’t get caught and the raw footage and diagrams were turned over to Belichick’s buddy, Adams, who collated the information into detailed breakdowns.  Each shot would include the down and distance markers, the hand signals, and – as an “inside joke” – a tight shot of a cheerleader’s top or skirt.  Each film set was associated with the proper diagram.  Essentially, the Patriots were recreating opposing teams defensive playbooks.

Think about it: if deciphering ONE hand signal during a game might provide an advantage, consider what having access to the entire playbook could do.  And did.  The scheme ran from 2000 through 2006.  During that time, the Patriots “won” the Super Bowl in 2001, 2003, and 2004.  The other teams in the league all suspected something…untoward…was up.  Apparently, it was constant chatter around league insiders but since nobody had any proof, it was all just talk, dismissed as success envy.

The Patriots finally got caught in 2006 – twice.  After the first time, the league sent out a memo to ALL teams reminding them that recording opposing hand signals was against the rules.  The Patriots kept doing it anyway but now the other teams were on the alert for what to look for and the second time it happened the information became public knowledge.  Among that public was one Arlen Specter, a United States Senator from Pennsylvania – and a Philadelphia Eagles fan.  The Eagles had been one of the teams cheated by the practice and he was irritated.  He threatened to pull the NFL’s antitrust exemption so the NFL went into damage control mode.

But the league didn’t really investigate the extent of the scheme.  They took the Patriots’ word regarding the extent – which means nobody can say, for sure, how much information may have been retained by the Patriots, even after they were caught and the improper information destroyed.  For their part, the Patriots didn’t volunteer one bit of information they didn’t have to.  Think of it as the NFL’s version of ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell.’  Even in damage control mode, Belichick eventually admitted to “at least” 40 games…

Through the years since, I’ve auditioned several possible reasons the league just allows the Pats to get away with the various things they get away with, none of which made much sense.  The most likely reason in my mind?  Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots, is one of the most powerful men in the league.  Apparently, he’s often referred to as the “assistant commissioner” and he’s one of three men on the “Compensation Committee.”  The Compensation Committee sets the annual pay rate and bonuses of the League Commissioner, Roger Goodell.  How much garbage are YOU likely to throw at the guy who sets your pay?

Bear this in mind: this is the simplified version!  I left out truckloads of detail in an attempt to keep it “short.”  But I want to be clear.  I was really just trying to refresh my own memory.  I don’t care if you watch and enjoy the Super bowl.  (Four hours of your life for eleven minutes of action?  Awesome!)  I don’t care if you maintain loyalty to the Patriots.  But I don’t plan to watch the “big game” because…well, I just don’t care anymore…

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