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Breaking the rules: NFL

Information, paranoia rule thoughts of many in NFL

Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 12:07PM; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2007 2:03PM
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Jon Gruden's obsession in cataloguing opponents' plays has prompted some teams to run dummy plays to clutter Gruden's plans.
Jon Gruden's obsession in cataloguing opponents' plays has prompted some teams to run dummy plays to clutter Gruden's plans.
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Cheating in the NFL isn't what it once was. The league's institution of the K-ball program in recent years addressed the doctoring of footballs that was a routine practice of kickers and punters everywhere. And the pregame pat-down the officiating crew now gives offensive and defensive linemen eliminated the ability to grease up one's jersey in order to become too slick to contain.

But there are still some more subtle examples of surreptitious behavior going on in Roger Goodell's kingdom, if you know where to look. In talking with league sources, here are several areas where teams tend to go just over the line that separates strategy from subterfuge in seeking a competitive advantage:

1. Pictures are worth a thousand words: The "stealing'' of signs -- both on offense and defense -- is the area that's most often cited as fertile ground for cheating. The most common practice is for a team to videotape an opponent's signal-givers on the sideline, and later marry up those indications to the game tape in order to identify tendencies or patterns.

Though no disciplinary action by the league ever resulted, the Patriots last year were reportedly the impetus of a sternly written letter from the league office to all teams, reminding them that it was illegal for an advance scout or personnel official to bring a video recording device of any kind into the press box for the purposes of taping a potential opponent's signals or play-calling gestures from the sideline.

Teams have also been chastised for having a second camera in the press box-area video box, with one camera shooting the game action and the other one being trained on the opposing team's signal-givers. On offense, that's why coaches have taken to holding their play-calling charts in front of their mouths when they're sending in the play to the quarterback via the radio headset system.

On defense, teams have gone to having two different signal callers, with one being a dummy signaler and other being responsible for the "hot,'' or real, call. Other teams use different color wrist bands during a game, with the defensive captain switching to a different color before each series, and the defensive signal-caller calling formations and blitzes from a list that corresponds with that color.

"That type of sign-stealing goes on a ton in the league,'' said one NFL source who was both a former coach and player in the league. "From a coaching standpoint, you know who's signaling in the personnel on the opposing sideline, and then there's another guy making the play calls on the headset. Defenses used to watch the play-caller, and if a guy spoke for a real long time, that was usually a pass, because the calls take longer. A run is always a shorter call. So coaches shield their mouths when they're calling plays now. If you make your calls out in the open, the other team will steal your signals and your tendencies.''

2. De-briefing the former enemy: With the advent of free agency and coaching tenures getting shorter all the time, the movement of players and coaches from team to team is more prevalent than ever. And that means more information about an opponent's tendencies and play-calling is readily available and waiting to be mined.

One way that insight can be helpful is in the identifying of an opponent's calls at the line of scrimmage, from a first-hand source who played or coached for that team in the recent past.

"You try to get those false calls that teams like to use at the line,'' said one former player. "Player X or coach X who has been with that team might stop by the offensive or defensive meetings and say, 'Look for this if they say that. Or when the quarterback does this, look for that.' It can be very useful in some cases.''

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