NFL lets Belichick, Patriots off easy after spy scandal
Posted: Thursday September 13, 2007 10:53PM; Updated: Thursday September 13, 2007 11:44PM
Given that he lost both a first-round pick and $500,000 on Thursday night, it sounds a little strange to claim that Bill Belichick got off lightly, in terms of the penalty he received from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in the Patriots' videotaping incident Sunday at Giants Stadium.
And yet, I'm still left with the feeling Belichick dodged the worst-case scenario that was very nearly his fate: A multiple-game league suspension combined with the forfeiture of a first-round pick in 2008.
The loss of a first-round pick (and let's be real, the Patriots are making the playoffs this season, so they won't be giving up a second and third-rounder next year) hurts Belichick as a career football coach whose recent track record for success in the draft is well documented.
The loss of $500,000 hurts Belichick on a different level, but it is an unprecedented fine levied against an NFL coach; and those closest to him know that he enjoys his money and relishes the financial clout that has come relatively late in his career.
But let's not forget, the Patriots own two first-round picks in 2008 -- their own, and the one they received via trade from the 49ers, in exchange for the rights to select Central Michigan offensive tackle Joe Staley (28th overall in '07). And it's not as if the Patriots will even go one year without a first-round pick, because the choice they shipped to San Francisco was one of a pair of No. 1's they owned in 2007, thanks to last year's trade of Deion Branch to Seattle.
So New England has University of Miami safety Brandon Meriweather to show for its 2007 first-rounder (No. 24 overall), and it will own San Francisco's choice, wherever it falls in 2008. If the Patriots have the season that most expect them to have, their own pick, which will now be forfeited, should be near the very bottom of the first round.
For a team that induced the most sought-after free-agent available last winter -- Baltimore linebacker Adalius Thomas -- to sign a deal for slightly below-market average, all for the pleasure of being a Patriot, losing a first-rounder in the No. 28-32 range should not be a death blow.
While the size of the fine is no doubt an embarrassment of sorts to Belichick, he garners large fees these days for appearances and speaking engagements, and even with his recently tarnished image will make up for the loss of income soon enough. I firmly believe the suspension that Goodell admitted he was considering for Belichick would have taken a far greater toll than the missing dollars. To be ostracized from his own players and the Patriots team complex for two or three weeks would have been a bitter pill for Belichick to swallow. Somehow, I think the stigma of that suspension would have stayed with Belichick far longer than the sting of the fine he incurred, staining his reputation in a way that a financial penalty does not.
For much of the day on Thursday, my SI.com colleague, Peter King, and I were hearing from multiple sources that Belichick's suspension was on the way. But in the end, Goodell may have taken it a bit lightly on the NFL's most successful coach, choosing not to exile him to the sidelines at the time of the year he lives for.
"I specifically considered whether to impose a suspension on Coach Belichick,'' Goodell wrote in the league's statement announcing the penalties. "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.''
I'm not so sure. The sizable fine and the loss of a No. 1 draft pick will hurt; but in a week that has to rank among the darkest of Belichick's life and career, he has cause to feel to feel just a little bit fortunate. All things considered, it could have been worse.