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Smooth criminals

Patriots bring cheating in the NFL into modern era

Posted: Thursday September 13, 2007 12:42PM; Updated: Friday September 14, 2007 10:16AM
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According to a growing number of sources, Bill Belichick and the Pats have been taping other teams' defensive calls for years.
According to a growing number of sources, Bill Belichick and the Pats have been taping other teams' defensive calls for years.
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Sure, people cheat in sports. In baseball they steal signals. In football they bring in a guy for a week, someone who was just cut by the team they're going to play, pump him for information and let him go on Monday. They'll even plant spies at each other's practices.

But the things that make this Patriots flap so bothersome are the following:

• The arrogance of the organization, the smugness. We are the greatest, with the greatest coach, a genius, etc. What other team ever had its owner, Bob Kraft in this case, take the Super Bowl trophy overseas in the name of world peace. What'll he take this year, the videos of the defensive signals?

• The fact that this is nothing new. Stories are now coming out of the woodwork that cheating has been a normal modus operandi with this club.

• Good old street crime is one thing. It goes with the history of sports. But this video thing lifts it to a new level of electronic surveillance and into the realm of the hi-tech, white collar crime that we all hate. Put these guys on the business page, for God's sake. There's no place for them in sports.

Last year the Lions played the Patriots in Foxboro. At one point their coach, Rod Marinelli, phoned up to the press box, "There's a camera pointed right at our defensive coach making his calls. Is that allowed?" A Lions' employee called the NFL booth. No, it certainly was not. So the videotaper was stopped. Then after a while he began again. The same process was repeated and he was asked to stop again. Now that's dedication.

"You don't really know for sure," Marinelli said. "I mean you don't know whether he might be doing something for NFL Films or a coaches' show or whatever."

"At one point we had a good drive going against the Patriots," said one Lion who doesn't want his name involved in this mess, but was willing to talk about it. "Mike Martz really had 'em going. They were getting fouled up, lining up wrong, we were moving the ball. Then boom, the headset from the sidelines to the coaches' booth goes out.

"Next possession we were moving the ball again and the same thing happened. You know it only takes two or three plays to mess up a drive."

Matt Millen, the Lions' GM, says he was talking to another team's head coach at the league meetings. He started telling him the story.

"Yeah, I know," the coach said. "Headset went out. It happened to me in Foxboro, too."

Marinelli was the defensive line coach in Tampa Bay when the Bucs beat the Patriots in the 2000 regular season opener and did a good job controlling New England's offense. After the game the Patriots' offensive coach, Charlie Weis, was overheard congratulating the Bucs' defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin.

"We knew all your calls, and you still stopped us," Weis said. "I can't believe it."

He couldn't believe it because the Patriots had videotaped all of the defensive signals in their last preseason game, which was against the Bucs.

The stories are all coming out now, but why hadn't all this been reported to the league office before this?

"At the time, you never know for sure," Millen said. "And if you don't know it at the time, then you don't feel right reporting it later."

As a former Patriots employee, Jets coach Eric Mangini must have known what was going on. So why didn't he have some kind of system of dummy calls set up to foul up the video surveillance?

"He did," says a former Patriots employee whose name cannot be used for obvious reasons. "He had three sets of signals being given, one real, two dummy. He had the same thing going when he beat the Patriots last year. But still, it means extra work, changing the way you prepare for a game. It means both clubs are not playing on the same level field, and that's what's wrong about it."

I asked the former Patriot, who knows the organization well, if Mangini could in any way be held responsible for being part of a system that encouraged cheating. He paused for a moment to decide how to get this right.

"You have to understand that organization," he said. "You have to understand how incredibly tight the ring is. Information is not just passed around. Even if you might be aware of something, you're not going to know exactly how everything works. Eric was an employee there. He was not privy to every decision. His own operation was clean. Sure, he knew other stuff was going on, but how was he supposed to handle it?

"The amazing thing is the incredible arrogance they showed, coming into Giants Stadium, facing an organization with all those ex-Patriots employees, and still trying to cheat."

Here's a hard question. How tainted does Tom Brady now become, as the quarterback who was the recipient of stolen goods?

"That's a tough one," my source said. "Tom also is an employee there. He does what he's told. I'll say this about Tom Brady. Not only is he an employee, but he's a damn good quarterback and a fine person."

Everyone is secretly enjoying seeing the mighty Patriots being brought to earth.

"Irony, that's what my father loved best," said Art Rooney Jr., the Steelers' former player personnel director. "This would have been perfect for him."

Just as much fun is speculating about the severity of the penalty the league will issue, from a slap on the wrist -- such as a fine -- to a loss of draft choices, to a punishment in the old style. How does a public flogging and some time in the stocks sound?

"What the league ought to do," Raiders owner Al Davis once said about an earlier infraction, "is create its own jailhouse, the Official NFL Prison, out in the Mojave desert somewhere, like Barstow. Then if someone is really guilty of something, they can say, 'OK, two weeks in the joint for you.'"

Davis once was considered the king of the cheaters. As a beat reporter covering the Jets, my trips to Oakland were like a journey to a war zone. One widely believed story was that the visiting teams' locker room was bugged.

"Nah, I don't believe that," said Ron Wolf, who was Davis' personnel man for a number of years. "I mean what would he really find out? But there was a feeling around the place that all the offices were bugged."

Then there was the suspicion that the field, which was below sea level to begin with, was secretly watered to slow down the speed teams. That one never was proved, either, but on one Saturday, when the Jets were going through their workout, a maintenance crew started rolling a tarp across the Oakland Coliseum field.

"Take one more step," defensive coach Walt Michaels said, raising his cleats, "and I'll punch a hundred holes in this thing." The workmen backed off.

It appears now that Pats coach Bill Belichick and Raiders owner Al Davis have more in common than multiple Super Bowl rings.
It appears now that Pats coach Bill Belichick and Raiders owner Al Davis have more in common than multiple Super Bowl rings.

And some years later, when Michaels was the Jets' head coach, his team was facing the Raiders in a playoff game in L.A. At halftime a goofy fan somehow got through to Michaels on the Jets' locker room phone.

"I knew who it was and his name was Al Davis," was the way the coach began his postgame press conference.

Then there was the trip -- when Joe Willie was the Jets quarterback -- during which the Jets found some extra company on their bus from practice to the hotel, the Edgewater Hyatt in Oakland. I was sitting up front, talking to Weeb Ewbank. All of a sudden the coach's face froze. His jaw started quivering in anger.

"Schleicher ... Schleicher," he growled. "Damn you Schleicher, get off this bus. Driver, stop the bus!"

Sitting in the seat right across the aisle from me was gigantic Maury Schleicher, an ex-Chargers linebacker, one of Al's boys. He had planted him on the Jets' bus.

"Weeb, we're right in the middle of the highway," he pleaded.

"Off, get off! Now!"

My last vision of Maury Schleicher was him standing by the side of Route 17, trying to thumb a ride.

"Coaches get paranoid," Rooney said. "Chuck Noll always used to worry that the other team had spies in the crowd at our training camp. So he took the numbers off all the rookies. I'd say to him, 'Coach, I'm not going to know who they are.' He'd say, 'Nah, we know all those guys.'

"I swear, there were times when I think we kept the wrong player."

Still unanswered in this controversy is the question of how the Patriots' videotaping system really worked. The cameraman, whose name is Matt Estrella, would have had to have worked fast, recording hand signals and matching them with his own down and distance comments, which were recorded, thereby establishing a little glossary before they could be used. Then, after he'd gotten the signal, he'd have to make contact with the offensive coach, who would have to get the message to the quarterback, all in the space between plays.

"You have to wonder how much all this really would help," Millen says. "If you've done your film study, you should have a pretty good idea, from the personnel on the field and the tendencies they've shown, what they're going to be in."

"What it does," said our ex-Patriots source, "is give the other team extra work, and as I said, that creates a playing field that's not level for both teams."

The Jets beat the Patriots with an exotic blitz package last season. Last Sunday New England went with a maximum security package to control the feared blitzes.

Max security was brought about in most dramatic fashion by the old Greatest Show, the St. Louis Rams, coordinated by Martz. It was, in fact, my favorite play that this high-powered offense ran. Bring in the big guys, 290-pound tight end Manumaleuna, and 270-pound fullback Hodgins, build a wall around Kurt Warner, send only two guys out, Bruce and Holt, each running like hell downfield, and, fortified by plenty of time to throw the ball, let 'er fly. Never mind how many people were covering downfield. A real schoolyard play, but terrific to watch.

And that's what New England had prepared for the Jets. They loaded up with 280-pound tight end Kyle Brady or 330-pound extra tackle Ryan O'Callaghan, gave Brady an hour to throw the ball, which also allowed his receivers to clear any kind of coverage. What does the defense do in a situation like this? Well, Arizona beat the Giants one year by outguessing them when they max-protected. Rather than wasting blitzers on a wall like that, the Cardinals rushed fewer people and dropped everyone into coverage and had them popping up in odd lanes -- two receivers, in other words, trying to beat the coverage of eight people. Warner, who was the Giants' QB in those days, and his receivers were overmatched. The Patriots weren't because they had Randy Moss.

The showpiece play of the day was his 51-yard TD, which has been described as a one-man pattern, although there probably was some minimal action taking place on the other side. It was a freak play. Moss blew by a half-hearted bump by rookie corner Darrelle Revis and ran a gliding, meandering, crossing pattern that took a while to develop -- past LB Jonathan Vilma, who said a quick hello and goodbye, past safety Erik Coleman, who got a good look at the number on Moss' back, past the corner on the other side, David Barrett, who came over to see what all the excitement was about, and in for six. To old subway riders it was like the A train on the express track between 59th and 125th ... past 72nd, click, past 81st, click, 86th, click ...

Was this the result of sign-stealing? Maybe that's what the Patriots will argue about when they face Sheriff Goodell, that this was just normal, not abnormal, strategy, and spectacular individual effort.

Everyone has stories about picking up tips and hints. Mike Reinfeldt, who's now the Titans' GM, once figured out the Bengals' run or pass tendencies when he was a Raiders safetyman.

"He told me," Ron Wolf said, "that he could tell by the way Bob Trumpy, their tight end, put his hand on the ground before the snap. He could see by the pressure."

Once I was involved in one of these things myself. I covered Houston's victory over San Diego in the 1979 Divisional Playoff. An Oilers safetyman named Vernon Perry intercepted four Dan Fouts passes that afternoon, and my story was that Houston had stolen the Chargers signals. A Cincinnati writer ripped me to shreds in print, saying that I'd gotten together with Houston's defensive coordinator Eddie Biles and cooked up the story in an effort to get the head coaching job for Biles.

Actually it was Gregg Bingham, an Oilers linebacker, who had told me about it, in the locker room, without spelling out how it worked. I found out when I ran into Bingham in a bar in the off-season.

"Very simple," he said. "We read Fouts' feet before the snap. When they were square, he would hand off on a running play. When one was behind the other, it was going to be a pass. Worked every time."

A simpler era. A happier one. No fancy electronics. No white collar NFL crime.