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The NFL's Mob Mentality

Bill Belichick broke a rule; the snitch broke the coaches' code

Posted: Wednesday September 19, 2007 12:26PM; Updated: Wednesday September 19, 2007 12:26PM
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Photo illustration by John Ueland
Photo illustration by John Ueland

When the Jets spotted a Patriots on-field video assistant filming their coaching signals during a Sept. 9 game at the Meadowlands, it set into motion a passion play that could have starred another North Jersey operator, Tony Soprano. By exposing the dirty secret of his former boss, Pats coach Bill Belichick, Jets coach Eric Mangini broke a long-held code that NFL coaches live by: Don't go against the family. "If he wasn't before, Mangini's dead to Belichick now," says one head coach. "What Mangini did is a disgrace. He wouldn't be a coach in this league without Bill, and this is how he repays him."

Commissioner Roger Goodell ruled swiftly when he found out that New England had taped defensive hand signals. He fined Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 and stripped the club of a high-round 2008 draft pick. It's widely believed that New England has stolen signals in this manner for years, but officials from various clubs acknowledge that the Pats are not the only team that does it. Last week's revelation doesn't mean the New England dynasty is a fraud, but it does take some shine off those three Super Bowl wins.

It may seem absurd to think that if Belichick was blatantly violating an NFL rule -- one reenforced by two NFL memos in the last year -- the Jets should have ignored it. But last year the Lions and the Packers caught the Patriots taping and simply told them to stop without informing the league. Unlike New York, they followed the coaching fraternity's antisnitching code.

Just what is this code? First, don't mess with a former colleague's players, a tenet Mangini -- who was hired by Belichick in 1995 and rose from coaching-staff gofer to defensive coordinator -- violated in March 2006, just after he left New England for New York. Mangini signed free-agent linebacker Matt Chatham, whom the Patriots were trying to keep. By contrast, here's what then Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who needed a kicker, did that same off-season. Though the Pats' Adam Vinatieri, one of the best of all time, was a free agent, Parcells let it be known that he wouldn't touch the kicker. Why? Vinatieri was Belichick's player, and Belichick had been a defensive assistant and coordinator under Parcells. In another example, one coach told SI last week about allowing an assistant to leave with a year remaining on his contract to join another team. There was one proviso: The team hiring the assistant couldn't sign the free agents of the team he left. On the third day of the next free-agency period, a prime free agent from the assistant's old team was signed by his new team. The assistant's former boss confronted him and said, "I'm going to tell everyone in the league I know what a no-good son of a bitch you are."

Second, don't mess with a former colleague's coaches. When onetime Parcells assistant Chris Palmer got the Browns' head job in 1999, he knew that a recommendation from Parcells, then the Jets' coach, had helped. Though Palmer wanted to hire Jets line coach Romeo Crennel to be his defensive coordinator, Palmer didn't try to get him.

Third, don't snitch. The most violated rule in the NFL is the antitampering rule: Before free agency begins in March, contact between teams and potential free agents is prohibited. Yet several G.M.'s routinely ignore the directive, and just as many decry the advantage they take -- though not loudly enough to get the offenders in trouble.

It's doubtful that teams' attempts to get an edge by covert methods will end with the Patriots' embarrassment. (As one coach says, the two cameras the NFL allows teams to use for game tape could be pointed to capture coaching signals between plays.) But there was hope around the league that the penalties Goodell levied against New England would halt the illegal use of technology. "I'm not sure sports are supposed to be about who can cheat the best," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan says. "I should be worrying about how to beat a team, not spending hours figuring out how to disguise what I'm doing. I hope this gets us back to football the way it should be."