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After good players, good coaches and good health, nothing is more valuable to an NFL team than having the goods on its next opponent. Just consider the lengths to which teams will go not only to protect news about injuries (Point After, page 76) and personnel changes on their own team, but also to gather information about other clubs.
Before their season opener a few years ago, the Patriots brought in a player who'd been released by the team they were preparing to face in Week 1. He arrived at New England's facility in Foxborough, Mass., expecting to be worked out and possibly signed. The player never even made it to the practice field. After Pats officials picked his brain about his former team, they put him on a flight back home.
Of course, teams also prepare themselves for the possible leaking of such info. When the Bears let their 2007 starting wide receivers leave last off-season, releasing Muhsin Muhammad in February and choosing not to pursue free agent Bernard Berrian in March, offensive coordinator Ron Turner immediately made a mental note to change his quarterbacks' hand signals and audible calls. He knew the receivers' new teams were on Chicago's schedule this year and had to assume that Muhammad (Panthers) and Berrian (Vikings) would give up the goods on their previous employer. "Everybody exchanges information," a Bears official said last week.
The issue of late is what kind of information sharing, between which personnel, is considered acceptable. Last week Fox Sports reported that Jets quarterback Brett Favre supplied inside dope to then Lions general manager Matt Millen in September before Detroit played the Packers, with whom Favre spent 16 seasons.
It's widely accepted that players swap information about common opponents with players from other teams; and two head coaches, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that coaches share information. What's almost unheard of, however, is for a player on a current roster to discuss his former team's personnel or schemes with a coach or official outside his organization. "There's an unwritten rule that you don't do that," says one prominent defensive coordinator. "If we have a relationship, definitely I will call another coach about a team that he's faced and we're about to face. I'll ask things like, What was your thought process? What did you see? A lot of times it's just to verify what I saw on film already. But I never talk to players on other teams about that stuff."
Favre, whose separation from the Packers was bitter, denies providing detailed information to the Lions, who lost to Green Bay 48-25 on Sept. 14. Still, even if he did, he would not be violating league rules. The spirit of fair play, yes. But there's no NFL stricture against the passing of info about mutual opponents.
"Players share information all the time," says Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "If I'm playing a team and one of my friends played for that club, I'm going to call him and try to get all the information I can. It's up to him to spill the beans or not. I don't think it's wrong--it's just using all your resources."
But Farrior's teammate Hines Ward considers the practice overrated. "If you're not familiar with the personnel, you might call a guy and ask about it," says the Pro Bowl wideout. "But we don't get into play routes and stuff like that. That's why you have coordinators. Who's to say they're going to run that same play in the game? And what works for somebody else might not work for you."
Still, knowledge is power in the minds of many. For instance, the Chiefs came close to trading safety Greg Wesley to the Broncos before last season but backed out because the proposed compensation was not to their liking--and because some members of the Kansas City organization were concerned about sending a player to a division rival whom they face twice a year.
Even so, there's some question about the value of such information. Farrior admits he doesn't often get much from talking with other players about common opponents. "The stuff that they tell you usually doesn't happen anyway," he says. "You've got to look at the tape and see what the teams do and how they game plan. You've got to go far deeper into it than what someone will say."