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In Soviet Russia, Football Watches You!

The New England Patriots have been caught videotaping the New York Jets’ coaches giving defensive signals, and, as expected, we have the the flurry of questions about whether or not the Pats’ victories over the last 6 years have been on the level. A little level-headedness is needed here to separate the emotional responses, like former running back Terrell Davis suggesting that the Patriots be banned from the playoffs for two years, from those of the people who have permanent residence in Bill Belichick’s reality distortion field. It’s hard for myself to maintain level-headedness because I’m a fan of the Patriots and have been since I was 4.

While there’s no evidence that the Patriots have successfully recorded and deciphered every team’s defensive signals, it’s probably helped them a learn a little about teams’ preferences and various coaches’ tendencies. However, I don’t see how it helps you during a game. The only time one can look at the tape and decode everything is at half time. You have to load up the tape and sync it with your photos and videos of the opponents defense. You have to come up with some sort of pattern involved, notify your staff of what it is and then execute: all that in the span of a 20 minute half time. Plus, all of that effort goes to naught if the opposing team switches up the signals at half time. It doesn’t make sense logistically, and seems to be more of a distraction rather than studying photos and making normal adjustments.

Looking at a video tape of a team’s signs to later prepare for a rematch is of little value if the team changes the signs or formations. It’s not a guarantee of success, and it may be a hinderance if you, as an offensive coach, see the signals, put out a play to maximize potential yardage, and the resulting defense isn’t what you expected. I think that all football teams do too much practice and preparation for videotaped signals to be the deciding factor on what play to run or what strategy to take. Plus, all the strategies and preparation and knowledge in the world won’t do a darn thing if your team doesn’t execute. The best thing to do is have a guy with a photographic memory and a knack for stealing signals in the press box watch the other team with a pair of binoculars and quickly devise some way of decoding what the other team is doing.

Videotaping your opponents is akin to corking a bat in baseball. It doesn’t give you any real advantage, but it’s against the rules. It is because they blatantly broke the rules, that I think the punishment of the loss of a 1st round draft pick and a fines totalling $750,000 (half a million for Bellichick, 250K for the team) is fair. Don’t let’s jump to the inane conclusion that all of the Patriots’ wins over the last 6 years aren’t the result of a good football team armed with smart veterans who study and execute well. I don’t want to come across as a stupid homer Patriots fan, but if you’re going to call me that so be it.

Although, I have to ask: Why is that considered cheating? There’s video of every play. The coaches are mic’ed up, and there are shotgun microphones all over the field. There are assistant coaches and staff in the press boxes with cameras, taking pictures of formations and faxing them down to the quarterback. The cameras at the top of the stadium record everything. There are players on the field and on the side lines watching everything and trying to interpret the other team’s signs. There are 70,000+ people in every stadium, watching everything, and possibly recording this.

Because there are all of these cameras around and all of these eyes on them, teams take precautions to mitigate the risk of their signs being stolen. Coaches and coordinators hold play cards up to their mouths and are surrounded by taller people. Making taping against the rules when it’s already being watched, photographed and filmed is kind of silly. Teams are already expecting this kind of “psychological warfare,” and they are preparing for it.

Notice that you’re not hearing too many coaches and team officials publicly comment on this. To whit, King Kauffman at Salon writes “…it’s worth noting that this accusation came from the league, not the Jets, and that the Jets don’t seem to be using it as an excuse for having their hats handed to them on Sunday. I don’t think the Jets have a signal, after all, for ‘let Ellis Hobbs run a kickoff back 108 yards.'” It’s because that everyone has a group of guys on their team that do exactly what the Patriots were doing. Only they’re smart and less obvious about it.

Taping the other team in plain view doesn’t make you a cheater. It makes you an arrogant S.O.B., which doesn’t surprise me when Bill Belichick is involved.

The No Fun League

As in, “this offseason has not been fun for the league.”

In one of the more macabre offseasons in recent memory, we’ve seen one player suspended for an entire season, one suspended for half a season, and another kicked out of football indefinitely. Despite the frequency and/or severity of the players arrests and crimes committed, Pac-Man Jones, Chris Henry, and Michael Vick have their defenders. These people state “Innocent until proven guilty” as if those involved are appearing before a judge and jury and not the NFL commissioner’s office. The Atlanta NAACP came out in defense of Michael Vick, saying first (paraphrased) “Innocent until proven guilty,” and then “Let him have his job back when he gets out of prison.” J A Adande, a columnist whom I admire and respect, writes “I would wait for guilty verdicts before I suspended NFL players. When you set the standard at merely ‘bad decisions’ for a league filled with young, rich men, you might reach the point that it’s hard to field teams for a game on Sunday.”

On the other side of the issue, the “Mad Dog” half of WFAN’s “Mike and the Mad Dog Show” Chris Russo delivered a classic rant after Pac Man Jones was arrested in Las Vegas. Yelling and screaming aside, Russo makes a good point – if he was arrested in a situation like that or as often as Mr Jones has, WFAN would put him on unpaid leave or fire him. Mr Russo is a public representative of WFAN and, if he had a penchant for getting arrested, having him on the air not only damages WFAN’s reputation but hurts them financially.

Fair or not, NFL players are public representatives of their respective teams and of the league as a whole, and all sports must maintain an image that is friendly to the people consuming the product- the viewing public. The NFL is smart to take its image and, therefore, the behavior of its participants seriously, lest it slip to the second-rate status that the NBA finds itself.

To go further with a comparison to the NBA, that league is currently suffering a gambling scandal involving one of its referees. Already amidst an image problem due to shoddy and uninspiring play as well as boorish behavior by its players, they find the integrity of their league questioned. We’ve been bombarded with stories of the horror of dog fighting and accounts of Michael Vick and his associates killing dogs, but the gambling aspect of this has been under-reported. It’s the fact that he was running a gambling ring that not only brings further damage to the NFL’s reputation, but impugns the integrity of the game.

Vick’s defenders are wrong to insist that he get his job back when his prison sentence is over.

It Soon Will Be the Season

My friend Brad will soon be back to blog about football.  But for now, I leave you with this.

One Away From the Record

The Philadelphia Phillies are one loss away from being the most losing team in Baseball:

Currently, the Phillies have lost 9,999 games since their first game on May 1, 1883.

While no fan wants the team to suffer another loss, it would be fitting for the record 10,000th loss to fall on Friday the 13th as they take on the St. Louis Cardinals.

There’s even a website.

Pitt-for-Brains

The Pittsburgh Penguins have become the latest sports franchise to hold the state of PA hostage so they wouldn’t have to get their own financing for a new arena. Today, Gov. Ed Rendell announced a deal that would keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. The Penguins had threatened to leave to Kansas City, MO if they could not secure a new arena when their lease with the 40 year old Melon Center expires at the end of this hockey season. In this new deal, the Penguins will get help from PA slot parlor revenue.

A Pennsylvania law signed last year allowed for a certain number of slot parlors to be built in the state. A percentage of the revenue from the slot machines will go towards reducing property taxes. Another portion of the revenue is slated for other economic stimulus projects. However, there is absolutely no evidence that a stadium provides any sort of economic boost. In fact, studies have shown that, on average, they reduce workers’ incomes by $47 per year. Further more, a 2004 study showed that teams never need help in financing the stadiums. The stadium generate enough revenue to cover construction costs and more.

People can try to spin this, saying that it’s slot machine money and not taxes that will go towards financing the arena. I contend that with Pennsylvanians looking down the barrell of a 1% increase in the state sales tax and other ills such as our crumbling transportation infrastructure and our awful inner city crime rate, the slot machine revenue could be put to better use than helping to keep hockey, a second-rate sport, in Pittsburgh. I also contend that slot machines are just another tax, one that disproportionately affects the poor – you don’t see people with a lot of money habitually gambling at slot parlors.

Lastly, Mario Lemieux completely disrespected the people who paid money to watch him play for the Penguins during his career. The Penguins have some of the best attendance figures in hockey, and it’s a sham that he would even consider giving up standing room only crowds 17,000 strong to play rent free in front of 7,000 “fans”.

At Least There’s the NIT

Normally, I don’t like to go on “We wuz robbed!” rants about something silly like the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. But since Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim has gone on a two-day rant about how his team isn’t in the field of 64 this year, I think that I can take a few paragraphs to say this: Syracuse wasn’t robbed, Drexel was.

Drexel beat Syracuse. They also beat tournament invitees Villanova and Creighton. They beat major Philadelphia basketball programs at Temple and St. Joseph’s, too. They did all of this away from their home court, as no program of any significance is going to agree to play Drexel at the bingo hall that is the Daskalakis Athletic Center. Yes, Drexel does play in a middle-tier athletic conference, and their in-conference record was decent. However, small programs like Drexel have to schedule games on the road at big-time basketball powerhouses in order to make a case for an invite, and this year, they played great.

If there’s one thing that George Mason University showed us last year, it’s that middle-tier schools are worthy of getting invites to the tournament even if they don’t win their conference. Last year, teams from minor conferences got 8 of the 34 invites available. This year, they got six. The number of invites from minor conferences has gone down every year for the last 4 years. The NCAA Selection Committee is showing elitism and favoritism towards big schools at power conferences.

This is complete folly. There’s a reason why there’s a 13 seed upsetting a 4 seed every year: a good team from an OK conference is better than an OK team from a good conference. Do we really need to see Boston College lose to North Carolina again? No, let’s give a team like Drexel a chance to play UNC. I bet they’d at least make it interesting.

In the interest of disclosure, I am a Drexel alumnus.

The Big Game (Because S***r B**l is Trademarked)

The two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl have given those who follow football and sports in general a deluge of articles and interviews filled with statistics and predictions. Examples are here, here, here, and here, and those were just the ones I could come up with in a five minute span. Sports talk radio and television has been filled with talking heads saying how the Indianapolis Colts will play one way and the Chicago Bears will employ such-and-such a strategy. The stations must be desperate for content, because this is a complete waste of time. History has shown us that such detailed predictions about the Super Bowl, aside from which team will emerge victorious, usually turn out to be completely wrong.

Consider the Patriots / Panthers Super Bowl in 2004. Both teams were known for their defensive prowess, and thus, TV talking heads and writers predicted a defensive struggle. For the first and third quarters, it was just that – no points were scored. However, in the other half of the game, it was an offensive shootout. The teams put up a combined 24 points in the second quarter and 37 points in the fourth. The defenses were so brutally physical in the odd-number quarters that they were worn down in the even-numbered ones.

The Super Bowl in 2003 had a similar feel to this year’s. Both teams were considered excellent. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the defensive powerhouse whose offense was spotty at best. The Oakland Raiders offensive attack was tops in the league. Many predicted a close game with Oakland coming out on top, however, Tampa Bay’s defense intercepted Oakland QB Rich Gannon five times in a 48-21 blowout.

I myself predicted that the Philadelphia Eagles would get blown out in 2005 by the New England Patriots. Aside from the fact that I was right about the Patriots’ victory, I was wrong on all other counts.

I subscribe to the old school theory that all teams expound but very little actually put into practice: that championships are won with defense, running, and special teams. While a good air attack makes for exciting football, it is mitigated by those other three elements. A good defense speaks for itself – it prevents yardage and points. A quality running game controls the clock, keeps passing-oriented offenses off the field, and keeps your defense well-rested. Good special teams play keeps passing offenses deep in their own territory, forcing them to go on long drives and increasing the possibility that they will make mistakes to a good defense.

So, instead of writing a long winded column on how Peyton Manning must utilize the play-action fake and go deep to his tight end down middle of the field to beat the Bears cover-2 defense, I will say this: whichever team plays the best on defense, runs for quality yards, and makes the important plays on special teams will win the game. Other than that I have absolutely no idea who is going to win. They’re both good teams who deserve to be there.

Make some good food, get together with some friends, partake of a few beverages of choice, and enjoy a modern American tradition, even if the only sources of entertainment are the commercials and the halftime show.

The Most Depressing Day

Coincidence?  I think not! 

The day after the Patriots blow an 18 point lead to the Colts, a team they’ve positively owned in the playoffs, it was reported that British researchers have determined that people will be most depressed today, January 22nd. They cite a few factors like cold weather, lack of follow-through on New Years’ resolutions, and Holiday credit card debt. 

And I can add as factors that the Patriots were exposed as a little too old and slow on defense and that I’ll have to put up with two weeks of Petyon Manning hype.

Iggles Idiocy

I was going to write about the history of backup quarterbacks winning the Super Bowl, how it relates to what Jeff Garcia is doing now, and why Eagles fans and coaches would be wise to hand the job right back to Donovan McNabb when he is fully healed from his knee injury.

Then I caught this brilliant quote from Eagles President and COO Joe Banner in a story about team owner Jeff Lurie. In describing how fans never really embraced Lurie, Banner said “I have to tell you, that’s personally frustrating to me in a public-relations sense… I know this is controversial, but I don’t think there’s another owner who would have kept this team in Philadelphia for the economic deal we got on our stadium. I’m not trying to belittle public contribution, but as it relates to what other cities did and other offers we had from other cities, I can’t imagine many owners that would have come from someplace else and had the kind of loyalty that he demonstrated to these football fans and to the history of this franchise. I don’t think anybody recognizes that.”

In short, Joe Banner is saying “Eagles fans should be grateful that Jeff Lurie owns the team. We could have moved the team because deal we got on our publicly financed $500,000,000 stadium wasn’t exactly great.” He’s wrong on two counts:

First, publicly financed stadiums are always ever a great deal for owners, so he shouldn’t complain about getting the shaft. The city and state taxpayers subsidize your loan, and you get to pimp the stadium name out to Lincoln Financial. You get to make all of these television and licensing deals and keep all of the profits. And the benefit to the taxpayers? The privilege of paying through the nose to watch the team while eating cold hot dogs and drinking warm beer.

Jeffery Lurie made out like a bandit with this deal. The Eagles are now worth, as estimated by Forbes Magazine, $1 Billion. So, even if Jeff had to dump $500,000,000 of his own money into building the stadium, he gets to make twice that much if he ever sells the team. Where else can you get a 100% return on investment? Sign me up!

The second place where Banner is wrong when he says “No other owner…” Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots found his own financing when building the $320,000,000 Gillette Stadium. Yes, the state ponied up money to make infrastructure improvements like upgrading the roads, constructing parking facilities, and running commuter services to the stadium, but it’s hardly the burden to taxpayers that $320 million would be. Previous owners of the Patriots threatened to move the team to St. Louis, and while Kraft did actually have a deal with the state of Connecticut to finance a new downtown Hartford stadium, he ended up keeping the team in Foxboro, MA. So before Joe Banner holds the all-caring, ever loyal Jeffery Lurie up on a pedestal for all to admire, he should look at an owner who is worthy of an ounce of admiration.

Banner said that he wasn’t trying to belittle the public contribution, but he did anyway. Banner got it backwards. It isn’t the fans that should be glad at the kindness and loyalty displayed by Lurie. He and Lurie should be honored that the city and state were willing to subsidize his arena despite ever-increasing evidence that stadiums never leads to the kind of urban revitalization espoused by proponents.

Despite Banner’s idiotic comment, I still hope the Eagles win on Saturday. May the football gods forgive their COO’s idiocy.

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