Caught in the act, Belichick resorts to trusty arrogance

September 15, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that Bill Belichick would be fined $500,000 for his part in the New England Patriots spy scandal, millions of football fans each thought the same thing at the same time:

Geez, I hope they don't take it out of his clothing allowance. That's got to be the equivalent of, what, 40,000 baggy sweat shirts? The man would be shivering on the sideline for the next 2,000 seasons.

No matter how you cut it, that's a pretty big bite, especially when you factor in the $250,000 fine Goodell dropped on the team and - most important of all - the 2008 first-round draft choice the Patriots will lose if they make the playoffs this season.

(They'll lose a second- and third-round pick instead if they fail to make the postseason, but that doesn't seem likely.)

Still, there is plenty of sentiment that the penalty was not harsh enough. The Patriots were judged guilty of videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets during the first half of last week's lopsided victory at The Meadowlands, and it apparently was not the first time. The same cameraman (video assistant Matt Estrella) was caught shooting unauthorized video on the sideline in Green Bay last year.

Belichick could have been suspended for several games, but Goodell decided that hitting him with the maximum NFL fine and taking some significant draft talent would send a stronger message than removing him and his poor fashion sense from the sideline.

Who am I to argue? Goodell has acted decisively at every challenging turn since he replaced Paul Tagliabue. He sent a message to the players with his swift disciplinary action against several chronic misbehavers and now has shown the world that he's equally willing to bring the hammer down on teams that run afoul of NFL rules.

The Patriots entered the season as the consensus favorite to win the Super Bowl. Belichick already has three championship rings as a head coach and a reputation as one of the best football tacticians in the history of the sport. I'm pretty sure there are some commissioners out there who would have looked for a way to minimize the significance of the offense to protect the image of their respective leagues.

Goodell, however, seems to understand that the best way to protect the integrity of the NFL is to get out in front of every potential scandal.

Maybe he learned something from watching the way Major League Baseball and its players union stood by all those years while the sport was taken over by steroid cheats. Maybe he just decided to separate himself from his low-key, lawyerly predecessor. Whatever the reason, there definitely is a new sheriff in town.

In that regard, Belichick and the Patriots played right into his hands. What better franchise to use as an example that no franchise is above the rules?

The fact that Belichick got knocked down a notch is just a bonus. He is an imperious, unpleasant fellow who - by most accounts - would do just about anything to win. When the spying scandal made headlines, it triggered some recovered memory by other opponents who now suspect the Patriots have been doing this kind of thing for quite some time.

Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli told SI.com he suspected the Patriots of videotaping signals during a game last year. Members of the 2005 NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles wondered publicly whether the scandal explains why the Patriots seemed to know when they were going to blitz during the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward was quoted as saying that he suspected the Patriots had inside information before one of the teams' AFC championship showdowns.

Of course, a lot of that could be explained away by the fact that Belichick is a master of game preparation. The great ones really do seem like they can read the minds of opposing play-callers. But, the fact that the Patriots have been caught twice bending the rules against video espionage makes it fair game to wonder how much of Belichick's success is - to quote an old corporate slogan - "real or Memorex."

Belichick, in his form-letter apology to the Patriots' organization and its fans, acknowledged his responsibility for the video scandal, but cast it as a misinterpretation of the rules rather than an attempt to gain unfair advantage over his team's opponents.

If it were merely that, I'm guessing Goodell would not have landed on him so hard. If it were merely that, I'm also guessing Belichick would have had some further explanation to justify himself rather than cutting off all further discussion of the situation.

Even with his hand stuck firmly in the proverbial cookie jar, he reverted to his old arrogant self and made it clear that he does not owe anyone an explanation for anything. That ought to tell you something.

It was hard enough to like the guy before he tainted his reputation as the best coach in the NFL. Belichick is one of those football coaches who carries himself as if he just liberated France, though I'm pretty sure Gen. George S. Patton - who believed strongly in reincarnation - actually came back as Bob Knight.

Belichick will get past all this. He'll lead the Patriots into the playoffs and maybe win another Super Bowl. He's that good.

But it's nice to know somebody will be keeping an eye on him.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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