Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Beli-Cheat Bowl

“Smiley”—that’s my nickname for Bill Belichick, based on innumerable pictures like this. But I’m afraid that other people have different, less kind names in mind. People like Don Shula, who’s made hardly a peep in the 20 years since he retired as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, but who, about a month ago, in an interview given around his 85th birthday, referred to the New England Patriots coach as “Beli-cheat.”

That sounds kind of nasty—even, some would say, evincing a touch of jealousy of a man who has won already more Super Bowls than he has. But Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, is merely venting the same type of justified annoyance that Hank Aaron must have felt when Barry Bonds made some people forget the greatest home-run hitter in history with a surge of brilliance suspicious even for the likes of him.

Oh, brother. Just when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell thought he might have a couple of weeks when the media would hype the strategic matchup of the Seattle Seahawks and the Patriots rather than question his own leadership on player concussions and off-field domestic violence, along comes a report that could very well call into question the integrity of the Super Bowl: that the Patriots benefited from deflated footballs in their AFC Championship victory over the Indianapolis Colts. 

This wasn't just one ball: It represented 11 out of the 12 Patriot-used footballs that the NFL tested. And it wasn't just minor deflation--it was 20% or less than what the league mandates--enough to allow Patriot quarterback Tom Brady a good grip in terrible weather conditions at game time this past Sunday. And, contrary to what you might hear, not everybody does it: Not one of the Colts' footballs measured that day were deflated.

More than anyone else I know in sports, Belichick has had the word “genius” applied to him. Star Wars had its Jedi Master; the pro gridiron wars, its Hoodie Master. But let’s compare their characteristic statements, shall we?

Belichick: "I don’t have an explanation for what happened." (From his press conference responding to the charges.)

Yoda: “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things.” (From The Empire Strikes Back.)

I think you’ll agree that, though he talks (and looks!) kind of funny, Yoda imparts far more knowledge than Belichick does with his non-denial denials.

I, for one, side with former Super Bowl quarterback Joe Theismann: “Nobody in the game of football should be called a genius. A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein.”

Still, let’s not quibble. We can credit Belichick as unequaled in the arts of anticipation and preparation of diverse pigskin formations.

The trouble, simply, is this: In his relentless search for any edge, Belichick may have become too clever by half—a leader who fancies himself as so intelligent that he is always in danger of overreaching.

In this respect, Belichick resembles not so much a mythic science-fiction hero but a real-life practitioner of the black arts of politics: Richard Nixon.

I admit that the “Deflategate” coinage for the Patriots controversy demonstrates once again the media’s annoyingly lazy habit of conflating all manner of major and minor offenses with the biggest political scandal in American history. But it does make one notice the unavoidable resemblances between the Patriot and the President who gave us Watergate.

As Mark Sappenfield notes in a careful analysis for The Christian Science Monitor, the charges against Belichick have been given so much immediate credence because of the coach’s past history of walking right up to the edge of legality in the NFL. The most frequently mentioned example of this is his 2007 suspension for Spygate, in which the team videotaped opponents' signals.

But just like Nixon—another intelligent but supremely charm- and ethically-challenged guy who hated hated hated losing--Belichick has long infuriated opponents, for such other actions as the following:

* Running unorthodox offensive formations against the Baltimore Ravens in their playoff game a few weeks ago. The NFL dismissed coach John Harbaugh’s contention that Belichick's tactic--declaring certain players as ineligible receivers, then hurrying up his offense--left the Ravens insufficient time to react. But you can bet that the league will very carefully review the rules governing this in the off-season.

*Draping their secondary all over Indianapolis Colts receivers in the 2003 AFC Championship game. The Patriots weren’t penalized a single time for the tactic at that point, but in the offseason the league toughened the rules against it--ample precedent for what it might do about Belichick's tricky maneuver against the Ravens.

*Playing fast and loose with the team injury report. At one point, Brady was listed on the report for three years straight—despite playing 127 straight games.

*Hiring players from opponents who can provide intelligence immediately before games with their old teams.

These are the kinds of actions that Nixon, himself a football fan, might have enjoyed seeing executed. There are other striking resemblances between the two men:

*Each made a fetish out of toughness.

*Each took along a younger man who became instrumental in his rise to the top—Nixon with H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, and Belichick with Brady. Each of the latter came to stand at the center of controversies that might define their mentors' legacies.

*Each narrowly lost contests they were favored to win—Kennedy winning out over Nixon in the 1960 election, and the New York Giants’ Tom Coughlin beating Belichick twice in the Super Bowl;

*Each had supporters who claimed that their unorthodox practices were not different, in number or event in kind, from what others in their profession did. 

*Each employed dirty tricks so often that outside investigators were called in.

I don’t hold any brief for Pete Carroll, either, given his egregious violations of NCAA rules while head coach at USC. As my friend Steve points out, with the head coaches of New England and Seattle so infamous for their poor ethics, parents letting their children watch the Super Bowl (and play the sport) might want to think whether the game really does foster ideals of teamwork and dedication—or if it simply demonstrates that cheating is what’s needed to win.

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