Ron Agostini

No Slap on Wrist For Spying Games

After further review, Bill Belichick must sit down.

How long he's suspended is up to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league's new Tough Guy. Docking the team a few second-day draft picks won't cut it. But there's no question Belichick and his sleeve-torn hoodie will be hidden from view for a while. And his absence won't be the only price paid by the New England Patriots.

Why? Because Belichick cheated. Why? Because he's perceived as the league's best coach of the team that has won three Super Bowls this decade and is in position for a fourth, and he cheated. Why? Because the NFL, the nation's most popular sport, devolves into jai alai if such behavior goes unchecked.

The operative word here is "tape." A Patriots employee was caught aiming his sideline camera at the Jets' defensive coaches as they signaled to players on the field during New England's 38-14 win over the New York Jets on Sunday. That violated NFL rules cited in the league's "Games Operation Manual."

Worse, Green Bay caught the Patriots in the same offense last season but let them go. Not only is there smoke in New England, there is a four-alarm fire burning. This wasn't about the baserunner on second base touching the bill of his cap to indicate "curveball" to his teammate batting. No, the Patriots' scheme could be long-term. Who's to say Belichick, a defensive mastermind, wasn't compiling a file of taped signals throughout the league? And who's to say he isn't the NFL's only guilty party?

NFL apologists already tried to downsize Belichick's stunt Wednesday. Their argument: Belichick is a great coach who doesn't need to cheat, and there's precious little advantage to be gained by knowing the defense's intent before the snap.

The apologists are smoking something a bit stronger than cigarettes.

If Belichick doesn't feel there's a possible edge, why is he engaging in such deportment? His actions tell you, loud and clear, he believes he can win by cherry-picking the opposition's intent.

Look, we're not exactly smashing the atom here. To break down defensive signals, then wigwag the findings to the quarterback on the field, isn't difficult. It easily compromises the game. Put it this way: If Tom Brady knows the upcoming pass defense or blitz scheme, he'll act accordingly. In fact, one wonders how long the Patriots have pulled off such a gambit. Do we place Barry Bonds-like asterisks next to those three Lombardi trophies?

The NFL front office must be mortified. Such a violation is a full assault against the two things the league most treasures: 1. the product on the field, and 2. the league's glossy image. The NFL under Goodell already was hard at work on the latter via its recent crackdown against performance-enhancing drugs. The league didn't need a second front as it tries to protect its formerly shiny shield.

There's something sleazy, however, about pointing cameras at coaches. Steroids and Human Growth Hormone are 21st-century offenses. Taping opposing coaches is distinctly low-tech, a modernizing of an old idea.

What's staggering about this is the amount of arrogance attached. Each second of an NFL game is photographed and filmed for posterity from every conceivable angle. How could the Patriots think they could get away with a hand-held camera on the field?

Then again, Belichick routinely disses NFL protocol with his homeless-man attire. He insults fans' intelligence with his robotic non-answers at news conferences. Basically, he thinks he can get away with anything as long as his team wins. He was right ... until now. He has committed the wrong offense at precisely the wrong time, because Goodell will strike.

The commissioner understands his macho attack against the players' personal conduct must extend to coaches and other officials. Cowboys assistant coach and former NFL quarterback Wade Wilson already has been suspended five games for performance-enhancing drug use. Belichick can expect something worse and, in his own way, he launched into damage control by his odd mea culpa before the team even explained its side of the story.

Here's my punishment: The league suspends Belichick for a game (including a week's practice), Patriots owner Robert Kraft -- one of the NFL's most likable bosses -- adds a week's suspension, and the Patriots then forfeit next year's first-round draft pick.

Harsh? Not really. Some people might consider the Patriots' forfeiting Sunday's win. That doesn't sound out of line to me, considering what they did to earn the win. The NFL must apply the hammer if, for nothing else, a statement against the culture of cheating that envelopes the entire sports world.

Good will come from this sad episode. I'll bet next month's mortgage that defense captains soon will be fitted with radio helmets, like quarterbacks, to render signals archaic.

And, hopefully, cheating on game day will be stemmed, lest another win-at-all-costs coach reaches too far.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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