- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Whenever the Cleveland Browns visited Wrigley Field in the old days, Paul Brown would give his team pre-game instructions in virtual pantomime. The legendary coach was utterly convinced that George Halas was bugging the visitors’ locker room. If an outsider had walked in on this scene, Cleveland Hall of Famer Mike McCormack said years later, he would have thought Brown “was coaching the State School for the Deaf.”

Not that PB was any angel. One of his favorite methods of gathering enemy intelligence was to send an underling to an opponent’s practice field posing as a newspaper reporter. No telling what useful scraps of information he might be able to pick up — especially if the media were allowed to watch workouts. Maybe a club was working on a new formation. Maybe a star player was hurt more seriously than the coach was letting on.

There’s also the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Cleveland scout being put through a course in climbing telephones — after which, equipped with spiked shoes, binoculars and a notebook, he headed off on a series of spy missions. The Browns won an awful lot of games back then, so presumably the guy had some success.

Such surveillance has been going on in football since Alonzo Stagg was in knickers. It’s the gridiron version of the Cold War. As Kathleen Turner told William Hurt in “Body Heat,” “Knowledge is power.” (Actually, the entire line was: “My mother told me knowledge is power” — leaving open the possibility her mother was a Halas.)

So there’s a dog-bites-man quality to the breathless news that the Patriots got caught videotaping the signals of the Jets‘ defensive coaches Sunday. Indeed, it’s the brazenness of the act more than the act itself that astounds. Especially because, according to reports, it wasn’t the first time the Pats had done it.

It’s also, let’s face it, an incredibly tacky thing to do — kind of like a billionaire cheating on his taxes. A team that has won three championships in this decade — and may win a couple more before it’s done — pulling a stunt like this? And to think New England had an image as a classy organization.

Still, as crimes and misdemeanors go, I don’t consider “illegal videotaping” as reprehensible as, say, circumventing the salary cap, which several clubs (but not the Patriots) have been penalized for. Inasmuch as the Pats’ camera was confiscated in the first quarter, their skullduggery certainly didn’t have anything to do with their whomping of the Jets. But it might have been a factor, I suppose, in their next whomping of the Jets.

Two points should be made here. First, the Jets hijacked the Patriots’ top defensive assistant last year, Eric Mangini, who no doubt brought a lot of inside knowledge about New England’s operation. This isn’t against the rules, but it’s hardly the norm for a club to fill its head coaching vacancy by raiding the staff of its division archrival.

Then there’s Bill Belichick’s background — or rather, his military mentality. Belichick grew up in Annapolis, and his father Steve was a longtime scout for the Naval Academy. So much of Bill’s secretive, often quirky behavior can be traced to that. Probably the only reason he had somebody videotaping the Jets’ coaches was because he figured an observation balloon wouldn’t have had a good enough angle.

Belichick is one of those by-all-means-necessary types — like George Allen and Genghis Kahn. He’ll try to beat you any way he can, rules or no rules. It’s one of the reasons players appreciate him; he never pulls a punch. (And if he wants to rub it in a little by summoning 99-year-old Vinny Testaverde from the bench to throw a touchdown pass for the 20th consecutive season, he’ll do that, too.)

Ah, Allen. When he was coaching the Redskins in the ‘70s, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to win — trade the same draft pick twice, have his defense jam the opposing quarterback’s signals (also a no-no), grease his offensive linemen’s jerseys so they’d be harder to grab (or was that Al Davis?). The Cowboys’ Tom Landry, meanwhile, was always accusing him of some kind of espionage or other.

It’s doubtful George ever felt a twinge of regret. He just wasn’t wired that way. And it’s doubtful Belichick will lose much sleep over whatever sentence Roger Goodell metes out. Besides, it’s easy to rationalize such behavior in the kill-or-be-killed culture of the NFL. Let’s not forget, Allen would tell sportswriters, “[the Cowboys] “had a dog run into our huddle one day in the Cotton Bowl when we were driving for the winning points.”

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