Spying Debacle Leads to Questions About Belichick’s Unwise Actions

Two weeks after the Bill Belichick spying debacle, in which league officials caught Patriots video assistant Matthew Estrella filming Jets defensive signals, the New England Patriots’ record stands at 3-0. When the Pats destroyed the New York Jets 38-14 on Sept. 9 in their season-opener, no one thought that the focus of the game would be a video camera instead of the superior New England offense. When the National Football League released schedules, the San Francisco Chargers-Pats game promised to be one of the premier American Football Conference matchups; instead, it was another 38-14 blowout. This past Sunday, the Patriots were favored by 16.5 points against the Buffalo Bills; the final score of 38-7 actually eclipsed the already-outlandish line.

However, despite exclamations of just how good the Patriots are — and make no mistake, they’re the class of the league thus far — the focus hasn’t been on their stellar play. Instead, plenty of people — from sportswriters to coaches to players to fans — have denounced the Patriots as little more than cheaters. Players such as Brian Dawkins and Sheldon Brown, members of the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles team that lost to the Pats in Super Bowl XXXIX, have even questioned the legitimacy of the New England victory.

After all of the opinions, commentary, news articles, and statements, the media circus surrounding the incident leaves one question unanswered. Why would one of the smartest coaches in NFL history plant a cameraman in plain sight of league officials?

Paranoia. To be more specific, a fear of losing his edge. MIT students can relate to the pressure to remain ahead of the competition. It is tough to constantly be on the cutting edge of any discipline, be it play-calling or biological engineering. It is also tough when people start actively rooting for you to fail.

Would the media skewer a coach and a team if they hadn’t won three Super Bowls in a four-year span and been declared this season’s early Super Bowl favorite? What if it hadn’t been Bill Belichick and the 3-0 Patriots, but Scott Linehan and the 0-3 Saint Louis Rams? I doubt that as many people would be speaking out about the unfairness of taping signals. Yes, that may directly correlate with success, but that line of thinking focuses too much on the result rather than the process.

On Friday, the Associated Press published an interesting article by Dave Goldberg that has a great line: “The Patriots have stayed at the top of the NFL for most of this century because they understand how to put together a team of players to fill specific roles and keep finding unheralded players such as [Randall] Gay.” Did spying really teach Belichick how to manage the salary cap, draft players other teams deemed worthless, and develop the versatility for which New England is known? Unless the video camera somehow captured the inner workings of his brain, that’s an unlikely theory. I’ll be the first to admit that videotaping signals was foolish, but I find it ridiculous that people attribute all of the Patriots’ success to an awareness of defensive signals.

Now the talk has turned to how spying will affect Belichick’s legacy. At least for now, people discuss his achievements and the spying debacle in the same breath. Whether this will continue remains to be seen, but I’ll let you be the judge after you read this example. I browsed around Borders Books and Music on Sunday, and as I was leaving, I ran across a section of discount items. Patriot Reign, Michael Holley’s book describing the Patriots’ rise to glory under Belichick’s guidance, was the cheapest item on the rack at $2.99. Not typical for a previous New York Times bestseller, especially in comparison to the $5.99 romance novels.

At any rate, the new question I want answered relates to Belichick’s status for the 2008 season. Will he be around for the coming season, contrary to a report by the New York Post that Goodell will ban him from the league? As a Patriots fan, I certainly hope so, especially after watching those gorgeous Brady-Moss touchdown plays. At the very least, the Patriots seem to want him around — they signed Belichick to a contract extension through 2013, just days after the scandal broke.