Football cheating goodness: Patriots in trouble

I’ve been gleefully following the Patriots-Jets controversy, because it’s interesting and because it brings out interesting contrasts in how the two sports handle this. Here’s Chris Mortensen’s ESPN story.

The summary: the NFL took a camera and a videotape from a Patriots “video assistant” when they thought he was taping signals from the Jets coaches.

For one, there hasn’t been a similar coach-taping controversy in baseball yet, even though the nature of baseball makes it so, so tempting. In football, even if you put people on it, to make use of the information you have to either decode it in-game or hope that it’s still valid when you play them again later in the year.

But in baseball, where the series frequently run three or four games, if you crack a team’s system by videotaping their coaches and analyzing it all night, there might be two, three games left where you can take advantage of that information. And if you don’t, you’ve got another chance at it.

Football seems particularly well-suited to this kind of sign-stealing. In baseball, sign-stealing by the home team can give their batters an advantage for a hundred pitches, but that advantage is not all that huge. We can look at teams known to have been stealing signs and there’s no dramatic increase in their offensive performances.

But in football, where a team might only get to run fifty, sixty plays a game, being able to gain insight into the other team’s plays can be game-changing on that next snap. If you knew that every time the other team’s line coach made a particular sign that they blitzed two men, and you could be prepared for it, that could easily be a first down or six points.

The other interesting contrast is that the league’s anti- this. From the article:

Goodell is considering severe sanctions, including the possibility of docking the Patriots “multiple draft picks” because it is the competitive violation in the wake of a stern warning to all teams since he became commissioner, the sources said.

Baseball doesn’t have a rule, much less a stern warning memo to teams. And when these kind of things are suspected, baseball’s head office likes to investigate – and put the screws to teams – out of the public eye. You rarely even hear about them, and that’s generally only an accusation by an angry player that doesn’t get much play.

Here, we’ve already seen “sources” almost certainly close to the commish talking to the press about what happened, why, leading to reporting like “Sources say the visual evidence confirmed the suspicion”. Compared to the absolute silence MLB manages to enforce from their offices, it’s a huge difference. This is strange to me, because as I understand it, the NFL is way, way more controlling of the rules and regulations of how the game is run and what is and isn’t allowed than MLB. But faced with a controversy, they took action and they’re controlling the story.


#1 Mat on 09.12.07 at 12:52 am

With as much money as there is in football, it seems like it wouldn’t be that hard to get that video without being detected. To me, the harder thing would be to keep ex-coaches/players from squealing, but I guess that’s not how it went down for the Patriots.

For baseball teams, it seems like it would be really, really easy to install a secret camera somewhere in the home dugout to tape the opposing managers so that some sign-stealing savant could study the film in the meantime. And you could probably do it without very many people within the organization really knowing about it, too.

#2 bucdaddy on 09.12.07 at 6:38 am

I’m kind of missing how you can punish a team for this. For one thing, coaches stand there in the open all game, waggling signals 30-40 yards across the field for everyone to see. Presumably, everyone in the stands could focus on the assistants every game and figure out the signals. Presumably, everyone in the stands could have a camera phone.

For another, football is absolutely awash in video. Televised games (which is virtually all of them) offer 8, 10, 12, 20 different angles, and I’m sure the teams are taping themselves from several others. How can you tell a team it can’t put one of those cameras on the other team’s sideline? Football scouting is all about trying to figure out opponents’ tendencies. How is it unfair if a team figures out a coach’s signalling tendencies? Isn’t it up to the opponent to disguise signals well enough that they can’t be deciphered? (Baseball teams do this all the time. Catchers change signals when a runner’s on second base.)

I mean, it’s like saying a football coach can just yell across the field, “Hey, Bronko, blitz on this play,” and then punishing the other team for listening.

#3 Evan on 09.27.07 at 1:18 pm

How is this against the rules. This is like when NASCAR punishes teams for modifying their cars in ways that don’t break the rules. The rules are clear (the car must fit the template), and the car doesn’t break the rules (it fits the template perfectly), but if the modification gives the team an advantage (which is why they did it) it gets them punished.