The Fire Next Time

On Sunday morning’s Outside the Lines, former Atlanta Falcons defensive standout and attorney-at-law Tim Green remarked that perhaps the most significant aspect of the New England Patriots foray into electronic surveillance was the capacity to apply lessons in rematches against highly competitive teams. While Green did not have time to delve deeply into this particular claim, I thought it raised some interesting considerations.

For example, when teams are fairly certain of post-season rematches, how much is withheld for the rematch? The Patriots were probably better at this than any other team over the past few years. It seemed like their preliminary contests against elite teams were always bland sleepers. The rematches were often wide-open free flowing Remember when the New England Patriots were hailed for their record in rematches against teams? The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan, closest keeper of the record for the Patriots, wrote in glowing terms of the world champions a few years back.

“Did we need to be reminded that Belichick is undefeated (now 14-0) in rematches with quarterbacks? No, not really.

The Patriots are good, and I mean really good. They are amazingly well coached, and they are even more amazingly united. Whatever their individual private thoughts about team football matters, they simply come to play every Sunday. They embrace their game plans, and they do everything in all their individual powers to execute those plans.

Do not underestimate what you have seen during these past two weeks, for you may be waiting a long time before you see anything like it again. These were the two most anticipated non-Super Bowls in franchise history, and these games were against teams posing significantly different challenges. The Colts featured the apparently unstoppable Peyton Manning and perhaps the most potent offense the league ever has known. You saw what happened. The Steelers offered a great running game and a very rugged defense, and, again, you saw what happened. It wasn’t easy to do what the Patriots did, to win the games, in either case, but they made it look that way.

Before the game Belichick said he was proud of his team because it had played its best football in its two biggest games (I’m guessing the second Jets game was the other one). Now he can say his team has played its best football in its three biggest games.

And can there be even a scintilla of doubt that in just two weeks Bill Belichick will be saying his team had played its best football in its four biggest games?”

Since that time, the Colts and Denver Broncos have been the only teams with multiple victories over the Patriots. Last year, the San Diego Chargers probably figured that their 2005 road win (41-17) would pay dividends in the playoffs. The Chargers were 5 point favorites. Complaining aside, the Chargers better bring their best planning and execution tonight. This rematch promises to be an intense, hard-hitting contest. There will not be any points awarded for whining.

In the league, all teams (except the Detroit Lions who have no interest in winning football games on a consistent basis) engage in efforts to seize a competitive advantage. Stealing signs is part of that process. The use of videotape, however, is presumed to provide a “value-added” advantage to teams and is therefore prohibited by the league. Jeffrey Chadiha weighs in on the use of video in the NFL:

Added one NFC personnel director: “What the Patriots did is extremely rare because it’s against the rules. It’s one of those things that if it’s not Bill Belichick involved, you wonder if the coach survives something like that. What is more normal is something like a guy sitting in a press box trying to steal signs by looking at the coaches. That’s why the home team usually has its back to the press box when they’re in their own stadium.”

While it may be difficult to believe Belichick’s Patriots are the only ones using the latest video technology to their advantage, the fact is they’re the only ones who have been caught. If other teams knew opponents were illegally videotaping their signals, they’d likely alert league and stadium security, much like the Jets did Sunday at the Meadowlands.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of somebody doing what New England did,” one AFC personnel director said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody else has tried it in the past but the bottom line is that it’s illegal. We all get the same memos from the league each season telling us what we can’t do.”

A similar “value-added” phenomenon exists with respect to the trading of securities on Wall Street. While insider trading is not exactly analogous to video taping defensive signals, there are certain corollaries. Perhaps the best connection may be drawn between the practices of “advance scouting” and analyst stock coverage. Stock analysts, like scouts, are specialists trained to make comprehensive assessments of firms (or teams) with the purpose of accruing a benefit to capital (or coaches). The work of analysts, along with strategies and algorithms and investment principles, is supposed to be sufficient to inform prospective stock buyers. There is supposed to be an element of risk involved. So too with scouting games. The premise of competition is that there are no “sure things.” The human element of an advance scouting report includes a measure of risk. Scouting reports are not always correct. Not all scouts are equally adept. Contrast the variability of analyst reports or scouting reports with the fixed quality of insider trading reports or a videotape. Both of these measures provide a greater, albeit imperfect, measure of certainty for prospective buyers and coaches. Insider information is not perfect, but it’s better than the report of an analyst with a Stanford MBA and jet lag. So too is a videotape of defensive coaching signals. Scouts blink. Scouts eat. Scouts go to the bathroom. Scouts shoot the shit. Scouts are human. High-8 is cruelly consistent and its use is prohibited.

The NFL’s investigation continues. ESPN reports the league will be gathering information going all the way back to the 2000 season. The 2007 Patriots have all the talent and incentive to run the table. They should be motivated to lay waste to each and every team on the rest of their schedule – including teams who have commented on this fiasco. Next up, the San Diego Super Chargers.

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