Sunday, September 16, 2007
He was the George Washington of the NFL, the father of the league, but George Halas could tell a lie. In fact the coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, it seems, told many.
Like when NFL teams in the late 1950s were required to send copies of their coaches' practice films to their opponents in the days leading up to the game. Halas hired two cameramen to record the practice: one who shot in perfect focus for the Bears and one who purposely twisted the lens to blur the players and the field. The Bears sent the blurry film to their prospective opponents. And when the films arrived and the coaches invariably called to complain, Halas always feigned disgust.
"Oh that no-good cameraman we got, I'm going to fire him. All our films are terrible; I can't see a thing," he was said to have muttered into the phone.
On a week in which New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was caught having an employee film New York Jets coaches sending signs to players on the field, Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films, laughed as he sat in his office outside Philadelphia. As the official chronicler of the league, along with father Ed for a half-century, Sabol has peered through the viewfinder at a paranoid world of professional football -- a place where coaches have schemed and connived for decades as a way of getting ahead.
"I think in the NFL knowledge is power," Sabol said. "And you try to get the knowledge by whatever means."
The difference, he said, between Belichick and the long list of coaches before him who tried to win with trickery and deceit is that Belichick crossed the line and actually broke a league rule. He had been warned and continued to do it.
The others? They just smudged the line between right and wrong.
Like former Washington Redskins Coach George Allen, who at times might have been the most paranoid man to pull on a headset. Allen was notorious for believing his practices were being spied upon and his offices bugged, even installing guards around practice fields to prosecute anyone who happened by, including autograph-seeking fans on the off chance they might actually be spies.
Then again, he was probably familiar with every tactic an opponent might pull, having tried many of them himself.
Gil Brandt, a longtime Dallas Cowboys executive, recalled the time the team got a call from a local airport car rental agency back when Allen coached the Los Angeles Rams. The rental agent said a man who worked for the Rams had just rented a car and had asked for directions to the Cowboys' practice fields.
Sure enough, the undercover man was captured.
"I always think the guys who are most suspicious have been doing it themselves," said Dick Vermeil, the former coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. "It's because they know it can be done."