NFL Is Filled With Suspicious Minds

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

The NFL has long been a league marked by a mild undercurrent of neurosis when it comes to cheating. Everyone suspects that everyone else does something to get an edge and, to a degree, accepts it. But in the Season of Spygate, that feeling is bordering on paranoia, with sideline communications problems and allegations of piped-in crowd noise only fueling fears.

Since NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell punished Coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots for using videotaping equipment to steal the play signals of New York Jets coaches in the opening week of the season, coaches and executives see nefarious motives at work in practically anything that happens on game day.

There's no such thing as an innocent technical malfunction when the visiting team's headsets aren't working. It's inconceivable that a crowd inside a domed stadium could just be unusually loud.

"It would probably be naive to think that nothing happens," New York Giants co-owner John Mara said this week. "But I don't think it happens that much. We're probably just too paranoid as a group."

The latest example came after the Patriots' victory at Indianapolis on Sunday. The Patriots complained to the league that the Colts had been piping artificial crowd noise through speakers at the RCA Dome to disrupt the New England offense. It was an accusation that had been made in the past against the Colts, and it had extra flavor this time because the charge was being made by the Patriots. There had been an unusual noise on the CBS broadcast of the game.

But the network indicated that the odd noise had been caused by a technical glitch inaudible in the stadium, and league officials said they weren't investigating anything else about the game. The Colts issued a written statement that said, "We trust this will put an end to the ridiculous and unfounded accusations that the Colts artificially enhanced crowd noise at the RCA Dome in any way."

That wasn't the end of it. The CBS affiliate in Boston, WBZ-TV, reported that one of its cameramen had been told during the game by an RCA Dome security guard that the Colts pumped in artificial crowd noise. Jeremy Green of ESPN, the son of former NFL coach Dennis Green, said during a chat on the network's Web site that the Minnesota Vikings used to pump in artificial crowd noise at the Metrodome. He later told the Pioneer Press that he was merely giving his opinion based on his own experiences and never had been told that by his father, who formerly coached the Vikings.

Belichick said Monday that the team's coach-to-quarterback communications system had not been operational during the Colts game. That has become a frequent complaint of visiting NFL coaches, and it often is made with the underlying, albeit unstated, suspicion that the home team is responsible.

After his team lost to the Patriots, 52-7, at Gillette Stadium, Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said his club's communications system had failed during the game. "It's something that's intermittent and it's going on all around the NFL," Gibbs said.

Current and former members of the league's competition committee, the NFL's primary rule-making body, say the committee spends time every offseason discussing issues related to charges of suspicious activities by certain teams during games. "We talk about it every year," said Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, a member of the committee.

According to others on the committee, those discussions in recent years have included allegations that teams were putting microphones on defensive players to record the audibles of opposing quarterbacks. That led to a rule that any player wearing a microphone during a game had to report it to the officials.

There were discussions about the work of a clock operator in at least one stadium perhaps favoring the home team, leading to the league taking over the appointment of the clock operators. There were discussions about charges of teams doctoring game footballs by placing them in dryers to heat them or vises to compress them. That led to a special ball being introduced for kicking situations and to last season's rule that each team could supply the footballs that it would use on offense.

One NFL source said that the Jacksonville Jaguars had "huge problems" with their communications system during a playoff loss at New England at the end of the 2005 season and that led to a league recommendation that teams take their own communications experts to playoff games.

Under league rules, if one team's communication system linking the coaches in the press box to the coaches on the sideline fails during a game, the other team must turn its system off. But that doesn't apply to a failure of one team's coach-to-quarterback communications system. Thus, there is room for suspicion.

But other than the Patriots incident, there's been no substantiation of any allegations of wrongdoing.

"I think those suspicions have been in existence for a number of years now, and no one ever had any proof," said Mara, a competition committee member. "Now it's getting more attention. I do think some things go on. I don't think it's a lot. I don't think videotaping goes on anymore. It probably did before. A lot of people talked about it. The crowd noise being piped into domed stadiums, I don't know. A lot of people claim it happens in certain places. It's never been proven. That's a hard one to prove. The bottom line is, the team with the better players and better coaching generally wins the game."

Said former Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly, a former member of the competition committee: "I don't think a lot of it goes on. I think because of the Patriots and because of the league's involvement, it's getting a lot of attention this year. Proof was found that the Patriots had done this. It's tangible. Nobody can deny it. There you have it, and there's no explanation by the Patriots about the past. They haven't put the past to rest, and that opens the door for people to draw their own conclusions and make a lot of accusations."

At an owners' meeting last month in Philadelphia, Goodell stressed the importance of the integrity of the game during his remarks to the owners, and reiterated to them that the league would investigate any charge of wrongdoing made by one team against another. Goodell said at his post-meeting news conference that the league had not found evidence to back any other cheating claims.

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