By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 7:36 PM
PHOENIX -- If you're looking for pointed criticism or probing reporting on that ugly Spygate scandal that rocked the New England Patriots and roiled the NFL in the opening weeks of the regular season, it might be wise to turn away from Fox's four-hour Super Bowl pre-game extravaganza on Sunday and hope the subject is broached in depth on another network.
Fox is the rights holder for Sunday's game, but their pre-game show is not expected to include very much about the $500,000 fine levied by Commissioner Roger Goodell on Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, the heaviest penalty any head coach in the history of the NFL has ever had to pay for cheating.
They're not going to dwell on the embarassing $250,000 the franchise was fined, nor will there be much back and forth on the No. 1 draft choice the Patriots also had to forfeit in the wake of one of their video cameramen being caught ham-handed on the sidelines taping the defensive signals of the N.Y. Jets.
How do we know this?
Listen to Terry Bradshaw in a recent conference call with reporters.
"'Spygate' from Week One is not even a thought as far as I'm concerned," Bradshaw declared. "Ever since the first week, I've learned from people in the NFL about how so many people do things like that and even Belichick had kicked the Jets video staff off the sideline. It's not even a thought. It shouldn't be considered."
How about the comment from his pre-game cohort, that hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners investigative reporter Jimmy Johnson, during the same call.
"Having coached for nearly 40 years," Johnson said, "I can sit and talk for days about all these types of stories and all the things that coaches have done. There really wasn't a whole lot there. I think the media made more out of it than they should have."
Johnson elaborated here on Tuesday, saying again that, "I think it was overblown by the media. With the visibility of our sport these days, everything is overblown, everything is negative."
Never mind, of course, that both Bradshaw and Johnson are card-carrying members of the media themselves these days, even if they've still got the narrow mindset of a paranoid coach and a semi-naive player. But they're also not alone at Fox in preferring to avoid much mention of a story that still seems to have some traction, particularly with the Patriots going for perfection in the Super Bowl, on radio talk shows, newspaper sports sections and all over the internet.
There was back in September, still is in January and probably always will be some debate as to whether the Patriots' past success has in any way been tainted by the possibility that perhaps they've been improperly taping opponents to get an edge for years.
I'm not quite prepared to go that far. I believe Belichick is the greatest coach of his generation and his team a legitimate dynasty, which makes Spygate even more maddening because they were good enough not to have to resort to such shabby tactics. But there's still enough of a shred of doubt in the back of my mind about what was going on before Belichick got caught, and whether it actually did help his team win some close ball games when they started collecting Super Bowl trophies six years ago.
It also must be said that Spygate probably shouldn't taint his team's undefeated regular season, or the possibility an unprecedented 19-0. That is unless you believe Belichick used the old George Allen us-against-them approach to fire up his team throughout the year, citing Spygate as a prime example to get his guys to take a we'll-show-them chip on their collective shoulders into every game.
Is it unreasonable to expect that all of the above topics be raised, and somewhat in depth, again on Sunday, if only to illuminate the subject of cheating, not only in New England, but perhaps all around the NFL, as Jimmy Johnson certainly suggested.
Pre-game show analyst Howie Long was asked about the issue at a Fox media session here Tuesday afternoon.
"I've said this before," he began. "If you are that offended, and I'm not justifying what occurred, do you actually believe the New England Patriots were the only team in football filming other teams' sidelines? If you're really offended, open up the whole Pandora's box. Investigate the whole league. They got caught ¿ I think it's a white elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. I also find it a bit disingenuous from people who have covered the league for as long as they have that they're so morally offended by this as it specifically applies to the Patriots. If you're offended, then be offended by everyone else.
"You have a commissioner who came in as Wyatt Earp and he's laying down the law. And I also believe that if they (the Patriots) didn't already have two No. 1 picks, I'm not sure they (the NFL) would have taken a No. 1 pick away from them."
Will Long say some of these things on the air Sunday, he was asked.
"I don't know what we're talking about on the air," he said. "I'll get the rundown on Wednesday."
Scott Ackerson, the long-time coordinating producer of Fox's NFL pre-game shows, offered a far more definitive answer.
"To me, Spygate isn't as big of a deal now than it was in week one. They taped ten plays. I've seen the tape. To me, it's kind of frivolous to what their season has been. We're not going to make a big deal about it."
Jimmy Johnson has been assigned the task of interviewing Belichick for the pre-game show, so you've got to think the subject will barely be broached, if it is at all. Ackerson said he'd like Johnson to ask Belichick about it, but don't hold your breath as to whether a question or answer will get on the air. And will Johnson ask a legitimate interviewer's probing follow-up if Belichick continues the stonewalling approach he's taken all season?
Make no mistake, Fox's four-hour pre-game show almost certainly will be entertaining, with plenty of puffy features, deep-thinking Xs and Os analysis, interviews and a heavy dose of comedian Frank Caliendo. But hard-hitting reporting, a point-counterpoint discussion on Spygate and its effect on the Patriots' otherwise dreamy season? Forget about it.
"Look, you make the best decisions you can," Ackerson said. "Will there be people who think I'm wrong (in not dwelling on Spygate)? Yeah. Will there be people who think I'm right? Yeah. Everyone is entitled to their opinion."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.