By COLEMAN HOPKINS
The New England Patriots and their head coach, Bill Belichick, are no strangers to cheating or the subsequent scandals that arise from their rule breaking. For instance, Spygate, the filming of the Jets’ defensive signals during a regular season game in September 2007, resulted in the loss of draft picks and fines for stealing the signs, a highly egregious and impactful offense.
However, the Patriots reached a new low earlier this week when allegations that they used purposefully deflated footballs during their AFC title game against the Indianapolis Colts were proven true.
Since Spygate, other allegations of cheating have surfaced, including the videotaping of the Rams’ walkthrough prior to the Super Bowl in 2001, as well as rumors that the Patriots cheated against the Carolina Panthers and the Philadelphia Eagles in their Super Bowl wins.
The AFC title game was in New England, and the weather was horrendous. Cold rain makes the ball slick and very difficult to grip, so passing becomes infinitely harder under these conditions. The Colts are a passing team, and, during the game, they had zero success throwing the ball downfield. The Patriots, with the exclusion of an interception, which the allegations spawned from, passed at will, with Tom Brady collecting two touchdowns and a high passer rating. Brady’s successful passing opened up the opportunity for the Patriots to run the ball, which they did with authority.
The ability to throw the ball opens up various dimensions for the offense to take advantage of, so the impact of being able to move the ball through the air certainly changed the game.
Some Pats fans have tried to downplay the significance of the tampering with footballs, pointing out that it did not really impact a one-sided game since the Patriots were winning one way or another.
I take issue with this position for several reasons because, while it did influence the outcome, it also probably would not have mattered overall. At the same time, one has to wonder what would have happened had the Colts done this, as the NFL has been extremely harsh on rule-breakers over the past few seasons.
On one hand, fans that say that the game was not really impacted are right; the Patriots were going to steamroll the Colts either way. The Patriots rebranded themselves as a run-heavy team this year, often milking the clock on long drives and setting up a potent play-action game once they wear down the defense. The Colts specifically had issues defending the run and had a depleted secondary, so the Patriots’ offense was built to exploit their weaknesses.
So while the New England offense clearly could have used some play-calling diversity in the form of passing the ball to beat the Colts, I highly doubt that they needed their passing game so badly to win that they had to cheat to make it fully available.
Moreover, Belichick, a highly successful and knowledgeable coach, had to see that his team was better in every facet of the game, so why did he feel that he had to cheat?
In the case of their second two Super Bowl wins, the Patriots had to cheat to win, and likely did, as the Eagles and Panthers were clearly the two dominant teams in league those years, with few weaknesses on offense, defense or in coaching. So in those cases, the cheating did make sense – if cheating ever does makes sense – but in this case fans are just left scratching their heads.
Less than two months ago, the Patriots smoked the Colts, and the team has been on a tear for the majority of the year. Furthermore, if you go back and look at the two teams’ schedules, the Patriots had manhandled many of the same teams that beat the Colts during the regular season, such as the Steelers and Broncos. So, for anybody who was paying attention to the two teams this year, it should have been obvious that the Pats were going to win. Clearly they were the better team, and most NFL analysts, fans and players knew that too.
In a lot of ways, this looks really Nixonian, because, like Watergate, it seems pointless and bizarre, though a connection also has not been established yet.
One has to wonder about what would have happened if the Colts had used deflated balls, because as an almost exclusively passing team, they certainly would have performed differently had Luck been able to throw the ball. From another angle, what would have happened if the Colts had been caught cheating?
As we have seen this season, the NFL is quick to dole out hefty fines and suspensions for much less than that.
As of now, Belichick and Brady have denied that they knew anything about the balls being deflated and have vehemently repudiated allegations that they were involved with the deflation of the balls.
Is the league biased towards the Patriots? Some players, like the vocal Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks, thinks so, but depending on how the league reacts, that sentiment could be dispelled.
In light of the Patriots’ history of athletic dishonesty, many NFL fans, players and officials are calling for a serious punishment to deter this type of behavior.
Former head official Mike Pereira was quoted saying, “This is cheating. And this is something the league doesn’t want. It’s bad enough that rules get taken advantage of and you kind of work against the intent of the rule. But this is cheating. And it is something the league will deal with harshly.”
The Patriots have failed to acknowledge that they tampered with the ball (even though the balls weighed full pounds less than they were supposed to). It remains to be seen how the league will react, but in a year that saw plenty of bad publicity and a handful of scandals, it would be hard to defend a mere tap on the wrist.
While I personally do not believe that the balls’ weight made much of a difference in such a lopsided contest, I do believe that something has to be done to put an end to such an ethically baseless attitude that is present in the Patriots’ organization, and that starts with the coach, who is notorious for this type of behavior.
Whether it is in the form of more fines or suspensions, I believe that the NFL needs to send a clear message that they are going to take the league back and give it legitimacy again it. The only fair thing to do at this juncture is to suspend Belichick for the Super Bowl, though I am not holding my breath on the league to take action.