One day, the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, of which I am a member, will meet to discuss Bill Belichick’s candidacy for induction.
Based on his body of work, the conversation shouldn’t last very long. For all intents and purposes, Belichick’s bronze bust should already have been made and its spot for display in Canton all picked out.
But upon closer inspection, just how much of that body of work resulted from true X-and-O brilliance and how much was artificially enhanced by brilliant deception?
That question will be pondered by voters. That topic will turn what otherwise should have been an open-and-shut case into a prolonged hearing.
The media members who comprise the voting panel are prohibited from getting into moral debates about Hall finalists during the annual meeting the morning before the Super Bowl, nor are we supposed to factor one’s behavior away from the field into the selection process. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Who are we to make such judgments? If it has no direct bearing on what the player, coach, or contributor did in building his football credentials, then it shouldn’t be considered.
The problem with Belichick, of course, is that “Spygate” and now “Deflategate” are actions whose sole purpose is to gain a competitive advantage. This is an instance where morality and football absolutely belong in the same discussion.
In 2007, the NFL found the Patriots guilty of illegally videotaping an opponent’s defensive signals and punished them with the loss of a first-round draft pick and a $500,000 fine for Belichick.
The consequences for the Pats’ illegally deflating football balls used in last Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against Indianapolis so that they would be easier for Tom Brady to grip have yet to be determined. But the fury over the story has easily overshadowed the fact New England is making a sixth Super Bowl appearance under Belichick and that he is seeking his fourth Lombardi Trophy as a head coach.
Heck, there are those in the media who want the punishment for “Deflategate” to include Belichick being banished from the sidelines when the Patriots face Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX a week from today in Glendale, Ariz. That won’t happen. Brady, who is also seen as having culpability in this matter, is going to start the game, as scheduled. Whatever the NFL does about this will be done after the Super Bowl.
Never mind that deflated footballs had zero to do with the Patriots’ pounding of the Colts last Sunday. This thing has legs because it is attached to one of the most successful franchises in league history with one of its most successful coaches and one of its most successful quarterbacks. It has legs because of “Spygate.” It has legs because, before the AFC title was even played, Don Shula, a Hall-of-Famer and the winningest coach in NFL history, publicly referred to Belichick as “Beli-cheat.”
It has legs because, regardless of his claims of having no knowledge/involvement with how balls are selected and prepared for a game and of questions of whether Brady winds up being the primary culprit, Belichick is perceived to have created an environment where skirting the rules is acceptable.
And those legs will walk that extra baggage into the room when the day comes that the Pro Football Hall of Fame committee gathers to consider Belichick for induction.
Could his unsavory reputation keep him out? No. The late Al Davis was often accused of going to great lengths of unscrupulousness to give his Oakland Raiders every edge possible, and he has a bust in Canton. Some even went so far as to suspect him of bugging the visiting teams’ locker room.
Belichick will get in, even if the complexion of the voting panel might have changed in such a way that it’s fair to say there is less tolerance for cheating, real or imagined, than there once was. And that presumes we don’t see another Patriot “Fill-in-the-blank-gate.”
The question is, will he have to wait longer than his body of work says he should? Whether that’s five minutes or an hour or a year or maybe longer remains to be seen.
“Deflategate” is getting all of the attention, but something else happened in the AFC title game that actually has the potential for much larger ramifications.
Call this one “Substitute-mania.”
The Patriots substituted offensive linemen so frequently that the officiating crew could barely keep up. Before each play that a new lineman entered the game, referee Walt Anderson had to announce over the stadium’s PA system that the new lineman was “eligible” or “ineligible” to catch a pass, and he eventually did so with some exasperation.
The Colts’ defense also had its share of problems keeping up. For instance, Cameron Fleming was utilized 20 times as a sixth offensive lineman, while tight end Michael Hoomanawanui twice lined up as ineligible. Then, the one play that tackle Nate Solder reported as eligible, he caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Brady.
The officiating crew had figured to be particularly attentive to the Patriots’ substituting after the Baltimore Ravens complained about some of their formations with eligible and ineligible players in their divisional-round loss against New England. But at times, the seemingly never-ending announcements by Anderson had fans in the stands laughing out loud.
The NFL can live with comic relief. The issue is that Belichick clearly is pushing the substitution rules to the max, and gaining an advantage from it. You wonder how long it will be before other teams follow suit or if the league closes what might now be seen as a loophole.
Stay in your lane
You don’t hear Jeremy Lane’s name very often. He falls under the heading of “supporting cast” for the Seattle Seahawks’ famed “Legion of Doom” defense.
The only time Lane might come up in a conversation is when he does something as colossally silly as he did on Thursday by saying that he doesn’t think Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is “that good.” Seriously? Lane went so far as to say Gronkowski doesn’t like it when defenders put their hands on him and that if the Seahawks do that during the Super Bowl, the best tight end in the game “won’t catch that many balls.”
I’m not sure which scouting report Lane read, but the book on Gronk is that he relishes being physical, especially with defensive backs who insist on being grabby. He also relishes proving his doubters wrong and plays with the sort of emotion that would seemingly be ignited by inflammatory comments from an opponent. As he told reporters Friday, what Lane said “may” tick him off.
So Lane should consider himself fortunate that he isn’t expected to see much of Gronk during the game, but the same can’t be said about others in Seattle’s secondary who couldn’t have appreciated their teammate writing a check they’ll have to cash.
One topic discussed among scouts at the Senior Bowl this week is the disparity between scouting players in that game, along with other seniors, and the 74 underclassmen who declared themselves eligible for the April 30-May 2 NFL Draft.
“It’s a nightmare,” one scout told me. “There’s no way you can possibly do a sufficient amount of research on the underclassmen because you’re not really getting into them until late in the process. A lot of stuff gets missed.”
Although scouts are well aware of the underclassmen during the fall, when they visit college campuses and watch games, they fully understand that the NFL and the schools forbid discussions about them.
Still, that doesn’t stop a flood of players from entering the draft each year and usually being selected above seniors. Players who declare themselves eligible for the draft do so because they are told by league representatives that they have a good chance of being chosen early.
However, there is no “Junior Bowl” or any other all-star game where scouts can evaluate how well they work with NFL coaches in a week of practice, as is the case with the Senior Bowl.