Friday, November 16, 2007

Has the Dynasty Been Tarnished? (11/16/2007)

Hello all,

Usually, I write a bye week update that details how things are going and what I expect for the remainder of the season. I might still do that before the next game, but there is something else I'd like to write about instead. Many people nationwide have suggested that the Patriots videotaping of the opposition's defensive signals has (choose one) "tarnished," "cast a cloud over," "left a black mark on," "put a stain on," or "places an asterisks next to," the Patriots previous three Super Bowl victories.

I don't agree with those statements. There are many teams who bent the rules or outright broke them, and I don't hear any hue and cry to reconsider *those* championships. The Denver Broncos were whacked for keeping better players by circumventing the salary cap, and no one says their Super Bowls were tainted. Former Oakland Raiders players have said most of their championship teams were on steroids, and there's no cloud over their victories. And there were long rumors (and a few select admissions) of steroid use by the Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s, and yet they are considered one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.

You can't go back in time, so none of us will ever know how much the Patriots might have gained through the use of sideline videotaping. In fact, we don't know for sure whether or not they were using sideline videotape during their championship years. But nonetheless, I'm intrigued by asking just those questions and seeing where the investigation might take me. So if you'll indulge me, I'd like to explore three questions. First, how bad were the actions taken by the Patriots in this situation? Second, could there have been any real advantage from the videotaping, and if so, how much advantage? And third, if there was an unfair advantage, should we question the validity of the Patriots playoff victories after the 2001, 2003, and 2004 seasons?

I. How big was the scandal?

In my opinion, the depth and importance of the scandal was overblown by a controversy-driven media. Numerous commentators have stated that there was no ambiguity in the rules that govern videotaping from the sideline, which is untrue. Official NFL rules prohibited taping from the field "for use during the game." And those five words are a stadium-sized loophole that most of the media ignored. (Note: and don't listen to those who claim that it's less important because it's a "technicality." The reason these rules are written so carefully is that they sometimes end up being challenge in court, so specificity in language is important.) Bill Belichick stated that he had a different interpretation of the rule than the NFL commissioner -- so I believe he thought he was within his rights to videotape from the sideline as long as he didn't use that tape during that particular game.

I'm personally disappointed in Belichick, but I don't think his actions rose to the level of outright cheating. Prior to the 2007 season, the NFL sent letters to all 32 teams, clarifying the rule somewhat and warning that it would be strictly enforced. When that happened, I think Belichick should have contacted the NFL and asked specifically whether his interpretation was correct. The NFL would have told him it was not, and the Patriots could have stopped taping from the sideline, asked that a crystal clear version of the rule be put in place, and been done with it.

But disappointment is a lot different than the public tar-and-feathering the coach has undergone among the media and fans of other teams. Some have even used the scandal to portray a general atmosphere of team lawlessness and rule-breaking that I believe is the opposite of who Belichick is. I think the national reaction was a function of inaccurate information (about the specifics of the rule), Belichick's surliness with the media, the media's insatiable thirst for controversy, and many (in the media and in the general public) who resent him and the Patriots and who were looking for a chance to take him and the team down a peg. That doesn't exonerate Belichick, but he was treated much worse than he deserved.

II. Did the use of videotape provide any substantial advantage to the Patriots?

As for how much videotaping of defensive signals could help, there would obviously be some advantage, and most of that advantage would have shown up the next time the Patriots played the same opponent. Assuming that Belichick violated only the spirit of the rule and not the letter of it, it's unlikely that he tried to use videotape from the sideline in the same game. (Note: Many former NFL coaches and players have stated that it would be almost impossible to use sideline videotape during the game -- their contention is usually that there isn't enough time.) But by breaking down the video after the game, the head coach and/or his staff could decode the signals, thus giving them a head start in decipher signals the next time they played the same team.

Being better prepared to figure out the defensive signals would not give the Patriots any advantage early in the game, because every team changes signals from week-to-week (sometimes from quarter-to-quarter). Even if someone from the Patriots studied videotape of previous games, it would still take some time to decode the new defensive signals in a new game. So any advantage likely wouldn't be realized until the second half of the game. If the Patriots were very good (or the other team's coding system was very bad), they might have the signals figured out at some point in the second quarter, but it's not very likely, given everything else that happens on the sideline during a game.

So my belief is that there was likely some benefit gained through the use of videotape. It would have shown up when the Patriots offense had the ball, most likely in the second half of games. Also, given how often teams change coaching staffs and defensive signals, the advantage would most likely materialize only if the Patriots had played that team within the previous two or three years. In fact, it might be only teams they played in the particular year in question, but I'm willing to accept that studying videotape might help even a year or two later.

III. And the big question, should you burn your memorabilia from Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII, and XXXIX?

Only the NFL league offices and the Patriots know if the videotaping went back to the 2001, 2003, or 2004 seasons. Without knowing that for certain, we can't be sure if the Patriots were violating the rules, and therefore, whether or not they could have gained an unfair advantage by videotaping from the sideline. This is the only question in this entire controversy that has a "yes" or "no" answer, but neither the NFL nor the Patriots are willing to give that answer, so we're left in the dark.

I won't assume the Patriots were videotaping from the sideline during those years. But to assert that they were not would be dishonest and would end all questions right now. So if we assume that they were videotaping since Belichick took over the team, the next question is whether or not they benefited from it. I don't have the time or resources to revisit every regular season game. So to explore that question, here is a playoff-game by playoff-game breakdown of whether or not the team could have benefited, if they appeared to benefit, and how significant that benefit might have been.

The First Super Bowl Run

2001 Divisional Playoff game, Patriots 16, Raiders 13

Prior to this game, the Patriots had not played the Raiders under Bill Belichick. So this one is easy, there could not have been any existing videotape, so no advantage.

2001 AFC Championship game, Patriots 27, Steelers 17

Same as the previous paragraph; this was Belichick's first game against the Steelers as Patriots head coach, so there could not have been any advantage.

2001 Super Bowl, Patriots 20, Rams 17

The Patriots did play the Rams that season (a 24-17 loss in November). But it is very difficult to make the case that the offense had an extra leg up in the February tilt. The Patriots Super Bowl offense improved in some areas (yards per rush: from 2.6 in November to 5.3 in February, total yards: 230 to 267), stayed about the same in others (first downs: 13 to 15, yards per play: 4.7 to 4.9, sacks allowed: 2 in each game), and did worse in others (yards per pass attempt: 6.2 to 4.6, third-down conversions: 42% to 18%, net passing yards: 179 to 134).

Also, the statistics show no improvement in the second half, which is what you'd expect if they had deciphered the defensive signals. On the contrary, they got worse at third-down conversions (33% to 0%), completed fewer passes (63.6% to 56.3%), and had fewer first downs (8 to 7). And note that those second-half numbers include the Patriots final drive, during which there probably weren't any defensive signals used on the majority of plays (since it was a two-minute drill).

The Rams lost this Super Bowl because they turned the ball over and gave the Patriots the short field too often. The Pats scored on an INT-return, scored on drives of 40 yards and 14 yards after turnovers, and scored on a drive of 53 yards to end the game. Other than that, the team's average possession was 4.6 plays for 20 yards and they punted at the end of every one. I don't see how your numbers could be that bad if you knew what the defense was doing.

So I'd suggest keeping your Super Bowl XXXVI jersey and hat -- the Pats won this one fair and square.

The Second Super Bowl Run

2003 Divisional Playoff game, Patriots 17, Titans 14

This one is easy. The Patriots beat the Titans 38-30 during the regular season, and were *worse* in every significant offensive statistic in this game. It's true the earlier game was played in great weather and the playoff game was the coldest in Foxboro history. But this little factoid clinches it: the Patriots scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives and only managed a field goal in the last seven drives. So their offense was much worse in the second half, which runs counter to what you'd expect if they knew what defense was being called.

2003 AFC Championship game, Patriots 24, Colts 14

The Patriots beat the Colts 38-34 in Indy that November, and it's tough to say with certainty whether they might have gained some advantage if they were videotaping the Colts defensive signals. The Pats scored 14 fewer points in the playoff rematch, and in the second game, they scored more than half of their points on the first three drives of the game. But their offense performed better statistically in several areas, when compared from the first game to the second one (total yards went from 282 to 349, sacks from 2 to 0, rushing average from 2.4 to 3.5 per carry, and time of possession from 27:56 to 32:14).

There were three other factors that weight heavily on the game. First, the second game was a Patriots home game (advantage Patriots), but the weather was very cold (which one would presume would suppress scoring), and of course, Peyton Manning was bedeviled by the Patriots defense (four interceptions).

So again, the question of whether or not videotaping (if it was happening in the 2003 season) might have helped the Patriots is a tough one. I lean against it, mostly because the Patriots scored 13 of their 22 offensive points before they would have had a chance to figure out Indy's defensive signals, and the yardage and efficiency statistics show no significant improvement in the second half. Also, if the Pats knew the Colts defensive signals, how could they possibly score just six points on three second-half possessions inside the Indy ten yard-line. However, my mind is not made up on this one, and anyone with valid points to make should be taken seriously.

2003 Super Bowl, Patriots 32, Panthers 29

With the back-and-forth nature of this game, and all the scoring in the final quarter, this game seems like a natural to view with suspicion. The Patriots offense did play better in the second half, improving in rushing yards, passing yards, yard per pass attempt, and first downs.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the Patriots hadn't played the Panthers in two years, *and* the Panthers changed their coaching staff and defensive schemes right after that previous meeting (the last game of the 2001 season). So videotape or not, there was no way they could have gotten an unfair advantage over the Carolina defense, because the defense and signals would have been completely different.

So I think you can keep your Super Bowl XXXVIII sweatshirt and pennant. But if an Indy fan wants to argue the point, just listen politely and let me know what s/he says.

The Third Super Bowl Run

2004 Divisional Playoff game, Patriots 20, Colts 3

The Patriots beat the Colts 27-24 on opening day that year, and along with their two games the previous year, they had plenty of opportunity to build a video library (if they were taping signals in 2003 or 2004). And frankly, this game is the most likely so far to be one where they deciphered the Colts signals and gained some advantage from it.

In three key areas, the offensive improvement from the first half to the second half is significant. In the following categories, the Patriots offense played much better in the second half: first downs (7 to 14), third-down conversions (29% to 75%), and their first-half scoring drives resulted in field goals whereas their second-half drives resulted in touchdowns. Also, those two long touchdown drives in the second half contributed to the Colts having only four second-half possessions, making it much tougher to mount a comeback.

Granted, the Colts couldn't have won by scoring only three points; however, they might have scored more if they had the ball more than four times in the second half. So it seems to me that if (and that's a big "if") the Patriots were recording defensive signals in 2004, this is one instance where you could legitimately surmise that the videotaping could have provided an advantage. The win itself probably had more to do with winning the turnover battle (3 to 0), but the doubt still remains.

2004 AFC Championship game, Patriots 41, Steelers 27

The Patriots lost to Pittsburgh earlier in the year (34-20 on Halloween Day), so the opportunity to tape from the sideline was there. But I don't think it's fair to compare offensive numbers from the two games. The Steelers routed the Pats that day, going up 24-3 in the first half. The Patriots ran the ball only six times, and with all that passing, the Steelers won the turnover battle 4-0 and the Patriots never got into any offensive rhythm at all.

However, I did compare the first and second halves of the playoff game, and it was a mixed bag at best. The Patriots offense was better at third-down conversions (25% to 50%), yards per pass attempt (12.3 to 9.3), and time-of-possession (10:19 to 18:10). But they were roughly the same in completion percentage (64% to 70%), yards per rush (3.8 to 3.9), and points scored (17 to 17). And they were worse in sacks allowed (0 to 2), total yards (173 to 149), and passing yards (135 to 72). Those numbers are the biggest mixed bag since... well, since my description of the numbers from the Patriots/Rams Super Bowl (scroll up 15 paragraphs if you forgot already).

If there was any advantage gained in this game, it was that the Patriots did a better job making (Steelers QB) Ben Roethlisberger beat them. I think they knew he wasn't ready to shoulder the entire burden in a Conference Championship game, and he ended up with three crucial interceptions. So my conclusion is that there wasn't any ill-gotten advantage.

2004 Super Bowl, Patriots 24, Eagles 21

The Patriots did play the Eagles within the two years prior to this game -- but just barely. They beat Philly 31-10 in the second week of the 2003 season, 35 games prior to their meeting in the Super Bowl. So the possibility existed that the Patriots might have had tape of the Eagles' defensive signals to study. So did it likely make any difference? Only if you believe the Pats could have figured out the defensive signs in the first 20 minutes of the game. Because that is when their offense started to crank.

The Patriots offense was shut down for the first four drives, with an average of 3.25 plays for 9.25 yards and a punt to end each one. However, they took over 20:05 into the game and their next 3 drives averaged 8 plays for 60 yards, and they scored 2 touchdowns on those drives. Also, the Patriots bettered their offensive production in the second half in the following areas: third-down conversions (20% to 43%), total yards (148 to 183), yards per pass attempt (6.3 to 8.1), and sacks allowed (2 to 0). Considering both the quick change in drive production at the 20:05 mark and the increased offensive production in the second half, this game seems more likely than any of the other playoff games to have been effected by the sideline videotaping.

I'm torn on this one. I believe the Patriots coaches are smart enough to decipher signals quickly, but most of the NFL ex-players and ex-coaches have said they don't think that's possible (at least not on a regular basis). So if you think the Patriots coaches are could have done it, then you probably believe the Pats got some advantage from their sideline videotaping. But there is another factor that could easily explain that shift in offense at 20:05 -- the Patriots maddening lack of offense early in games the week after a "bye" week (note: this game was after a week off). To break it down quickly, here is the first quarter scores for the Bill Belichick-coached Patriots after a week during which they did not play: 0, 10, 0, 0, 3, 7, 0, 10, 0, 0, 0, 14 -- for a whopping average of 3.6 points per first quarter and 7 shutouts in 14 games.

So around here, we're used to poor first quarter performance after a bye week. But given the disparity in the first and second half in this game, I'd say that it could have been affected by the Patriots use of sideline videotaping. Couple that with my feelings about the Divisional Playoff game against the Colts, and it appears that of the three Super Bowl victories, this one would be the most in question. I believe whole-heartedly that the trade for Corey Dillon and the emergence of Deion Branch, David Givens, Randall Gay (who single-covered "TO" all game long), Vince Wilfork, and Rosevelt Colvin played a much bigger role in the eventual Super Bowl victory. But the uncertainty about this playoff run remains.


The Patriots got caught doing something they shouldn't have been doing, so some will always question whether or not their Super Bowl victories were legit. I think the first one is clean beyond any doubt, the second one was almost certainly clean, and the third one has some residue of doubt associated with it. But the team will have to live with some level of doubt -- that's what happens when you break the rules.

But don't look for the NFL to strip them of any championships or for this doubt to cast a long-term cloud over the current dynasty. As I wrote earlier, the Broncos, Raiders, and Steelers either did cheat or are heavily-suspected of doing so, and their legacies are intact.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-0!

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