Tag Archives: Coaches

The Deflategate disaster

Is it possible to talk about Deflategate and leave emotion — which runs high on both sides — on the inactive list? Let’s try.

As you may have noticed, a large faction of NFL Nation has been doing backflips since the league announced its ruling, which suspends Tom Brady for four games, fines the Patriots $1 million and strips them of first- and fourth-round draft picks next year. What Roger Goodell did is kind of like what Sheriff Bullock did to George Hearst, the mining mogul, in Deadwood. The commissioner didn’t just throw Brady in jail, he took him there by the ear.

Sheriff Bullock escorts George Hearst to the hoosegow in "Deadwood."

Sheriff Bullock escorts George Hearst to the hoosegow in “Deadwood.”

It isn’t hard to understand the lust for Patriots blood that rages in the other 31 NFL cities. New England hasn’t just owned the league the last 14 seasons, winning four Super Bowls, it’s done it, at times, very annoyingly. Pro football has always been a few-holds-barred enterprise, but the Pats seem to glory in testing boundaries and flouting rules — whether it’s videotaping defensive signals, fooling with the air pressure in balls or some other bit of only-whispered-about subterfuge.

I mean, we get it, fellas, we really do. For Bill Belichick, son of a longtime Navy coach, football is Total War (minus the bullets, the drones, the IEDs, the fatalities . . . did I leave anything out?). Or to put it another way: Nobody worried about whether Grant had too many men on the field at Vicksburg.

The lengths the Patriots have gone to in their pursuit of victory have diminished their considerable accomplishments. They’re on one of the great runs in NFL history, but they’ve left fans wondering — with some justification — how much of their success is due to their willingness to step over the line, to operate in the Gray Area.

Of course, pro football has always had its villains. In the early years, no one had anything on the Bears’ George Halas in the ruthlessness department. Later on, Al Davis’ Raiders were the team people loved to hate. Belichick’s Patriots are merely the latest in the line, and probably not the worst. You could get away with so much more in the days before saturation media coverage and omnipresent security cameras. Heck, the home team used to pay the officials, and some clubs played a lot more home games than others.

Nevertheless, this latest Patriots scandal seems far more overinflated than the balls were underinflated. It broke at the most visible time of the season, in the run-up to the Super Bowl, and it raged pretty much out of control until Tuesday, when Goodell meted out his punishment. The NFL tried, feebly, to contain it, but the rumors, leaks and innuendo flew — and kept on flying — until the Wells Report was finally released 108 days later. It was yet another reminder that the most powerful league on the planet seems to have forgotten how to manage crises.

But let’s move on. One of the problems with this scandal is that folks can’t agree on whether Brady was guilty of a felony, a misdemeanor or an even lesser offense — like jaywalking — for his assumed role in this circus. Maybe the gravity (or lack thereof) of the situation will become clearer if we take a trip back in time. For starters, underinflated footballs have never been much of an issue in the NFL before now. Fascinating, don’t you think? A search of various newspaper archives the other day turned up almost nothing — since 1960, at least.

There was one story, in 1973, about the Steelers accusing the Raiders of “dirty tricks.” (And this was after a 17-9 win!) They “complained that the Raiders had smeared their uniforms with a greasy substance, had underinflated the footballs and had written obscenities on one of them,” The Associated Press reported. “There were also complaints that the Oakland Coliseum clock was not operated properly.”

Several days later — days, mind you, not months — the NFL handed down its verdict: not guilty.

“As for the deflated ball,” league publicist Don Weiss said, “all were checked, as prescribed by rule, by the officials prior to the game” and had the required 12 ½-to-13 ½ pounds of pressure. “Balls were changed frequently because of the rainy, wet weather,” he added. “When [Pittsburgh center] Ray Mansfield told the umpire, Tom Hensley, he felt one ball was under-inflated, Hensley honored his request automatically, just as he’d honor any other request, and replaced the ball.

“No official saw any ball with anything written on it, nor was it brought to their attention.”

And that was that. You get the impression the NFL — in those days, at least — just refused to deal with such Mickey Mouse accusations. There was no grand inquisition, no 243-page, multimillion-dollar report. A few phone calls were made, and the matter was dispensed with. The last thing the league wanted was to have a charge like that hanging in the air for the rest of the season. It simply wasn’t important enough. Football air pressure? Good lord.

If the Colts had bitched about the Patriots to Bert Bell, the commissioner in the ’40s and ’50s, my guess is that he would have rolled his eyes and said, “Do you guys really want to go down this road? First of all, you just got beat 45-7. Whatever happened with those footballs, it’s not the reason you lost the game. But beyond that, we’re talking about the air in the balls. How many things are less significant, in the grand scheme of things, than the air in the balls?

“Why do you think the rule reads ‘12 ½ to 13 ½ pounds’? Because there’s no magic number. There’s just a range we’d like to see teams adhere to, more or less. The rulebook, you’ll notice, doesn’t say you need to gain 8 to 10 yards for a first down. It doesn’t say you should kick off from the 40- to 42-yard line. But it does say the ball should be inflated to 12 ½ to 13 ½ pounds, because there’s some flexibility there. Let’s not get all bent of shape because the pressure might be a touch low or a touch high. We’ve got so many bigger fish to fry than that.

“Besides, this is football. If you piss and moan about something trivial like this, you may live to regret it. I think back to my own days as a coach and owner. If another team had raised a fuss about my quarterback throwing deflated footballs, I would have found a way to get even, and it might not have been pretty.”

In late January, when Deflategate became a cause célèbre, I wrote a post about Redskins legend Sammy Baugh telling the clubhouse man to underinflate balls — to 11 ½ pounds — because they “felt better to me.” Nobody, apparently, noticed or gave it a second thought. It’s interesting, too, that these slightly deflated balls didn’t hurt Baugh’s punting any. For a long time, in fact, he had the highest career average in history: 45.1 yards.

“Bootleg footballs” they were called. In the first few decades, especially — when the ball was fatter and harder to pass — clubs were known to Get Creative with the “wind-jammed pig rind” (Paul Gallico’s classic term). In a pro game between Canton and Massillon in 1905, 15 years before the NFL was born, the Tigers supplied a ball that was “the kind you would use in high school,” Dr. Harry March, the Giants’ first general manger, wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs. “It weighed about 10 ounces instead of the 16 ounces now required in all regular games, either amateur or professional. It was the kind of ball one could use in a kindergarten, as it would not hurt a male infant if kicked in his face. . . .

“[Canton Coach Blondy] Wallace protested . . . but was told that the contract put the selection of the ball up to the home team, and the one on hand was the one which would be played with that day. If he did not want to accept it, he could take his marbles and minions and go back to Canton. Naturally, that was the ball played with that afternoon. The game was a Massillon victory. They had been practicing weeks before with this featherweight ovoid and could handle it like magicians. The superiority of the Canton kickers was wiped out by this one bit of strategy.”

Bootleg footballs graphicThis sort of behavior was finally addressed by the college football Rules Committee – whose lead the NFL usually followed – in 1929. The year before, according to The New York Times, “reports began to come in that strangely shaped balls had been observed in play – balls with ‘snouts ideally adapted to gripping for forward passing’ – and that dealers were selling ‘either passing balls or kicking balls’ at the option of the buyer.

Reports also were received of overinflation of the football, the oval in some instances being blown up to 50 pounds of pressure, or more than three times the correct poundage, with a consequence that booting the ball felt like kicking a radiator or a hat with a brick in it. A punter capable of getting 40 yards with the genuine article thus could get no more than 27 or 28 yards with the rock-like counterfeit.

Blowing up the ball by guesswork at the corner garage, [committee chairman Edward K. Hall] said, naturally caused wide variation in the amount of inflation, and this, as well as the strange case of the snouted ball, his committee has already undertaken to remedy.

Under the rules for 1929 the use of a new apparatus designed to measure a football in length and width, after the manner of the foot-size gauge in shoe stores, will become compulsory. The referee before the game will slip the ball into this box-like contrivance and determine in an instant when a football is not a football within the meaning of the committee.

After that, you heard hardly a peep about footballs not meeting specifications. As long as the balls were, well, in the ballpark size-wise, everything was copacetic. And remember, for decades the home team furnished the balls — and inflated them to suit their own quarterback, not the visitors’. Baugh told me the Steelers liked to use a ball made by Goldsmith that had “10 laces instead of eight, and it was just fatter than everything. . . . You could throw it, but it was a different kind of ball.”

And now, all these years later, we have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time getting suspended for a quarter of the season for the Deflategate fiasco. It just doesn’t seem possible. For this, Tom Brady is going to be branded with a scarlet D?

But then, these are different times from the ’20s and ’70s, more judgmental in some respects. (Or maybe it’s just that social media can turn any molehill into a mountain in the space of 140 characters.) We also, let’s not forget, have a commissioner who’d been under fire for his laxness in dealing with disciplinary cases — and who may very well have overreacted to Deflategate to make up for his initial underreaction to Ray Rice’s Frazieresque left hook.

Those who rooted for Goodell to make an example of Brady and his “outlaw” team love to talk about The Integrity of the Game. Sorry, everybody, but that horse left the barn long ago — if, indeed, it was ever in the barn. Respect for the rules in the NFL has always been grudging. Coaches and players are forever trying to bend them, twist them and circumvent them in ways totally contrary to the spirit of said rules.

That’s sports for you. Find a loophole, create a (temporary) edge. Some call it cheating, others gamesmanship. In truth, it’s probably a little of both, but the point is: It’s engrained — and you’re dreaming if you think much can be done about it.

The question then becomes: What “crimes” are you going to punish? Or, more to the point, are you going to punish a quarterback for conspiring to shrink the size of the ball, almost imperceptibly, so he feels more confident throwing it? I say “feels more confident throwing it” because it’s not certain Brady enjoyed any real competitive advantage. As Peter King pointed out the other day, there’s little difference in the last nine seasons between Tom’s passer rating in home games (100.2) vs. road games (99.7). And in road games, obviously, he doesn’t have the Patriots’ ballboys with him.

Are deflated footballs Tom Brady's garter belt?

Are Tom Brady’s deflated footballs like Nuke LaLoosh’s garter belt?

It may well be that Brady prefers a softer ball because he’s always thrown a softer ball, all the way back to his days at Michigan. In other words, the effect might be more psychological than measurable — like Nuke LaLoosh pitching better in Bull Durham when he wears a garter belt. Fully inflated balls certainly didn’t take away from Tom’s performance in the second half of the AFC championship game (12 of 14 for 131 yards and two touchdowns) . . . or in the Super Bowl (37 of 50 for 328 and four scores). In those six quarters he had a rating of 114.

Here’s what defies logic: The NFL has spent the last 80-odd years catering to quarterbacks by (a.) slimming down the ball (most recently in 1988), (b.) adjusting the rules to open up the passing game and (c.) making it easier, generally, to play the position (see: intentional grounding). It’s also getting harder and harder to hit the passer without drawing a flag. He’s got a “strike zone” these days the size of Eddie Gaedel’s.

In 2006 Brady and Peyton Manning mobilized quarterbacks and convinced the league to let them decide which balls would be used in games. This enabled them to practice with the balls during the week and have them prepared to their individual liking — rougher, smoother, more inflated, less inflated, etc. As a result, passing stats have exploded, scoring is at record highs and profits, naturally, keep going up and up.

After all this coddling of quarterbacks, the NFL is putting its foot down nowNow it’s saying, “This is going too far. Ball pressure can’t fall below 12 ½ pounds”?

Why on earth not? Does football cease being football under those conditions? Does the ball become so squeezable that fumbles, an increasingly endangered species, become extinct? (By the way, it’s not like any of this impacts the kicking game, because kickers are now required to use straight-from-the-factory K balls — a move brought about by widespread doctoring of the ball.

Which reminds me: Does anybody recall a kicker being suspended for four games, or any games, for sticking a ball in a microwave to “get it ready”? No? Wanna know why? Because once upon a time, the NFL had a sense of proportion. When an issue like this came up, it didn’t launch a four-month, multimillion-dollar investigation. It merely said, “We have to provide more supervision. Clearly, teams can’t be left to their own devices.” And the issue went away.

This whole Brady business is the silliest of stands for the league to take. It shouldn’t matter if the Patriots quarterback is partial to a slightly underinflated ball, just as it shouldn’t matter if Aaron Rodgers likes ’em overinflated. If it doesn’t change the game in some undesirable way, why would anyone make a big deal of it.

Unless, that is, he had an agenda, one that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with “protecting The Shield” . . . or whatever Goodell’s objective is.Deflated football

1944 technology

The NFL is so high tech now that you can forget how primitive things used to be. So here’s a reminder: a screen shot of Bears assistant Luke Johnsos, phone pressed to his ear, giving instructions to the bench during a 1944 game against the Cleveland Rams at Wrigley Field.

Johnsos isn’t sitting in a coaches box, either. He’s perched in the front row of the upper deck. To his left is a Navy man, presumably on leave. Behind him is a fan consulting what appears to be a game program. (In 1944, when most of the league was away at war — and teams were suiting up anybody with four working limbs — you definitely couldn’t tell the players without a program.)

Johnsos was one of the first “press-box coaches,” as they were called (because they were sometimes seated among the newspaper guys). But the practice goes at least as far back as the 1934 title game between the Giants and Bears – the famed Sneakers Game. In its story the next day, The New York Times reported:

With Lou Little, Columbia’s coach, sitting up in the stands and phoning to the bench, Steve Owen directing down there and [Ken] Strong playing one of the greatest games any back has turned in, the Giants came back to win.

Assistant coach Luke Johnsos supplying the Bears sideline with intelligence in 1944.

Assistant coach Luke Johnsos supplying the Bears sideline with intelligence in 1944.

Sources: YouTube, pro-football-reference.com

Intra-division coaching moves

There are no non-compete clauses in NFL coaching contracts. If a coach gets fired and wants to take a job with another team in the same division — or even if he doesn’t get fired (see: Bill Parcells) — he’s free to do so. And so we have the Jets getting rid of Rex Ryan, and Ryan moving on to Buffalo, where he’ll have the chance to torment his old employer twice a year.

This is a rare happening in pro football, especially since there wasn’t any Cooling-Off Period — no season or two as a defensive coordinator, no tour of duty as a TV talking head — before Ryan got another head-coaching gig. He’s jumping right back in the saddle . . . in the AFC East. Don’t you just love it?

According to my research, there have been only six coaching moves like Ryan’s in NFL history — four in the modern era (since 1960), two in the early days. And get this: The four most recent ones all have been in the AFC East. (Or should we start calling it The Division of Eternal Intrigue?) This isn’t, moreover, the first time the Bills have been involved in such a switch, and it isn’t the Jets’ maiden voyage, either. The details:

● Rex Ryan, Jets to Bills, 2015.

Record with Jets (2009-14): 50-52 overall, 4-2 playoffs. High point(s): Lost AFC title games in 2009 (30-17 to Colts) and ’10 (24-19 to Steelers).

Comment: Ryan was 7-5 vs. Buffalo in his six seasons with the Jets, so for that reason alone it’s a good hire, right? Plus, he gets to continue his blood feud with the Patriots’ Bill Belichick, and that’s always entertaining.

● Bill Parcells, Patriots to Jets, 1997.

Record with Patriots (1993-96): 34-34 overall, 2-2 playoffs. High point: Lost Super Bowl 31 to Packers, 35-21.

Record with Jets (1997-99): 30-20 overall, 1-1 playoffs, 4-2 vs. Patriots. High point: Lost 1998 AFC title game to Broncos, 23-10.

Comment: This was one of the messier exits, with jilted New England owner Bob Kraft demanding compensation and getting it (including a No. 1 pick). Even Parcells has come to regret his decision. The Patriots, after all, were young and ready to win big. But Kraft wasn’t the man who’d hired him (previous owner James Orthwein was), so it was easier to bail out at the end of his four-year deal.

The Colts let this guy leave. Oops.

Three years earlier, the Colts let this guy leave. Oops.

● Don Shula, Colts to Dolphins, 1970.

Record with Colts (1963-69): 73-26-4 overall, 2-3 playoffs. High points(s): Lost 1964 title game to Browns, 27-0. Lost Super Bowl III to Jets, 16-7 (after beating Cleveland, 34-0, for NFL championship).

Record with Dolphins (1970-95): 274-147-2 overall, 17-14 playoffs, 36-17 vs. Colts. High point(s): Went to five more Super Bowls and won two, the first of which capped a perfect season (17-0) — still the only one in the NFL’s 95 years. Blanked Baltimore 21-0 in the 1971 AFC title game.

Comment: This might have been the last shot fired in the NFL-AFL war. The two leagues merged in 1970, with the Colts, Steelers and Browns joining the AFC to balance the conferences (that is, give each of them 13 clubs). Baltimore was reassigned from the NFL Coastal Division to the AFC East. But before the season began, Dolphins owner Joe Robbie lured Shula to Miami by giving him a piece of the franchise and the coach-general manager title.

The Colts were none too pleased, even though Shula had asked permission to speak to Robbie. Their general manager, Don Klosterman, accused the Dolphins of “tampering” and said, “I think this was handled in a subversive manner. . . . In pro football, you are supposed to follow protocol whenever you would like to hire an individual from another team. . . . This isn’t the way for members of the football fraternity to carry on.”

Baltimore ended up getting a first-round pick as compensation (running back Don McCauley) and actually won the Super Bowl that season under new coach Don McCafferty. But, well, look at the results. Shula went on to a Hall of Fame career in Miami — and routinely beat the Colts in his 26 years there. Baltimore, meanwhile, soon changed owners (from Carroll Rosenbloom to Robert Irsay), then changed cities (hello, Indianapolis) and didn’t regain its mojo until Bill Polian and Peyton Manning arrived on the scene in the late ’90s.

(Of course, you have to remember: At the time, there were questions — legitimate ones — about whether Shula could win the big one. That’s about the Colts’ only defense for letting him get away.)

● Lou Saban, Patriots to Bills, 1962.

Record with Patriots (1960-61): 7-12 overall, no playoffs. High point(s): Nobody died.

Record with Bills (1962-65 — the first of his two terms in Buffalo): 38-18-3 overall, 2-1 postseason, 4-4-1 vs. Patriots. High points(s): AFL titles in 1964 and ’65.

Comment: The Patriots fired Saban five games into their second season. Then the Bills job opened up and Travelin’ Lou went to Buffalo. With the quarterback tandem of Jack Kemp and Daryle Lamonica and the league’s best defense, he won two championships before ambling off to the University of Maryland in 1966 (one of the more puzzling coaching moves of all time). He lost a division playoff to the Patriots in ’63, but evened the score the following year with a 24-14 win at Fenway Park that put Buffalo in the title game (and kept the Pats out).

Dutch Clark card● Dutch Clark, Lions to Cleveland Rams, 1939.

Record with Lions (1937-38): 14-8 overall, no playoffs. High point(s): Finished second in the West both seasons with 7-4 records.

Record with Rams (1939-42): 16-26-2 overall, no playoffs, 4-4 vs. Lions.

Comment: Clark was a player-coach with the Lions . . . and only a coach with the Rams. That’s one of biggest reasons he wasn’t more successful in Cleveland. He really could have used a Hall of Fame back like himself (not that Parker Hall was any slouch). Dutch tried to makes a comeback as a player in 1939, but his old team wanted compensation (which the Rams were unwilling to pay). As commissioner Carl Storck explained it: “He was transferred to Cleveland as a coach by mutual agreement of the Lions and the Cleveland organization, as well as Dutch Clark. The only way he can play Sunday is to buy his full release.”

● Lud Wray, Redskins to Eagles, 1933.

Record with Redskins (1932): 4-4-2 (good for fourth place in the days before playoffs).

Record with Eagles (1933-35): 9-21-1 overall, no playoffs, 1-2 vs. Redskins.

Comment: Wray has the distinction of being the first coach of both the Redskins (when they were known as the Boston Braves) and the Eagles. He left Boston after one season — things were much more free-flowing then — because he and Bert Bell, his former Penn teammate, bought the Philadelphia franchise (which had been dormant since the demise of the Frankfort Yellow Jackets in 1931). The Eagles were absolutely dreadful in the pre-war years, though, and Bell eventually took control of the team (and, for a spell, coached it).

As you can see, it’s a mixed bag of outcomes here. Shula made the Colts look bad — as Saban did the Patriots — but there was nothing catastrophic about the other intra-division moves. Which side of the fence Ryan ends up on is anyone’s guess.

Bill Parcells and Patriots owner Bob Kraft pretending to get along at Super Bowl 31.

Bill Parcells and Patriots owner Bob Kraft pretending to get along at Super Bowl 31.

Cheating: an NFL tradition for 95 years

One of the many questions I was dying to ask Lions great Glenn Presnell when I interviewed him decades ago was this: How was your 1936 Detroit team able to run the ball better than anybody else in pro football history?

This is no exaggeration. The Lions that year had three of the top six rushers in the league: Ace Gutowsky, Dutch Clark and Ernie Caddel. (Presnell, in his final season at 31, was more of a role player.) Working out of the single wing, without much of a passing threat, they rushed for 2,885 yards in 12 games. No club before or since has topped their average of 240.4 yards a game, not even the handful of clubs with two 1,000-yard rushers. (Next best: the O.J. Simpson-fueled 1973 Bills at 220.6.)

Lions team photoThis was no grind-it-out, three-yards-and-a-glob-of-mud attack, either. The Lions averaged 4.9 yards per attempt, far above the league average of 3.5. So, I asked Presnell, “How did you do it? How did you set a record in 1936 that still stands today?” I shouldn’t have been surprised by his answer, I suppose — being a Veteran Scribe and all — but I was.

The Lions cheated. That is, their lineman fired out a split second before the ball was snapped.

“When we practiced our signals — hut one, hut two, hut three — the linemen charged on ‘hut’ and the center snapped the ball on ‘two,’ “ he said. “We always hit the defense first. [Coach] Potsy [Clark] expected those guys to explode off their marks on ‘hut.’ And of course, the center would be hanging on to the ball a split-second longer, but not enough for you to be called offside. I always attributed our good blocking to that. In fact, I coached that myself.”

With only four officials monitoring things, you could get away with plenty in the 1930s. With seven sets of eyeballs now — and TV cameras also helping to root out illegal activity — there are fewer dark corners of the field. Still, on most plays, if not all, you could probably find some act that didn’t conform to the letter of the law . . . and didn’t get penalized. A motion man ever so slightly angling himself toward the line of scrimmage. A defensive back bumping his man more than 5 yards downfield. A receiver pushing off or setting a pick. A D-lineman inching into the neutral zone. A blocker grabbing a pass rusher’s jersey. A center subtly moving the ball forward before the snap.

There are so many players milling about, so much mayhem and general mob behavior, that enforcement can seem almost arbitrary — like speeding tickets on the interstate. What we’re talking about here is a Culture of Cheating, a whatever-you-can-get-away-with mentality that’s as much a part of the game as the huddle and the touchdown celebration.

That’s why it’s hard to get worked up over what The Hysterics have dubbed Deflategate: the discovery that some of the footballs the Patriots’ Tom Brady threw in the AFC title game weren’t inflated to specifications. Sorry, but given all the stuff that goes on in every game, a pound of air pressure — or whatever it was — doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Certainly not as big as, say, the ’36 Lions’ offensive line beating the snap on every single offensive play. (I forgot to mention: They won the ’35 title playing that way, too.)

Maybe I’ve just seen and heard too much. Maybe if I were younger — and more naïve — I’d feel differently. But to me, all this huffing and puffing about Deflategate is just a bunch of hot air, something to fill the void during Pro Bowl week. Or to put it another way: If you really think this air-pressure story is stop-the-presses material, then you and I can’t possibly be watching the same game.

Here’s a column I wrote about cheating in 2007, not long after the Patriots were caught taping the signals of opponents (for which they and coach Bill Belichick were fined and stripped of a first-round draft pick).

You’ll find some interesting names in it — famous names. You might even come away feeling differently about this latest “crisis,” the one involving footballs, air pressure and Big Bad Patriots.

When George Allen was coaching the Redskins in the ’70s, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to win — trade the same draft pick twice, have his defense jam the opposing quarterback’s signals (also a no-no), grease his offensive linemen’s jerseys so they’d be harder to grab. (Or was that Al Davis?) The Cowboys’ Tom Landry was always accusing him of some kind of subterfuge or other. It’s doubtful George ever felt a twinge of regret.

Whenever the Cleveland Browns visited Wrigley Field in the old days, Paul Brown would give his team pre-game instructions in virtual pantomime. The legendary coach was utterly convinced that George Halas was bugging the visitors’ locker room. If an outsider had walked in on this scene, Cleveland Hall of Famer Mike McCormack said years later, he would have thought Brown “was coaching the State School for the Deaf.”

Not that PB was any angel. One of his favorite methods of gathering enemy intelligence was to send an underling to an opponent’s practice field posing as a newspaper reporter. No telling what useful scraps of information he might be able to pick up — particularly if the media were allowed to watch workouts. Maybe a club was working on a new formation. Maybe a star player was hurt more seriously than the coach was letting on.

There’s also the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Cleveland scout being put through a course in climbing telephone poles — after which, equipped with spiked shoes, binoculars and a notebook, he headed off on a series of surveillance missions. The Browns won an awful lot of games back then, so presumably their spy did his job well.

Such espionage has been going on in football since Alonzo Stagg was in knickers. It’s the gridiron version of the Cold War. As Kathleen Turner told William Hurt in Body Heat, “Knowledge is power.” (Actually, the entire line was: “My mother told me knowledge is power” — leaving open the possibility her mother was a Halas.)

George Allen usually did play it "his way."

George Allen usually did play it “his way.”

So there’s a dog-bites-man quality to the breathless news that the Patriots got caught videotaping the signals of the Jets’ defensive coaches Sunday. Indeed, it’s the brazenness of the act more than the act itself that astounds. Especially because, according to reports, it wasn’t the first time the Pats had done it.

It’s also, let’s face it, an incredibly tacky thing to do — kind of like a billionaire cheating on his taxes. A team that’s won three championships in this decade — and may win a couple more before it’s done — pulling a stunt like this? To think New England had an image as a classy organization.

Still, as crimes and misdemeanors go, I don’t consider “illegal videotaping” as reprehensible as, say, circumventing the salary cap, which several clubs (but not the Patriots) have been penalized for. Inasmuch as the Pats’ camera was confiscated in the first quarter, their skullduggery certainly didn’t have anything to do with their whomping of the Jets. But it might have been a factor, I suppose, in their next whomping of the Jets.

Two things should be pointed out here. First, the Jets hijacked the Patriots’ top defensive assistant last year, Eric Mangini, who no doubt brought a lot of inside knowledge about New England’s operation. This isn’t against the rules, but it’s hardly the norm for a club to fill its head coaching vacancy by raiding the staff of its division archrival.

Then there’s Bill Belichick’s background — or rather, his military mentality. Belichick grew up in Annapolis, and his father Steve was a longtime scout for the Naval Academy. So much of Bill’s secretive, often quirky behavior, I’m convinced, can be traced to that. Probably the only reason he had somebody videotaping the Jets’ coaches was because he figured an observation balloon wouldn’t have had a good enough angle.

Belichick is one of those by-all-means-necessary types — like George Allen and Genghis Khan. He’ll try to beat you any way he can, rules or no rules. It’s one of the reasons his players appreciate him; he never pulls a punch. (And if he wants to rub it in a little by summoning 99-year-old Vinny Testaverde from the bench to throw a touchdown pass for the 20th consecutive season, he’ll do that, too.)

Getting back to Allen . . . . When he was coaching the Redskins in the ’70s, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to win — trade the same draft pick twice, have his defense jam the opposing quarterback’s signals (also a no-no), grease his offensive linemen’s jerseys so they’d be harder to grab. (Or was that Al Davis?) The Cowboys’ Tom Landry was always accusing him of some kind of subterfuge or other.

It’s doubtful George ever felt a twinge of regret. He just wasn’t wired that way. And it’s doubtful Belichick will lose much sleep over whatever sentence Roger Goodell metes out. Besides, it’s easy to rationalize such behavior in the kill-or-be-killed culture of the NFL. Allen might have had some Richard Nixon in him, but don’t forget, he would remind sportswriters, “The Cowboys had a dog run into our huddle one day in the Cotton Bowl when we were driving for the winning points.”

From The Washington Times, Sept. 13, 2007

Before a road game at Wrigley Field, Browns coach George Halas would deliver his pregame talk "in pantomine," fearful the locker room was bugged.

At Wrigley Field, Browns coach Paul Brown would pantomime his pregame talk, fearful the room was bugged.

12-4 . . . and out the door

The Broncos and John Fox went their separate ways this week — despite 40 wins the past three seasons and a trip to the Super Bowl a year ago. What doomed the marriage, general manager John Elway said, is that “two years in a row, it didn’t feel like we went out kicking and screaming because of . . . the way we played the last game.”

Elway thinks the team was “right there,” that Fox had all the necessary ingredients to win a title. Of course, GMs tend to think like that. They’re the ones who gather the ingredients. He’s also disappointed, no doubt, that Fox couldn’t do with Peyton Manning what Mike Shanahan did with him late in his career: add a ring or two to his otherwise glowing resumé.

What Elway might be forgetting is that it’s much harder to win the AFC in the 2000s than it was in the ’80s and ’90s, when he played. Back then it was very much the junior conference, and its best teams often got manhandled in The Big Game by the 49ers, Redskins and the rest. (During the 16–year stretch from 1981 to 1996, the AFC won exactly one Super Bowl — and John’s Denver club lost three of them by an average of 32 points.)

It’s different now. The Patriots are on an historic 14-year run that has seen them win three championships and reach the conference title game nine times. The Steelers and Ravens, meanwhile, both have won two Super Bowls since 2000. Then there are the Colts, who knocked off the Broncos last week and might have several rings in their future as long as Andrew Luck remains ambulatory. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Luck — it’s just a more treacherous course to navigate, even if you do have Manning on your side.

But Elway, in the NFL tradition, is convinced Denver should have done better. Just win, baby. If it makes Fox — who has already found a new job with the Bears — feel any better, he’s hardly the first coach this has happened to after a successful season. In fact, in the ’40s, two were fired after taking their teams to the title game (and losing). The details:

● Marty Schottenheimer, Chargers, 2006: Went an AFC-best 14-2 in his final season, but bombed out in the playoffs against the Patriots. Club president Dean Spanos initially said

Marty Schottenheimer during his Chargers days.

Marty Schottenheimer during his Chargers days.

Schottenheimer would return the next year, then changed his mind after Marty turned down a one-year contract extension — he still had a year left on his deal — and lost four assistant coaches (one of whom he wanted to replace with his brother Brian, which didn’t please management at all). Just as problematical, according to Spanos, was Schottenheimer’s “dysfunctional” relationship with general manager A.J. Smith.

Record with the Chargers: 47-35, .573 (0-2 in the playoffs). Replaced by Norv Turner, who took San Diego to the AFC championship game in his first season and had a 59-43 (.578) record in his six years with the Bolts.

● George Seifert, 49ers, 1996: Went 12-4 in his final season, 1-1 in the playoffs (losing to the eventual champion Packers in the second round). Resigned after the club told him it wouldn’t extend his contract beyond the next year, making him a lame duck.

Record with the 49ers: 108-35, .755 (10-5 in the playoffs), two titles (1989, ’94). Replaced by Steve Mariucci, who lasted six seasons (60-43, .583) and led the Niners to one NFC championship game.

● Ted Marchibroda, Colts, 1995: Went 9-7 in his final season, but came within a Hail Mary pass in the AFC title game of reaching the Super Bowl. (Jim Harbaugh threw it, wideout Aaron Bailey

Ted Marchibroda came this close to the Super Bowl in 1995.

Ted Marchibroda and the Colts came this close to the Super Bowl in 1995.

nearly caught it.) When the team offered Marchibroda only a one-year deal — he was 64 and at the end of his contract — he rejected it and opted to become the first coach of the Ravens (the transplanted Browns).

Record with the Colts (in his second tour of duty): 32-35, .478 (2-1 the playoffs). Replaced by offensive coordinator Lindy Infante, who was fired after just two seasons when Indianapolis nosedived to 3-13 in ’97.

● Bum Phillips, Oilers, 1980: Went 11-5 in his final season, losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Raiders, who won it all. The previous two years, Houston had reached the NFC championship game but couldn’t get past the Steelers. Owner Bud Adams wanted Phillips to hire an offensive coordinator — he was the only coach in the league who didn’t have one — but Bum balked. His “adamant refusal to even consider that the offense needs some fresh blood and input weighed heavily in my decision,” Adams said. (And, truth be known, the Oilers’ attack was awfully conservative: pound away with Earl Campbell and throw to tight ends Mike Barber, Dave Casper and Rich Caster.)

Record with the Oilers: 59-38, .608 (4-3 in the playoffs). Replaced by defensive coordinator Ed Biles, who didn’t make it through his third season (8-23, .258).

● Chuck Knox, Rams, 1977: Went 10-4 in his final season, losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Vikings. This followed losses in three straight NFC title games. The year before, Knox had flirted with taking the Lions job, which didn’t exactly endear him to owner Dan Reeves. Both men were ready for a change, and Reeves was particularly interested in the Cardinals’ Don Coryell. But when St. Louis asked for a first-round pick as compensation, he decided to rehire George Allen, who had just left the Redskins. What a disaster. He ended up firing Allen during training camp — the players rebelled at his strict regimen — and promoting offensive coordinator Ray Malavasi.

Record with the Rams: 57-20-1, .737 (3-5 in the playoffs). Malavasi got the Rams to the Super Bowl in his second season — the Steelers beat them 31-19 — but was just 43-36 (.544) in his six years at the helm.

● George Allen, Rams, 1970: Went 9-4-1 in his final season, missing the playoffs (in the days before wild cards). Reeves talked about having philosophical differences with his coach, but it was more a matter of Allen’s postseason failures and the fact that neither man was easy to work with. “I was willing to cooperate with him,” George said, “but it is not my philosophy to be a ‘yes man.’”

Record with the Rams: 49-19-4, .708 (0-2 in the playoffs). Replaced by UCLA coach Tommy Prothro, who was gone two years later (14-12-2, .536).

● Clark Shaughnessy, Los Angeles Rams, 1949: Went 8-2-2 in his final season, losing in the title game to the defending champion Eagles. Reeves — there’s that name again — got rid of him the

Clark Shaughnessy, one of the fathers of the T formation.

Clark Shaughnessy, a father of the T formation.

following February, citing “internal friction between Shaughnessy and his assistants, players and others associated with the Rams.” Shag (as he was called) was stunned. “Inasmuch as this was the first time during my two years as a head coach that any expression of dissatisfaction relative to my services was made to me by any official of the Rams organization,” he said, “it leaves me at a loss for words.”

Record with the Rams: 14-8-3, .620 (0-1 in the playoffs). Replaced by line coach Joe Stydahar, who guided L.A. to the next two championship games, splitting them with the Browns (30-28 loss, 24-17 win). So maybe Reeves’ move wasn’t the worst in NFL history. But Stydahar (19-9, .679) wasn’t given much rope, either. The year after winning the title, he was dumped following a season-opening 37-7 defeat at Cleveland. As I said, his boss was a hard guy to satisfy.

● Dud DeGroot, Redskins, 1945: Went 8-2 in his final season, losing by a point (15-14) in the championship game to the Cleveland Rams (on a wickedly cold day by The Lake). George Preston Marshall, an owner not known for his patience, forced him out — DeGroot technically resigned — after just two years. The most interesting explanation I’ve come across is that Marshall wanted the Redskins to switch to sneakers during the ’45 title game because the field was frozen, but Dud refused because he and Rams coach Adam Walsh had agreed beforehand to stick with cleats. (I kid you not.)

Record with the Redskins: 14-6-1, .690 (0-1 in the playoffs). Replaced by line coach/Redskins legend Turk Edwards, who was axed at the end of his third season. (16-18-1, .471).

You can see the pattern here: Postseason misery, difficult owners, stubborn coaches and — in many cases, perhaps — unrealistic expectations. You also can see The Next Guy wasn’t usually much of an improvement over The Guy Who Preceded Him.

Anyway, John Fox, after four seasons of fine work in Denver, is off to Chicago to try to get the Bears’ house in order — and to find happiness where he can, fleeting as it is in pro football.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Marvin Lewis and the perils of January

The Bengals have made the playoffs in six of Marvin Lewis 12 seasons. You’d think congratulations would be in order — first for surviving a dozen years in any coaching job, and second for steering his team to the postseason so often. But Lewis’ 0-6 record in the playoffs has folks wondering, rightfully, whether he’ll be working in Cincinnati much longer. This is, after all, the Not For Long League. It’s not enough to just win, baby. You have to keep on winning, baby, into January and beyond.

Not that he’ll take any comfort in this, but Lewis is hardly the first coach to trip over that final hurdle. Heck, there are guys in the Hall of Fame who tripped over that final hurdle — and several others who rank high on the all-time victories list. Indeed, if there were a Misery Index for coaches, it might look something like this:


Span Coach (Titles) Teams Regular Season Playoffs
1986-01 Jim Mora Saints, Colts 125-106-0, .541 0-6, .000
2003-14 Marvin Lewis Bengals 100-90-2, .526 0-6, .000
1955-74 Sid Gillman (1) Rams, Chargers, Oilers 122-99-7, .550 1-5, .167
1931-53 Steve Owen (2) Giants 151-100-17, .595 2-8, .200
1966-77 George Allen Rams, Redskins 116-47-5, .705 2-7, .222
1984-06 Marty Schottenheimer Browns, Chiefs, 2 others 200-116-1, .613 5-13, .278
1973-86 Don Coryell Cardinals, Chargers 111-83-1, .572 3-6, .333
1992-06 Dennis Green Vikings, Cardinals 113-94-0, .546 4-8, .333
1973-94 Chuck Knox Rams, Bills, Seahawks 186-147-1, 558 7-11, .389
1967-85 Bud Grant Vikings 158-96-5, .620 10-12, .455
1994-14 Jeff Fisher Oilers/Titans, Rams 162-147-1, 524 5-6, .455
1996-08 Tony Dungy (1) Bucs, Colts 139-69-0, .688 10-12, .455

(Note: If you want to be technical about it, Grant won the NFL championship in 1969, then lost the Super Bowl to the AFL’s Chiefs. Also: Schottenheimer’s other teams were the Redskins and Chargers.)

That’s 12 coaches with 100 regular-season victories who have lost more playoff games than they’ve won. Four are in Canton (Gillman, Owen, Allen and Grant) and another has been a finalist (Coryell) and may eventually get elected. Clearly, then, a poor postseason record doesn’t have to be a reputation-killer for a coach. (And yes, Gillman’s and Owen’s situations are much different from the others’. All but one of their playoff games was a title game — back when that was the extent of pro football’s postseason.)

The biggest problem for Lewis, obviously, is the goose egg. Aside from Mora, everybody else in the group had at least one notable postseason. Owen, Gillman (AFL) and Dungy won titles; Grant, Allen and Fisher reached the Super Bowl; and Schottenheimer (three times), Coryell (twice), Green (twice) and Knox (four) all made multiple trips to the conference championship game.

As for Lewis and Mora, well, Jim probably said it best:

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Curly Lambeau, the cartoon

Bear with me on this one. If you do, I think you’ll be entertained.

Once upon a time, newspapers told the story of a game not just with photos but with cartoons — elaborate, wonderfully drawn, often funny cartoons. This one, from the Oct. 1, 1944, Milwaukee Sentinel, might be my favorite. It laughs at Packers coach Curly Lambeau’s antics during a game against the Bears the previous Sunday. Green Bay won, 42-28, but only after blowing a 28-0 lead and having to rally in the final minutes.

I found it in an old scrapbook at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That’s why the quality isn’t the greatest. (What you’re looking at is a screen shot of a PDF of a photocopy of a microfilm of the original.) But if you blow it up a little, it’s easy enough to read along — and worth the trouble, if you ask me.

A bit of background: In the ’40s, Lambeau experimented with coaching the Packers from the press box instead of the sideline. He may not have been the first to do this — Lone Star Dietz, from what I’ve read, did it a decade earlier with the Boston Redskins — but he was certainly one of the first. (And others, like the Cleveland Rams’ Buff Donelli, followed him.)

Anyway, this enabled the surrounding journalists to overhear some of Lambeau’s rantings and ravings, particularly when he got really worked up. That’s what the cartoon is based on (along with the artist’s imagination, of course). As you’ll see, Curly nearly went nuts as the Bears — behind the passing of Sid Luckman, on leave from the Merchant Marine — pulled into a 28-28 tie with 5 minutes left.

Oliver Kuechle’s story in the rival Milwaukee Journal was a classic period piece. After falling behind by four touchdowns, he wrote, the Bears “snapped back like milady’s pre-war garter.” Then there was this: “The Packers experienced all the agony of Chinese torture as they saw their apparently safe 28-0 lead slip away through the second, third and fourth quarters.”

Note that Lambeau keeps in touch with the bench by telephone. (The headset, at that point, was used only by switchboard operators.) Note, too, the pack of cigarettes sitting on the table in front of him. (This was, after all, before the Surgeon General got involved.) Finally, note that the artist’s name is Lou Grant. How beautiful is that? (If you remember, that is, the famous TV newsman played by Ed Asner.)Lambeau cartoon
Journal headline

42-28 box score in Journal

Bill Simmons’ alternate universe

Bill Simmons’ casual attitude toward historical accuracy — when it comes to pro football, at least — hit a new low Friday. A month ago, you may recall, I chided him for half-assing his way through a discussion of quarterbacks with the lowest career winning percentages. But now he’s just flat-out making stuff up. (Or would it be nicer to say: He’s relying too heavily on his fuzzy memories of the Patriots’ 1985 Super Bowl season?)

This is from his “Week 14 mailbag” for Grantland:

Is Ken Whisenhunt the worst coach of the last 30 years to make a Super Bowl? Let’s cross off every Super Bowl winner (yeah, even you, Barry Switzer) and everyone with a career record over .500 (a group that includes Bobby Ross, Lovie Smith and Jim Fassel). That leaves us with the following candidates.

  • Raymond Berry (’85 Pats): Benched a red-hot Steve Grogan for a coming-off-injury Tony Eason right before Super Bowl XX, which was the first time I learned to use the word “inexplicable” correctly. Two years later, he started a now-petrified Eason, a washed-up Grogan and someone named Tom Ramsey over hometown hero Doug Flutie. By the ’89 season, my dad and I had a running joke that Berry had passed away and the Patriots were propping up his corpse during games. When they finally fired him, the Pats replaced him with Rod Rust — who actually WAS dead. You can look it up. The 1990 Patriots were coached by a dead body. But Berry finished with a career record of 48-39, so unfortunately we have to cross him off. I’ll be honest — I just felt like bitching about Raymond Berry.

The truth of the matter: First of all, Berry’s benching of Grogan wasn’t “inexplicable.” It was, indeed, very explicable. Why? Because, as The Boston Globe reported, Grogan “fractured his tibia Grogan football cardas well as spraining ligaments in his left knee” in a 16-13 loss to the Jets in Week 12. This put Eason, who’d begun the season as the starter before suffering an injury himself, back in the lineup.

More from the Nov. 27, 1985, Globe:

Grogan underwent the two-hour surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital yesterday afternoon and will remain hospitalized for several days.

Upon his release, Grogan will be fitted with a hinged cast for a month.

Although [team physician Bert] Zarins said he would make no further estimates of Grogan’s possible return until after the cast is removed, it is unlikely Grogan could return this season regardless of how far the Patriots might go in the playoffs.

Grogan didn’t suit up again until the Patriots’ second playoff game six weeks later. So the quarterback change didn’t take place “right before Super Bowl XX,” as Simmons claimed. It took place well before Super Bowl XX (long enough before to allow Grogan to recover from a fractured tibia and sprained knee).

You can even question how “red-hot” Grogan was when he went down. The Patriots were certainly red hot, winning the first six games he played in (one off the bench, the next five as the starter). But they also gave up an average of just 11.8 points in those games. It was a team built around defense (sixth in the league points allowed) and running the ball (sixth in rushing yards), not throwing it.

But back to Grogan. Against the Jets, he completed 11 of 32 passes and had a rating of 50.4. Against the Dolphins, he threw three interceptions and had a rating of 36.2. That’s “red-hot”? Eason football card(Note, too: The Pats ended up facing those same clubs again in the postseason.)

For the year, Grogan’s numbers looked like this: 54.5 percent completions, 7 TD passes, 5 interceptions, 84.1 rating.

Eason’s numbers, after he reclaimed the starting job, looked like this: 63.2 percent completions, 7 TDs, 6 INTs, 87.1 rating. Then, in the playoffs, he strung together ratings of 132, 102.4 and 130.9 (while tossing 5 TD passes and zero picks) as the Patriots won three straight on the road over the Jets, Raiders and Dolphins.

Yes, the 46-10 bludgeoning by the Bears in the Super Bowl was painful to watch. Simmons, clearly, still hasn’t gotten over it. But that’s no reason to distort history and dump all over Raymond Berry — just because you “felt like bitching about” him.

Unfortunately in this day and age, The Rant often becomes The Reality. And so there will be Simmons fans walking around thinking Berry inexplicabled his way to the Super Bowl. The only thing that’s “inexplicable,” though, is The Sports Guy’s ridiculous misrepresentation of what really happened. I’d call it an affront to journalism, but it doesn’t even fall in that category. It’s more like the Friday mailbag version of A Million Little Pieces.

Sources: The Boston Globe, pro-football-reference.com.

"Bill? This is Raymond Berry calling from 1985. Is there anything I can help you with?

“Hello, Bill? This is Raymond Berry calling from 1985. Is there anything I can help you with?

Bud Grant without a facemask!

Since the Grey Cup was in the news this week, I thought I’d post a photo I came across of Bud Grant, during his Winnipeg Blue Bomber days, not wearing a facemask. Before Grant led the Vikings to greatness, he was a heck of a receiver, just missing a 1,000-yard season (in 12 games) with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1952.

The cutline in the Sept. 28, 1953, Winnipeg Free Press reads: “Bud Grant, Blue Bomber[s] end, pushes Saskatchewan Roughrider Harry Lampman out of the way as he goes for one of many gains he made Saturday afternoon at Taylor Field. But his running went for naught when the Blue Bombers dropped a 21-15 decision.”Bud Grant without a facemask