Thanks to CameraGate, the Jets were handed a free pass for getting creamed in Week 1. On Sunday night, the Chargers were given a similar free pass by NBC. Since the network already had its story line in place — “San Diego seeks revenge against the lying and cheating Patriots!!!” — it couldn’t deviate from that story for three hours, even as the Pats were slapping together one of the most dominating performances in a ballyhooed regular-season game in recent memory. So allow me to point out some of the stuff NBC glossed over.
When you were watching Sunday night’s game, did you realize that …
… the Patriots’ punter stepped onto the field once?
… Sammy Morris finished with twice as many fantasy points as LaDainian Tomlinson? Yeah, the same Tomlinson about whom John Madden gushed was “more confident” than anyone he’d ever seen Saturday night.
… the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick for a guy who has 17 catches, 288 yards and three touchdowns through two games and has to be double-teamed at all times? One of the most talented offensive players in recent NFL history has been completely and totally rejuvenated, which means we have one more fun player in an already fun league. Do you care?
… when new linebacker Adalius Thomas baited Philip Rivers into throwing to Antonio Gates, jumped the pattern and hijacked the pass for a touchdown, it was exactly the type of play the slow New England linebackers couldn’t have made last season?
… playing with more than one quality receiver for the first time in his career, Brady has gone 47-for-59 (81 percent) for 576 yards, six TDs and one interception so far? Isn’t there a potentially fun “What would have happened if Brady had Manning’s supporting cast and Manning had Brady’s supporting cast for the last six years?” argument developing here? Do you care?
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… with under four minutes left in the game, on the tail end of a 10-minute drive inside the San Diego 5-yard line, the Patriots went for it on fourth-and-1 with a 17-point lead? Normally, you kick a field goal there, so there’s no lingering bad blood afterward, only the Patriots said, “Screw these guys. We’re running Morris behind the left side of the line, and even though the Chargers know it’s coming, there’s no way they’re stopping it.” So that’s what they did. And Morris careened into the end zone for a score, one of those classic in-your-face moments that make football the greatest American sport. I love when good teams do that. It’s the height of arrogance. You’re basically telling the other team, “If we meet in January, remember this moment.” Of course, Madden and Michaels glossed over it because they were too busy trying to figure out which picture to put on a horse trailer.
… that the 2007 Chargers are overrated? Yeah, they have talent. Yeah, they have Tomlinson. Yeah, they can make some plays on defense. But they have the worst receivers of any potential playoff team. They have the worst coaching staff of any potential playoff team. And if that’s not enough, their quarterback hasn’t proven he can deliver in a big game yet. Everyone glossed over these problems heading into the season because it was boring to pick the Colts or Patriots, so the Chargers became the “sexy” AFC pick, even though they choked at home last January and decided to put their 2007 season in the hands of Norv Turner and Ted Cottrell. There are real questions about them now, only we didn’t hear anyone asking them Sunday night.
No, NBC was too determined to blow out CameraGate. Before the game, Andrea Kramer reported Turner was taking precautions from a secrecy standpoint, refusing to allow any Patriots personnel into his locker room and even handing his players the first 15 plays Sunday morning instead of Saturday night. Her appropriate reaction should have been, “Wow, making your players paranoid isn’t the best way to prepare for a big game, no wonder Norv has been such an underachieving loser for his entire coaching career.” But Kramer was treating the topic so seriously and breathlessly, you would have thought she was standing in Iraq with missiles going off behind her.
Same for you, Cris Collinsworth. You spent halftime ignoring that the Patriots had just announced Week 1 wasn’t a fluke and exposed some serious chinks in the whole “San Diego is a Super Bowl contender” armor, choosing to rehash the same disgusted CameraGate reactions we’d already seen on “Inside the NFL” and “American Night of Football” (or whatever the hell that pregame show is called). Really, we’re delighted you still have such a strong and predictable opinion about a beaten-into-the-ground story, but there are three no-doubt-about-it Super Bowl contenders — Indy, New England and San Diego — and one of those three teams was annihilating one of the other three teams. I don’t know, this seemed kind of relevant at halftime.
Look, I know everyone now assumes the Patriots have been cheating for the past six years, even though they hadn’t been penalized even once before last weekend; even though no coach or player has left New England since 2002 and blown the whistle on them; and even though the New England players were fired up Sunday night, partly because everyone has been so eager to stick an asterisk next to everything that’s happened from 2001-2007 (check this Jackie MacMullan column for more details).
Our “evidence” that there may have been a prolonged pattern of cheating last week came from “unnamed sources” and players who had already lost big games to the Patriots and seemed excited to have an excuse after all these years. (Kordell Stewart, where were you last week? We were waiting to hear from you!) This is a league in which every coordinator calls in plays by holding a sheet over his mouth so nobody can read his lips. And yet, the Patriots videotaped another team’s signals for three-fourths of a quarter and everyone reacted like they kidnapped a Jets assistant and tortured him for information or something.
Lemme ask you two questions:
1. Is there a chance — just a chance — Belichick has gotten a little paranoid in his old age, and since an undermanned Jets team played them closely in all three Pats-Jets games last season, he spent the spring and summer wondering if Mangini had figured out a way to steal their signals, so he decided to tape their coaches in Week 1 to see if that was true? And then he got caught?
2. Is there a chance Roger Goodell is doing the “I’m leaving no stone unturned” routine because he’s so determined to show everyone there’s a new sheriff in town (shades of Reggie Hammond at Torchy’s), and because it’s becoming more and more obvious the previous administration was asleep at the wheel on anything and everything except the next TV deal?
Scenario 1 doesn’t seem completely unrealistic. Neither does Scenario 2. So why is everyone so anxious to make the leap that one indiscretion equals a six-year pattern of behavior, and there’s more to this story simply because Goodell publicly (and loudly) demanded the Patriots turn over all their tapes, notes and recordings? If this pattern of inappropriate behavior had been happening for six years, wouldn’t they have been caught before Sept. 9, 2007? Wouldn’t a league filled with coaches and executives who obviously hate and resent the Pats have been dying to blow the whistle on them? Wouldn’t one disgruntled ex-Pat over the past five years (and there have been many) have blown the whistle on them just to stick it to Belichick? And are we honestly supposed to believe nobody else was doing this?
The Patriots cheated in one game. They got caught, they paid the price. Like every other Pats fan, I hate what happened and continue to be disappointed that our coach pulled a Nixon on us. I don’t know how many times I can write this. They are the villains of the NFL. The Belichick era has been tainted. When the coach passes away some day, CameraGate will be mentioned within the first two paragraphs of his obituary. I can’t argue with any of these points, just like I can’t think of a good response for all the good-natured crap that my friends have been giving me. Watching football at a buddy’s house on Sunday in Southern California, my friend Hench and I endured roughly 2,675 cheater-related jokes over seven hours. We can’t fight back. There’s no way to fight back. If the roles were reversed, I’d be cracking the same jokes. Believe me.
But since they’ve already paid a steep penalty for a one-time indiscretion, can we move on with the 2007 NFL season, please? Is everyone done piling on and competing in the “The Race To See Who Can Seem The Most Disgusted and Outraged” contest? As a Massachusetts reader named Sidewinder e-mailed me Friday, “I can’t believe how hysterical Peter King sounded on WEEI when talking about Belichick’s indiscretion. Talk about getting his skirt up in a bunch. Does this guy realize sports is the toy department of life? Save the righteous indignation for the 9/11 anniversary or the waste of a generation in Iraq.”
See, that’s the thing. It’s sports. People cheat. People do bad things. People make mistakes. It’s just like real life, only it doesn’t matter nearly as much.
We live in a world in which global-warming activists charter private jets to take them from speech to speech, then tell people not to use so much toilet paper. We live in a world in which American kids are getting killed every day in the Middle East and nobody will mobilize a valid protest until the President finally decides, “We’re having a draft lottery.” We live in a world in which you can Google the female star of the most popular Disney TV movie ever and see her naked, and NBC runs a popular show in which they trap potential child predators and film the confrontations on TV. We live in a world in which high school kids can decide they don’t like another high school kid, so they can build an anonymous slam page and libel the hell out of him, and even though this happens and keeps happening, we still don’t have any set-in-stone Internet laws to prevent this. We live in a world in which Perez Hilton and TMZ.com get their own TV shows, but “Friday Night Lights” is two months away from getting canceled. We live in a world in which every home run record from the past 10 years has to be taken not just with a grain of salt, but an entire salt shaker.
So save me the moral indignation about CameraGate. The whole world is screwed up. We watch football every week because the games are entertaining, because it’s something to do, because it gives us something to discuss with our friends, co-workers and family members. If you’re searching for a football-related moral cause with some meat, watch this month’s feature about Earl Campbell on “Costas Now.” He’s the Texas hero who got chewed up and spit out by professional football; now he suffers from crippling back and knee problems and needs a cane or a wheelchair to get around. The NFL makes roughly a kajillion dollars a year, only its player’s union doesn’t give two craps about a deteriorating ex-star like Campbell, one of the watershed stars of the ’70s and someone who helped push the league to its current heights. They have a lame pension program and no disability benefits, and they have a union head (Gene Upshaw) who openly admits he’s paid to worry about current players and not former ones … even though he’s a former player himself. Of course, that story isn’t nearly as controversial as the current Patriots scandal because we can’t slap a “Gate” behind it. Too bad.
Anyway, when the Patriots and Colts play in Week 9 to determine alpha dog status for the 2007 season, if you’re not attached to either team but find yourself rooting for the Colts because Tony Dungy is a better person than Bill Belichick and a better example for your kids, … well, you’re probably right. That’s a legitimate reason to root for one team over another. I don’t blame you. Let’s just hope that, by Week 9, we’re enjoying the football season again. That was a fascinating Chargers-Pats game Sunday night for a number of reasons, only nobody outside of New England seemed to notice. Especially the network that was broadcasting it.
One more thing: Everyone keeps saying Belichick’s legacy has been tainted by the events of Sept. 9. And it definitely has. There’s no question. But if you picked the Chargers to win or cover last night, you can’t deny that sinking feeling you had during the first quarter, when NBC showed Belichick on one sideline and Turner on the other, and you thought to yourself, “I’m an idiot, what the hell was I thinking?” Belichick might not be the best role model, but he’s still the best football coach alive. More importantly, Norv Turner is still Norv Turner. One mistake can’t change either of those things. You should have known better.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can check out his revamped “Sports Guy’s World” site here.