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Original Issue

The NFL's Mob Mentality

Bill Belichick broke a rule; the snitch broke the coaches' code

WHEN THE Jetsspotted a Patriots on-field video assistant filming their coaching signalsduring a Sept. 9 game at the Meadowlands, it set into motion a passion playthat could have starred another North Jersey operator, Tony Soprano. Byexposing the dirty secret of his former boss, Pats coach Bill Belichick, Jetscoach Eric Mangini broke a long-held code that NFL coaches live by: Don't goagainst the family. "If he wasn't before, Mangini's dead to Belichicknow," says one head coach. "What Mangini did is a disgrace. He wouldn'tbe a coach in this league without Bill, and this is how he repays him."

CommissionerRoger Goodell ruled swiftly when he found out that New England had tapeddefensive hand signals. He fined Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 andstripped the club of a high-round 2008 draft pick. It's widely believed thatNew England has stolen signals in this manner for years, but officials fromvarious clubs acknowledge that the Pats are not the only team that does it.Last week's revelation doesn't mean the New England dynasty is a fraud, but itdoes take some shine off those three Super Bowl wins.

It may seemabsurd to think that if Belichick was blatantly violating an NFL rule—onereenforced by two NFL memos in the last year—the Jets should have ignored it.But last year the Lions and the Packers caught the Patriots taping and simplytold them to stop without informing the league. Unlike New York, they followedthe coaching fraternity's antisnitching code.

Just what is thiscode? First, don't mess with a former colleague's players, a tenet Mangini—whowas hired by Belichick in 1995 and rose from coaching-staff gofer to defensivecoordinator—violated in March 2006, just after he left New England for NewYork. Mangini signed free-agent linebacker Matt Chatham, whom the Patriots weretrying to keep. By contrast, here's what then Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, whoneeded a kicker, did that same off-season. Though the Pats' Adam Vinatieri, oneof the best of all time, was a free agent, Parcells let it be known that hewouldn't touch the kicker. Why? Vinatieri was Belichick's player, and Belichickhad been a defensive assistant and coordinator under Parcells. In anotherexample, one coach told SI last week about allowing an assistant to leave witha year remaining on his contract to join another team. There was one proviso:The team hiring the assistant couldn't sign the free agents of the team heleft. On the third day of the next free-agency period, a prime free agent fromthe assistant's old team was signed by his new team. The assistant's formerboss confronted him and said, "I'm going to tell everyone in the league Iknow what a no-good son of a bitch you are."

Second, don'tmess with a former colleague's coaches. When onetime Parcells assistant ChrisPalmer got the Browns' head job in 1999, he knew that a recommendation fromParcells, then the Jets' coach, had helped. Though Palmer wanted to hire Jetsline coach Romeo Crennel to be his defensive coordinator, Palmer didn't try toget him.

Third, don'tsnitch. The most violated rule in the NFL is the antitampering rule: Beforefree agency begins in March, contact between teams and potential free agents isprohibited. Yet several G.M.'s routinely ignore the directive, and just as manydecry the advantage they take—though not loudly enough to get the offenders introuble.

It's doubtfulthat teams' attempts to get an edge by covert methods will end with thePatriots' embarrassment. (As one coach says, the two cameras the NFL allowsteams to use for game tape could be pointed to capture coaching signals betweenplays.) But there was hope around the league that the penalties Goodell leviedagainst New England would halt the illegal use of technology. "I'm not suresports are supposed to be about who can cheat the best," Ravens defensivecoordinator Rex Ryan says. "I should be worrying about how to beat a team,not spending hours figuring out how to disguise what I'm doing. I hope thisgets us back to football the way it should be."

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