Wednesday, May 14, 2008

And This Time I Mean It (The Last Spygate Post)

Listening to Mike and Mike yesterday morning (I know, I know), I caught the results of a number of polls that to me seem to indicate that people are just downright ignorant as to what spygate was all about.

The polls indicated that 1) 40 some odd percent of respondents thought the video taping of signals gave the Patriots a significant advantage (as opposed to a slight advantage or no advantage) and 2) 40 some odd percent of respondents believed that, despite what Roger Goodell said, the Patriots used these tapes during games to gain some sort of advantage. Now I'm certainly blogging here to defend the Patriots, but what I'm defending them from is outright lunacy that seems to be believed by nearly half of the sports viewing public.

I'll be clear about something. Belichick did wrong and the Patriots did wrong and, honestly, neither have been forthcoming about what really happened. But I don't want to talk about levels of deceptiveness or how evil Bill Belichick is, I want to discuss the relative advantages of stealing signals in general and the advantages of stealing signals via videotaping versus more traditional methods that would be permitted under the rules.

But before we get into all that, I just have to point out some of the lunacy I was talking about. First, there's the ridiculous notion- expressed by Mike and Mike listeners and numerous commenters on ESPN.com- that the Patriots dynasty is tainted because players knew exactly what was coming at them and knew exactly what the man in front of them was going to do. Outright nonsense- we'll get into the specifics of defensive play calling in a second, but think for a moment about how knowing defensive signals actually helps an offensive player. Knowing when an unusual blitz or stunt is coming is a big help. But, if your an ordinary left tackle or wide receiver for example, it's not very much help to know that the man in front of you is going to cover you or the man in front of you is going to get to the quarterback.

Then of course you have the notion that these tapes were literally used during games, another ridiculous notion. The advantage of taping signals as opposed to just watching them is that it gives you time to study them. To think the Patriots used these tapes in game is to ignore the logistics. Was there someone running around, taking the tape of each defensive series, grabbing another tape of the play on the field, running them back to the locker room, synchronizing the signals with the individual plays, and studying them all in time to garner worthwhile information before the end of the game? Here's the thing, vast archives of illegal tapes, to be studied at a later date makes perfect sense, fitting right in line with Belichick's personality as a coach. The in-game possibility I just mentioned seems like insanity, not to mention the likelihood that it would give you any greater advantage than just watching signals with binoculars.

So given we can dismiss some of the more insane comments, let's deal with the question of advantage. What advantage did these tapes give the Patriots. Deep down, it's an impossible question to answer, because it is so subjective. But, in the very least, we can discuss the relative advantage such taping would and wouldn't provide.

As I noted before, every sign that was taped could have been stolen be legal methods. The question is, when taping gives you the advantage of studying, how much more information can you garner? And how hard is it to decipher signals in the first place? I think many sports fans may be thinking of these signals in terms of catcher's signs in baseball. I don't know the specifics of how signs work, but I guarantee that deciphering them is not the same as knowing one means fastball.

There probably is a great deal more that can be picked up through study- to actually figure out that X signal corresponds with Y defensive call, you actually need to figure out what Y defensive call actually is. As anyone who's ever watched football film before, film study is a long, arduous process. To figure out what every defensive player is doing takes some time. (More evidence that the Patriots did not use the films in-game.) I imagine many obvious signals can be picked up without the use of tape- unusual blitzes or unusual coverages. Maybe the more subtle stunts or oft-used coverages can be figured out to a greater extent through study. But not being in the game- and I doubt even those in the game- could say with any certainty what percentage of signals you can get through legal methods and what percentage of signals you could get through taping and study.

Even with the knowledge of signals, there's the even greater question of what use those signals are in game situations. According to Matt Walsh, a Patriots player would watch for signals and relay that information to offensive play caller Charlie Weiss. We have no indication Tom Brady knew about the taping or that he knew he was being given information based on stolen signals. I doubt they'd want him to know, because the truth is, there's no such thing as certainty. There's the question of the reliability of the interpretation of the signals and there's the ever present lingering doubts that the signals may have changed or the defenders might not actually do what they're supposed to do. That's tough for a play caller, even tougher for the quarterback on the field.

I just have a lot of questions- really subjective questions- about how useful this information was. I'm sure there was some advantage involved (in a moment I'll point out situations where the Patriots may have used that advantage), but deep down, my gut tells me that we'd be talking about a few instances in a few games. From having played football and having seriously watched football since the 80's, it's just hard for me to comprehend that knowing some defensive signals translates into significant value for the offense.

The question is, how much of an advantage is it to know the blitz coming at you? Think about it for a second- how often can quarterback's pick up a blitz just by reading the defense? That's what Peyton Manning does all the time. And just like when you pick up something at the line of scrimmage, knowing a blitz doesn't change the fact that you need to have the proper play call on, the proper protection, and most importantly, you need everyone to execute.

Many coaches and former players have pointed out that teams sometimes change their signals, even in-season. Regardless, the fact that the Patriots taped the signals of everyone show, without a doubt, that the efforts of their spying program vastly outweighed the benefits. They taped because that's what they did, not because they were literally trying to ooze immediate advantages from every taped circumstances. One of the tapes handed over by Walsh was of the Patriots 2002 week four game with the San Diego Chargers, a non-division opponent whom the Patriots would not play again until 2005. As I've been saying, regardless of how much advantage was gained, the real point of the program seems to have been a paranoid thoroughness more than anything else.

Other than the obvious divisional matchups, there are six times when the Patriots played an opponent for the second time in the season. In 2003, in their first game againast the Titans, the Patriots won 38-30. In the playoffs, they won again, 17-14. In their first game againast the Colts in 2003 the Pats won 38-34. In the second, they won 24-14. In 2004, after beating the Colts 27-24 in week one, they beat them in the playoffs, 20-3. The Patriots lost their first game in 2004 to the Steelers, 34-20, before defeating them for the AFC Championship game, 41-27.In 2005, the Patriots lost to the Broncos 28-20, before losing to the Broncos again in the playoffs, 27-13. And in 2006, the Patriots lost to the Colts at home in the regular season, 27-24, before losing at the RCA Dome in the AFC Championship, 38-34.

So in 6 games, a record of 4-2 and more importantly, they scored fewer points in the second game 4 out of 6 times. Not to look to each and every division game, but in the 2001-2006 period, the Patriots were 15-5 in second (or third) matchups againast division opponents. (Their record in first matchups? 15-4.) In those 20 rematches, the Patriots scored more points than the first matchup 11 times. These are hardly numbers that look like trends indicating some significant advantage.

And I know, I know- the real advantage was probably much more subtle- a play here or a play there. But my point in writing all this is to raise some questions as to just what these advantages mean. For example, allow me to cite to two cases where, perhaps, the studying of signals via tape from a previous game may have given the Patriots the opportunity to make a big play. An early one that comes to mind is back in 2001, when the Patriots played the Colts in Indy only a few weeks after crushing them in Foxboro. Some of you may remember this as the game David Patten caught, ran, and passed for a touchdown. The one he caught was a 90 some-odd yard bomb from Tom Brady that found Patten matched in single coverage. Here we have a big play and a scenario where maybe, just maybe, the Pats could have been relying on their study of taped signals.

My other example would be in the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh in 2005. With a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, the Patriots stopped the Steelers on a 4th and 1, taking over at their own 40. The Patriots went with a play action pass on first down, and Brady hit Deion Branch- who found himself singled up- for a 60 yard touchdown. Again, maybe, a call made in part because of reliance on taped signals.

So does this sound like I'm giving in to the spygate hype? Of course not. Let's go back to knowing what defensive signals means. Knowing you have a receiver matched up in single coverage is useful- it's what teams try to do all the time, through formation, through motion, and through the standard study of the defense on the field. Good players and good teams tend to be good because they have a better idea of what's coming at them. When JeMarcus Russell plays for the Raiders this year, he's going to have no idea what's going on. Peyton Manning on the other hand, is usually in control of the game. So once again I'll ask- how can you tell- how can you ever really know- the significance of knowing some signs ahead of time?

Beyond knowledge though, is the even more important factor of execution. In both of the cases I cited, it's possible that the Patriots put themselves in the right situation through regular film study or even just by pure luck. Regardless of how they got there, it wouldn't have mattered if the entire team wasn't executing efficiently- offensive linemen picking up all the pass rushers giving Brady time to throw the ball, Brady taking the right amount of time and throwing a catchable pass, and the receiver running the proper route and holding on to the ball. I don't think anyone can sit there with a straight face and tell me what percentage of success is execution and what percentage is the right call.

And ultimately this is my point. That you have so much ambiguity because of the very essence of what football is that you can't ever really know precisely what advantage s the Patriots gained through taping. As I've demonstrated any number of ways, those advantages could not have been significant. We can point to possible individual circumstances as I have done, but because there are no large, noticeable trends, you have to assume that these advantages were few and far between. Because here's the thing. Either there were a lot of the David Patten/Deion Branch situations mentioned above, meaning that it's difficult to take advantage of those sorts of situations, or there weren't very many of those situations, meaning the very thing I've been saying, that the opportunity to use stolen signals in any significant manner is limited.

It's nearly been the end of me having to listen to all these moronic sports fans and reactionary ex-NFL players who never bothered to actually think any of this out. I know we're not done yet, even though we should be, mostly because of the most ridiculous, pompous member of the Senate, Arlen Specter. I'll entertain discussions as to what the spying meant- as I've said, I think some of these discussions go to the very heart of football. But come on, just no more ridiculousness about the integrity of the game or banning Bill Belichick for life (as someone on Mike and Mike suggested).

Just a final note, about another historical cheating scandal which I had forgotten about- Another salary cap violation, this one by the Denver Broncos in their 97-98 Super Bowl run and, from that same team, an incident when they were discovered filming a San Diego Chargers practice. The were sanctioned back in the day and I don't want to downplay the need for fines and penalties in the wake of any rule breaking. But as I've been saying, there's a big difference between rule breaking and professional football being closer to professional wrestling than a real competitive sport. If you want to get down into the nitty gritty, I'd love to see it, here on this blog, or anywhere else. But 40 some-odd percent of sports fans believing that the advantages gained through taping were significant and that despite what's been said (and common sense) he Patriots were utilizing these tapes in-game? That's the different between intelligent discussion and conspiracy mongering.

4 Comments:

Anonymous b.rose said...

Twins Right, split left.

Lone receiver on left runs a fly.

Inside receiver on right runs a post and the outside receiver runs a fly right on the sideline.

If the D is in a cover three they're in excellent shape and if they're in a cover 2 you're talking about a TD. Two safeties over the top each with half a field to cover and two corners jamming and then playing the flat. Receiver on left occupies the safety on that side and keeps him wide, away from the middle of the field, inside receiver on right goes deep middle and outside guy on right runs a fly on the sideline. Two safeties, three guys, one safety is getting flooded. Three deep routes obviously are very unusual to call, but just an example.

If I know you're in a cover three, with your linebacker having to get to the flat rather than a corner sitting in the flat, I think I'll have Wes Welker take two steps and turn around for an easy catch and 8 yard run.

Your blog was incredibly detailed and well thought out, but the bottom line and reality is simple: if I know you're in a cover 2 I have a route combination for you that you can't cover. If I know you're in a cover 2 in part because im taping your signals, then I just gained a pretty substantial advantage no? I mean you said "hey there's a guy in front of me and he's gonna cover me, wheres the advantage there" or something along those lines and that was one of the few pieces of your writing that I think is an oversimplification that leads to a pretty incorrect conclusion about the value of knowing a coverage.

1:12 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

You're right in a way, but in talking about the "man in front of you" scenario I was using the specific language used by some of the ESPN commenters.

And you're right about cover two ... sort of. But it gets back to exactly the point I was making about football being complex. If you're playing the Colts, you know you're going to see a hell of a lot of cover 2. The old Bucs team from a few years backs lined up in cover 2 virtually every snap and dared you to beat them. Cover 2 is a simple defense to run, an easy defense to read, but can a bitch when executed by a skilled, disciplined team.

Cover 2 can be vulnerable to multiple receiver packages in general, which is why teams that utilize cover two will, at times, change up their coverage when offenses put in their multiple receiver packages.

As I said in my long post, there are plenty of circumstances already in which the quarterback knows- or is fairly certain of- the coverage.

As I mentioned before, specific instances are worth talking about, but history reveals a real lack of any sort of a sustained advantage. Everything you say makes perfect sense, except that it was never ever played out in real life on any sort of a consistent basis.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous b.rose said...

Your account of the Pats results when playing teams a second time was a good way to try to figure out if any of this played out, but it was predicated on assumptions that you outlined. You made a good case for those assumptions, but they aren't fact, so when you say that this stuff didn't play out, you're saying based on these assumptions being true it didn't play out.

Here's a very poor argument, backed up by nothing, but something I've noted about the Pats for years. They get people open. Wide open. They've been getting average receivers wide open for years. Prior to Spygate I just assumed the Pats were the single best coached team ever, in any sport and that their playcalling was as good as anything anyone's ever seen since Bill Walsh. I still believe their coaching staff as a whole is in a league of its own, but I'm never going to feel comfortable ruling out that somehow Jabar Gaffney and these other clowns, after not being able to get open their entire careers were aided not only by incredible play calling, but by something extra.

One other thing really bothers me. People are coming down on Belichick for putting his players in this spot now that the players are getting criticized a bit. HELLO! Belichick is the reason that Vrabel has his name mentioned with the likes of real studs like Junior Seau, he's the reason Brady is talked about with Montana, he's the reason Bruschi wasn't forcibly retired 5 years ago when he became such a physical liability that only the Pats emphasis on IQ allowed him to keep playing, Belichick is the reason Kevin Faulk is Kevin Faulk and not John Avery in the CFL because BILL BELICHICK GOT THE ABSOLUTE MOST OUT OF EVERY SINGLE SKILL THAT ANY OF HIS PLAYERS HAD. People want to talk about how they are mad Belichick put his players in this spot, PLEASE.

The Patriots success isn't because of the heart and dedication and skill of their players. There's plenty of that to go around in the league. Their success begins and ends with Bill Belichick, as big a jerk as he is.

If i had to start an nfl franchise and I could have one person...it's not gonna be LT, or Julius Peppers or Adrian Peterson. I'm taking Bill Belichick.

3:00 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

And yeah, your right, Belichick deserves tons of credit, but herein lies the beauty of football.

Look at the differences in the Patriots teams of 2004 (that dominated nearly as much as last year's team and was actually better in the playoffs), 2005 (which spent half the year unable to play defense and were twice dominated by a Bronco team that wasn't as good as their 13-3 record), 2006 (which went 12-4, played solid, not dominating defense, and had trouble throwing the ball all year), and 2007 (the offensive juggernaut that slowed in the playoffs).

Certainly Belichick deserves the lions share of the credit for their success, but look at all the factors that go into football success- not even just the players and their talents, but your coaching staff and the job they do, and all the little in-game situations that make fans realize that Herm Edwards is a terrible coach no matter how hard he gets his players to work.

Baseball is beautifully simple, football beautifully complex.

4:06 PM  

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