<
>

Advance scouting makes spying unnecessary

There is no question that New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick crossed the line by having a member of his video crew film the Jets coaches during their Week 1 win. The big question on everyone's mind is why he would do it. The Patriots are clearly the superior team and would not need this advantage to beat an out-manned Jets team today, tomorrow or any other day this season.

It seems simple to say the advantage is not worth the risk. It certainly wasn't intended to help in Week 1, and while the Patriots could have possibly learned some defensive signals and anticipated something the next time they played New York, it wouldn't be much more than they could learn through an advance scouting report. Those reports are the real keys to the coaches' preparation for an opponent. They are detailed breakdowns of a team and are invaluable in creating a game plan.

In my five years working in pro personnel with the Cleveland Browns, one of my jobs was to scout upcoming opponents and create that advance scouting report. So while the Browns would be preparing to play, say, the Bengals, I would be looking ahead to the next week's game against Pittsburgh. I would study the film of the Steelers, looking for formations, tendencies and anything that might help formulate a game plan.

On Sunday, while the Browns were in Cincinnati, I would be in the press box in Pittsburgh. This is a common practice and league bylaws actually state that no team shall prevent a member of an upcoming opponent from attending a game in that capacity.

I used a pair of binoculars and prepared sheets to chart what I saw. I would look at the "formation caller" for the upcoming opponent. Most every team has an offensive coach who stands on the sideline and sends in a personnel grouping, and he is usually easy to find because he'll wear a different colored shirt or a backwards cap or some other distinguishing characteristic. This allows the offensive huddle to recognize him amidst the chaos of an NFL sideline on game day.

It was my job to chart what signals he gave and which players came in and out of the game. Is it a three-receiver or four-receiver package? Is it a short-yardage package or are they in their base personnel with two running backs, two receivers and one tight end? This is very valuable to a defensive coaching staff because the quicker they can determine what the offense is doing, the sooner they can adjust their personnel to get that extra defensive back or defensive lineman into the game.

For a time, teams used a "deke" in which they would run offensive personnel halfway onto the field and then call them back to confuse defensive coaches, but the league has since instituted a rule that says once an offensive player gets past the numbers he must continue to the huddle or be assessed a penalty.

Once you watch a team a few times the scouting gets easier as teams generally do not switch their personnel grouping signals. I tracked Pittsburgh for five years and their signals were the same the entire time. Ditto for Baltimore. Teams that run the West Coast offense – Seahawks, Eagles, Packers -- are all similar as well. When coaches branch out from a coaching tree they tend to take signals with them.

After the game I headed back to Cleveland to prepare a report including everything from the signals for personnel groupings and formations, player evaluations, special teams numbers and any alignments and tendencies I discovered during film study or while watching live.

For example, if I'm scouting Pittsburgh I know that at some point on a clutch third-and-short the Steelers will run the fake dive to the fullback and pitch to the tailback. They love that play and will use it late in the game when they really need the yards. Little things like that can make the difference between winning and losing.

I then handed out copies of the advance scouting report book on Monday morning and met with individual coaches to go over it before they got together to work on the game plan that night.

That's why New England filming the opposing coaches is mind-boggling to me. There is not a lot left uncovered by advance scouting and what's not there can often be found in films shot during games. Teams are allowed to have a camera on top of the press box and one in the end zone, and that film goes to the NFL Dub Center and is distributed out to other NFL teams. And note that the film shot from above the press box is just of the field. It does not capture the coaches and their movements.

So maybe the Patriots wanted a little more knowledge the pro personnel people could give them. There are certain things you can pick up if you know the language, but not all pro personnel people speak it fluently. For instance, I once scouted a Rams-Panthers game and saw the St. Louis defensive signal caller twice hold up two fingers and then roll his hands like he was rolling dough. I took this to mean they were in a Cover 2 roll with the roll going to WR Steve Smith's side, but I could not really confirm that because after the snap of the ball I had to move the binoculars to see the entire play. Plus, I only played as far as high school, and even as the son of an NFL coach who spent his entire life around the game it was nearly impossible to consistently pickup which signals dictate certain blitz or coverage packages.

But remember, some coaches don't change signals very often -- if at all -- so maybe the Patriots thought picking up signals would help them in future games. But how? Perhaps after breaking the huddle they could alert Tom Brady as to defense was signaled in and he could check off to another play, but teams check off at the line constantly anyway. Maybe it helps with line calls and expecting blitzes and stunts, but what if Brady is told to expect one thing but something entirely different comes, which is entirely possible. Does that really help?

And even if the Patriots have been doing something like this for awhile it is doubtful the players on their team knew about it. I mean, let's be serious: there is no way a coaching staff would tell 53 players about something like that and expect that it would never get out.

What the Patriots did was wrong, but one of the things that has been missed in all this is that the contents of that tape would have had zero impact on the game. The data they gathered was to be tucked away for another day. Yes, the Patriots "cheated." But are their Super Bowl titles tainted? No. Is Bill Belichick still the best coach in the NFL? Yes. What they would have gotten would have amounted to maybe a small fraction of what they already know anyway.

New England deserved to be punished. Commissioner Roger Goodell did just that Thursday night when he fined Belichick and the team, and said the Patriots will forfeit at least one draft pick. The Patriots could have relied on their pro personnel scout in the box or a camera in the sky and still come away with 95 percent of what they need to win on a weekly basis. This is just an example of a team being greedy and going for the entire 100 percent all in one shot.

Jeremy Green, director of pro scouting for Scouts Inc., has been an NFL scout for more than 10 years.