Tuesday December 18th, 2007

During a radio interview Tuesday morning, someone asked me if the debate about New England's Spygate episode was over now that the Patriots and Jets have had their much-anticipated but largely anti-climatic Week 15 rematch?

Not quite. Spygate may not be a front-burner issue any more, but I don't think it's ready to fade into obscurity. Not as long as the Patriots' quest for a perfect season lives on, and not with the debate over Bill Belichick's NFL Coach of the Year candidacy just starting to percolate.

The question is this: Should New England's Belichick be honored with the coach of the year award in a season in which his team was caught violating NFL rules and was punished heavily by the league commissioner? Does his situation mirror the Shawne Merriman debate of last year, when the San Diego outside linebacker had his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy challenged by some because of the four-game league suspension he served for steroid use?

Miami defensive end Jason Taylor, the most outspoken anti-Merriman voice last year, wound up winning the DPOY award handily. But in response to the out-cry over Merriman, the NFL changed its policies and barred any player from making a Pro Bowl appearance in the same season in which he served a league suspension.

The NFL Coach of the Year honor is a bit different in that it's awarded by the Associated Press, which has 50 media members who cover the league cast a ballot the day after the regular season concludes. I'm one of the voters, and early this week, I gathered a sampling of opinion from a half-dozen of my fellow voters on the Belichick issue. Not surprisingly, the responses covered both ends of the spectrum, which reflects just how polarizing this topic, and Belichick himself, has become. To wit:

"If he goes 16-0, I don't see how you don't give it to Belichick,'' said Rick Gosselin, the longtime NFL writer for the Dallas Morning News, and one of the most respected voices in our field. "I think it's a slam dunk. If they go 16-0, the bottom line is he's done something that no one in the history of football has ever done. How do you deny him, and how do you deny that?

"This is not like he's going 12-4. I don't think there's anything to grapple with. I don't understand the issue. Now, if he was caught doing something illegal in Week 16, you'd have a debate. But that is a great football team, regardless of whether they were taping in the first half of the opener at the Jets. And that is a great coach.''

Just as adamant in his opposing opinion is Clark Judge of CBS Sportsline.com. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Judge, who has covered the NFL since the early '80s, has made up his mind about his Coach of the Year ballot.

"I wouldn't vote for him,'' he said. "It is the Shawne Merriman rule. If you break the rules, you're not eligible. People said everyone's doing it, yeah, well one guy got caught. And the league thought enough of it to fine him $500,000 and take away a first-round draft pick. That's pretty serious. That's a severe, severe penalty.

"To me, you can't have it both ways," Clark adds. "If Merriman can't win it, why should a coach be able to win it? Should we hold Belichick to a different standard? I don't think so. If you break the rules, there are repercussions, and this is one of the repercussions.''

Other voters acknowledged that Spygate presents them with an obstacle to casting a vote on behalf of Belichick, in turn making other candidates perhaps even more attractive to them.

"I probably won't vote for him,'' said Ed Bouchette, a longtime Steelers beat man for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I'll vote for Mike McCarthy of Green Bay, in part because of Spygate, and I just think Green Bay has done a tremendous job with so much less. I do believe that Spygate will be an issue for voters. It has besmirched their record a little bit. It's kind of schmarmy.

"The guy was punished for illegally trying to win. My feeling is, to those people who say it wasn't that big of a deal, then why did he feel the need to do it? If he could win without it, why did he feel the need to take that advantage? I've been thinking about it all along this season, and I don't know that I could vote for him.''

Alex Marvez of Fox Sports.com is president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He's not grappling with his vote. He's firmly in favor of Belichick as coach of the year.

"To me, Spygate doesn't make it difficult,'' Marvez said. "It's not a tough call. Belichick has my vote. What he's done is unprecedented. Even if you choose to take away the first win, against the Jets, they could be 15-1. And to me they're the most fascinating team to watch in the NFL. No team changes game plans as much. No team uses their personnel in as many different ways. And no team is as smart. From a pure football standpoint, they're a joy to watch. If you could take away the smugness, they'd be even better.''

As I've written already this season, I don't think what Belichick and the Patriots were caught doing in the opener taints their perfect season in 2007 as much as it leaves open to question what they've accomplished before this year. That's the sad reality of the NFL choosing to not share anything about the results of what they found in the Patriots video library. Conspiracy theorists now have grist for their debate about those three Super Bowl victories, and whether the Patriots won with the help of some illegal means.

But I have a hard time penalizing Belichick for perfection this season, or denying his near-historic coaching performance. If the Patriots finish out 16-0, he'll get my vote, ahead of Green Bay's McCarthy. As impressive as the Packers would be if they finish 14-2, going undefeated in the tough AFC is more of an accomplishment than 14-2 in the so-so NFC. Case closed.

Bob Glauber, Newsday's NFL writer, is leaning toward McCarthy or Cleveland's Romeo Crennel, who has the upstart Browns in position to go to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. And yes, Spygate is on his radar screen regarding his vote.

"He's not going to be my choice,'' Glauber said of Belichick. "He's done an unbelievable job, but with a great group of players. He's got the horses. I'll probably go with McCarthy, because he's taking that team so much further than anyone expected. And I'll think long and hard about Romeo, because I don't know anyone who thought they'd be better than four wins this year.

"I definitely could see how people would be troubled by Spygate, and I'm troubled by it. But I think I'm more troubled by what's happened in the past," said Glauber. "It's pretty obvious he's done this without any [more] illegal videotaping this year. You can't really argue with this year's record. But then there's the thing that's so hard to get around: If he's such a great coach, why did he have to go there in the first place?''

McCarthy of underdog Green Bay also has support from Pete Prisco of CBS Sportsline.com. But he doesn't understand how you disqualify Belichick based on the perceived stain of Spygate.

"I think it's ludicrous to even be an issue,'' Prisco said. "If you're not cheating, you're not trying. But I don't think he's going to be coach of the year. I think McCarthy should be. He's got the youngest team in the league. That gets lost a little because he's got the old guy [Brett Favre] playing quarterback, but he's got the youngest players in the league and he might end up with two fewer wins than Belichick.

"But with Belichick, even if you take away the opener, he still would be a great candidate for coach of the year at 15-1. Now, if you want to go back and talk about his Super Bowl wins, that's another matter. But there's no asterisk on their season. None. Sorry, Don Shula. The truth is, he's got the best team. He's a great coach, but how hard is it to call plays with Tom Brady as your quarterback?''

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