Thursday September 13th, 2007

Maybe we can chalk it up to the envy that has been inspired by the Patriots' level of dominance within the NFL over the course of this decade. Maybe it has something to do with the natural human tendency to grow tired of seeing any one person or entity win more than their fair share of the glory and acclaim. Or perhaps it's just the conspiracy theorist in all of us, that part that tends to lean toward believing the darkest, most sinister scenario we can conjure up.

But if there's an element to the Patriots' camera-gate story that has surprised me this week, it's how the incident has opened the door to questioning everything New England has accomplished, from their storybook Super Bowl run of 2001 on. No matter what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decides in terms of punishment, the real collateral damage incurred by the Patriots is the hit that their three Super Bowl-ring legacy is taking, and the mental asterisk that some now seem willing to assign to their dynasty.

And we're not just talking about what the fans and the media are weighing in with. The attention span of those two groups are so short as to be comical. The scandal du jour is always capable of being completely forgotten by next week, once we've all screamed ourselves hoarse spouting quick-take opinions.

Instead, it is the willingness of players and coaches around the NFL to not only wade in and comment on the topic of the Patriots' cheating, but how quickly they have applied it retroactively that has caught me somewhat off guard. Steelers receiver Hines Ward referenced Pittsburgh's two AFC title game losses to New England ('01, '04) and allowed that "you kind of wonder'' if the Patriots were engaged in any videotaped sign-stealing in those games.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Steelers teammate DeShea Townsend "felt like [the Patriots] cheated in the AFC Championship Game [in '04]. You have to punish them.''

Giants defensive end Michael Strahan told reporters that he had questions about "how long they've been doing this and did it really help them win some games?''

New York wasn't one of the three NFC teams that New England has defeated by a combined nine points in their Super Bowl wins, but Strahan said he now questions "if they've been doing it in those games that they've won Super Bowls in, or playoff games.'' Strahan even went so far as to say the Patriots' transgressions weren't "that much different than the cheating ref in basketball.''

Packers legend Brett Favre called the Patriots' video subterfuge "a serious issue,'' and said such practices "can cross the line,'' and give a team "a huge advantage.'' He admits that he now questions whether the Patriots were cheating in a game last year against the Vikings that he watched on tape for scouting purposes.

"I watched the Minnesota game [a 31-7 New England win] because we were playing them the following week, or two weeks later -- they were just flawless,'' Favre said. "Now, maybe [I question them]. Before, no.''

That's the genie that's now out of the bottle in New England, and there won't be any way to completely put it back in. Everyone who has been beaten by the Patriots in the Bill Belichick era now has the option to question the legitimacy of their victories, and that's a reality that New England didn't have to contend with just five days ago. That there is even a debate about whether the Patriots' greatness was partially aided by means of technology detracts from their accomplishments. They've already lost the benefit of the doubt in some people's minds, and that's taint enough, no matter how Goodell rules.

Belichick's fellow head coaches haven't exactly closed ranks around another member of their fraternity this week, have they? You can certainly understand where that group, which has been consistently beaten by Belichick this decade, could be feeling a healthy dose of sour grapes. But I was taken aback a bit by how no other NFL head coach seemed willing to give the Patriots a pass on this issue, winking at the whole Jets, Spies and Videotape incident.

Colts head coach Tony Dungy said it would be "disturbing'' if the Patriots are found guilty of stealing signs via videotape, a determination that the league reportedly has already made. "You kind of feel like there's a code of honor, a code of ethics in the league,'' Dungy added.

Steelers' first-year head coach Mike Tomlin was the Vikings defensive coordinator in the '06 game that Favre alluded to the Patriots as being "flawless.'' Asked about New England's reputation within the league for sign-stealing, Tomlin this week said: "Usually where there is smoke, there's fire. Those rumors are founded on something. So it's not totally shocking, no.''

Both Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher and his Baltimore counterpart, Brian Billick, weighed into the controversy on a limited basis, in essence saying that anyone caught disregarding NFL rules should pay the price. In other words, even three-time Super Bowl winners who might be merely practicing what others have done elsewhere in the NFL.

The thing is, even before Goodell announces a punishment for New England's crime, the Patriots already have paid a price. They're tarnished goods in some people's eyes, and last week's revelation that New England veteran safety Rodney Harrison has been suspended for four games by the league for HGH use only serves as another contributing factor to the erosion of the Patriots' reputation.

The mind-boggling part of it all is that the risk Belichick and his staff brazenly took -- just 10 miles or so from Goodell's Park Avenue office -- wasn't remotely worth it. Not from a football strategy standpoint, and especially not in terms of what the Patriots stood to lose in regards to their legacy.

You know who should be the maddest at Belichick and the cloud of suspicion that his actions have cast on the organization? The Patriots players themselves who were a part of those three Super Bowl championships. If those successes were all legitimate, as they very likely were, then those players have every right to be furious at the notion that this damage to their legacy was entirely self-inflicted. And for what? A competitive edge that they already have in spades, in most cases, thanks to their superior players, coaches and preparation skills.

It's ironic, really. The Patriots should have been the last team in the NFL to resort to cheating. They had more to protect in terms of their reputation, because they had more to lose.

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