Passan: Let it Go, Arlen

Like every NFL team, the Cleveland Browns track what defensive coaches are doing during games. The Patriots went too far and got caught, and the NFL has dealt with it. But some want the investigation to continue - why? Rich Passan offers his take...

It is becoming more and more apparent that the way National Football League does business is more important to United States Senator Arlen Specter than the problems facing his state and the country.

How else can one explain the inability of the senior senator from Pennsylvania to let go of the Spygate case that he became interested in – and this is a guess here – strictly for political reasons?

Specter, an admitted Philadelphia Eagles fan, is doing everything he can to convince just about every professional football fan who isn't a conspiracy theorist that the New England Patriots' three Super Bowl championships were tainted. He believes the Patriots cheated when they defeated his beloved Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Despite the fact NFL boss Roger Goodell has finally tucked away the overblown Spygate fiasco, Specter continues to breathe life back into it by calling for an independent investigation.

That's because his buddies on the Senate Judiciary Committee have declined to become a part of this charade. As much as they'd like the public attention this would generate, they realize it would be an exercise in futility.

Specter wants the public to know the Patriots – most notably coach Bill Belichick – have cheated by taping the defensive signals of opposing teams on game days and using it to their benefit. And he wants the NFL to do something about it.

Well, the public knows and the league fined Belichick heavily and took away one of the Patriots' first-round picks in the recent draft. The Pats fessed up because they got caught.

But when it was reported by the Boston Herald that the Patriots also taped the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough the day before Super Bowl XXXVI, the fecal matter hit the fan again. Specter jumped all over that one.

Only one problem. It didn't happen and the Herald printed an apology recently, admitting the story was not true and no such tape existed.

Actually, the Pats benefited more from the tuck rule in the 2002 AFC Divisional playoff game against Oakland than any cheating on their way to the Super Bowl against the Rams. Raiders fans still believe they were jobbed on that play. And it had nothing to do with cheating.

Still, Specter plods on resolutely as if what happens in the NFL affects some sort of national concern.

It's not as though New England is the only team that cheats by trying to steal other teams' signals. The Patriots have lots of company in that regard. Who knows? Maybe even the Browns at one time or another.

Nothing wrong with trying to get an upper hand on what the opposition is trying to do to win games. The notion that the Browns are squeaky clean in this department stretches the line of credibility. We'll never know for certain one way or the other.

Teams can cheat is the most surreptitious of ways. Former Browns defensive coordinator Foge Fazio proved it recently in a conversation with the Plain Dealer's Tony Grossi.

"Let me tell you something, defensive coordinators," said Fazio, "if you're not being taped, they have somebody in the press box with binoculars writing down what you do every play. They write, ‘Play 1, he touched his head, touched his belt and they played cover-3.' Then when they get the [game] film, they match up the play with their notes. That's how most guys do it.

"Plus, the coaches across from you are watching you like a hawk. That's why they have wristbands. I would have 20 plays written down and signal a number and two players (on the field) would have wristbands and call the play. . . . I think a hell of a lot of people are doing it one way or the other in the league."

So what's next? Take away binoculars and all writing paraphernalia? Where does it all stop?

Cheating exists on all planes in all sports. The trick is not getting caught. And if New York Jets coach Eric Mangini had not squealed on his former boss in New England after getting blown out by the Pats in the season opener last year, Spygate probably would not have erupted.

Mangini, Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Patriots before taking the Jets top job, had to know about the taping shenanigans and decided to use it as a psychological edge. Little did he know what a Pandora's Box he opened. And Specter was all over it. Why was he the only one?

The well-intentioned, but very misguided, legislator is now calling for an independent investigation much like Major League Baseball conducted with regard to performance-enhancing drugs. The only difference is baseball commissioned the Mitchell Report after it was made it abundantly clear the sport would have to clean up its image or face Congressional intervention.

Congress has made no such move with the NFL regarding cheating. The two cases are mutually exclusive. One has a societal effect. The other isn't remotely close. One is against the law. The other isn't.

Who did the cheating hurt? Gamblers? Maybe. But anyone dumb enough to bet on sporting events deserves whatever they get.

What harm did the cheating do? How much of a competitive edge did the Patriots gain by taping opposing defensive coordinators during games? Not much when you consider all three New England Super Bowl victories were by three points with two of those victories coming in the final minutes of the game. How much of a advantage is that?

Is what Belichick did wrong? Of course it is. Just as wrong as any other coach who did it before this whole thing blew up. And he was sufficiently punished.

For now, Spygate will remain with us until Specter figures out he's just spinning his wheels or the voters of Pennsylvania decide to cast him aside in 2010.

For now, coaches will behave themselves. No more taping. No more spying. No more dirty stuff. And it'll stay that way until it finally goes away.

And that's when the cheating will start all over again. It'll be business as usual. It will continue until someone gets caught again.

See, it really never does go away.

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