Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Stealing Signals is Cheating. Who Knew?

There has been an abundance of outrage over the airwaves and in print about the latest scandal to rock the National Football League. Are you ready for this? Are you sitting down?

It turns out that the New England Patriots may have been video-taping opposing coaches' hand signals to their defenses in an effort to "steal" those signals.

Shocking, I know.

Apparently there is an NFL rule which prohibits teams from video-taping an opponent's sideline, whether from their own sideline or from the coaches boxes atop the stadium. Fair enough - if the Patriots broke a league rule, they should be punished.

But I have a more basic question. When did "stealing" hand signals become cheating? I feel like I'm missing something important.

When I played football in high school we always had a scouting report on the other team. Some reports were better than others. Sometimes it was just basic offensive and defensive sets, their favorite plays, trick plays to watch for, and so forth. Sometimes the scouting report was more detailed, and would include strong tendencies in certain down-and-distance situations. Sometimes we knew that if the opponent lined up in a certain formation they were going to run either of two plays (they were that predictable). We might know that if they put number 89 in at TE, they were going to throw to him for sure. Once, we knew that our opponent's "hot color" for audibles was always "red," and that if they audibled using the hot color, what play they liked to audible to.

When we had really good scouting reports, we certainly played better. Were we cheating? Is knowing an opponent's tendencies or habits cheating?

It used to be that players on the field called the plays. The quarterback called the offensive plays in the huddle. The offense always huddled five yards off the ball so the defense couldn't hear. What if the defense did hear? Was that cheating? Or was that being careless calling your plays? Eventually coaches decided they wanted to call plays instead of the QB, so they would send a player to the huddle with the play from the sideline. But that takes time, and restricts your flexibility with personnel. So they turned to signals.

I'm going to pose a series of hypothetical scenarios, and you tell me when the cheating occurs:

  1. The coach yells from his sideline to his defense on the field "Two deep zone, blitz the strong side!" The offensive players hear the shouting and change their play.
  2. The coach yells the same thing from the sideline to his defense on the field, but does so in Spanish instead of English. The wide receiver on that side of the offensive formation understands Spanish and tells the QB what's going on, so he calls an audible.
  3. The coach has a white board and he writes on it in big letters "Two Deep Zone, blitz the strong side" and holds it over his head so his players on the field can read it. The opposing coach standing on his own sideline reads the white board and calls his play accordingly.
  4. Same scenario as 3, but the coach writes on the board "2D, BS." The opposing coach cracks the code and figures out that "2D" is two deep and "BS" is blitz strong, and makes his play call accordingly.
  5. Same scenario as 4, except the coach writes on the board "Bronco, Kangaroo." The opposing coach doesn't crack the code during the game, but other coaches scouting the game from the stands are taking notes of the white board messages and the corresponding defenses being run. The following week that coach prepares his team to play based upon what he has learned about his opponent's code system.
  6. Same scenario as 5, except that instead of a white board and code words, the coach signals his team with a series of odd hand signals. Scouts in the stands take note of the signals and later, while watching game film, are able to figure out that when the opposing coach uses a slashing "Z" signal, the team runs an all-out blitz.
  7. Same scenario as 6, except instead of the scouts just taking notes, they actually have a mini-cam with them and record the signals for use later when studying the game film.
Apparently, the NFL has decided that scenario 7 is illegal under league rules. In my mind though, scenario 7 is not substantively different than the other scenarios. It's more sophisticated, but not substantively different. If a team is using a means of communicating play calls to its players that can be readily seen or heard by the opponent on the field or on the opposing sideline, then the opponent is entitled to try to break the code. It's up to the team using codes or signals to find a system that is secure. Like letting the linebacker call the play in the huddle. Or shuttling in the plays. Or using a wrist band with numbers that change every week (or even every half).

Now, it's different if a team has installed a wiretap on the headsets used by opposing coaches. Or if they're using sophisticated eavesdropping equipment to overhear conversations on an opponent's bench. Or if they have a stolen copy of the other team's playbook, including that week's hand signals appendix. That's cheating.

The use of hand signals is an attempt to gain a competitive edge. It allows the defensive play to be called from the sideline by a coach, rather than by a less knowledgeable player, after seeing what personnel group the offense is deploying and without the need to substitute personnel. But if a team is sending hand signals that everyone in the stadium can see, the opponent is entitled to try to figure out the hand signal code in an effort to offset that competitive edge.

At least that's how I see it. To me, it just seems obvious. Which explains my confusion about the current "scandal" and the accompanying outrage. Of course, most media "outrage" is faked, but am I missing something here?


Sir john said...

Everything is fair. If you noticed in the past few years Coaches now cover their mouth with a card when speaking in the head phones. That's to defeat "lip readers" which each team hires to monitor their calls. Being deaf, I am well aware of all of that. Press your CC (closed caption) button on your remote to look see. You will find that what we call a 'real time CC' person doping the game blab by all the talking heads.
Sometimes it's as easy as pie other times difficult for me to decifer but always fun knowing the call before you get it.

OC Domer said...

Sir John -

You're exactly right. The coaches cover their mouths. Many teams use two or three players to signal plays at the same time, with one or two of the guys being decoys. Stealing signs is absolutely normal.

That said, if the NFL says videotape crosses the line, then the Pats need to be punished. But I just don't see this as a major violation.

Irish8990 said...

I agree with your points, but I believe the conduct is still "cheating" in this context. The Pats have chosen to be in a league with other teams and that league has appointed a competition committee to enact rules by which the members agree to play. Whether sensible or not, there is a rule about vide-taping the opposing sideline and the Pats did it anyway. Other teams have not done it (or have not been caught doing it) to the Pats presumably because of the existence of the rule. Therefore, the Pats have obtained a competitive advantage by disregarding a rule that other teams have chosen to follow. That is cheating. In the white board examples you give, you do not factor in a hypothetical rule that opposing coaches are not to look at the white board used by the opposition. A ridiculous fictional rule, I know, but then you would be comparing apples and apples.

sir john said...

Back when, with the Cleveland (old) Browns I could call every play Coach Brown would do. My Dad was amazed. I'd say something like It will be a run over left tackle by Jim Brown. It wasn't stealing or lip reading, It was just I was able to get into Coach Browns boreing repetitive offense and know the call. His Hey day was long gone.