By The Rules

Just a few thoughts because I’m procrastinating story editing…if you follow football, you’ll pick up pretty quickly what this is about. If not, be patient. I’ll get there.

I have vague memories from my youth of playing games and studying the rules, looking for strategies other people hadn’t considered. I couldn’t tell you what game, but I remember the triumphant feeling when I found an obscure rule, went over and over the strategy in my head, and applied it to win.

And I remember the shitty feeling I got when I explained to everyone else and they gave me that grudging compliment, “Oh, I never thought of that.” Implicit in there was the statement that we were playing a game, not competing to see who could read the rulebook the closest. I’d won the game, but not the same game everyone else was playing.

I haven’t done that in a long time. It just wasn’t fun. There are games where developing strategies is part of the game–Settlers of Catan, for example–and I enjoy those, but everyone there is trying to develop strategies and the rules are fairly simple. I have encountered people who still read rulebooks minutely, looking for any way to gain an advantage, people who will exploit an obscure rule and not tell anyone else about it until their strategy unfolds. I don’t play games with those people anymore.

So yes, this is about the Patriots and their wacky formations–totally legal, but not submitted to the officials the week before the game to prepare them, as teams often do (but are not required to), so that when they were declared, the officials had to make a snap decision about how to proceed and the opposing team wasn’t given time to respond (*). This is about deflated footballs, which might or might not be a big deal. This is about an NFL rulebook that is probably longer than my entire Out of Position series.

* This is not about the Patriots rolling out those same formations against a puzzlingly unprepared Colts team the following week. Some sportswriters said that the Ravens (the opponents the first week of the Patriots’ playoff run) should have been prepared because after all, a few college teams used that trick in games this season. I don’t know if pro teams employ someone to watch every college game and watch for wacky formations and catalog them and come up with responses in case an opponent uses them, but that would seem like a huge waste of a resource. In the case where your opponent used that formation the previous week and it was reported all over, it is inexcusable to be unprepared for it.

So yeah, Bill Belichick and the culture he’s created there seem to me to be a whole team of That Guy, the one who grins at you and says, “Well, it’s not against the rules, and it’s not my fault if you didn’t know about it.” In this, of course, they are at least partly right. That other teams are not scouring the rulebook for any little quirk they can exploit to gain an advantage is not the Patriots’ fault. They’ve signaled loud and clear that that’s the game they’re playing, and if you want to play on a level playing field, you have to join them, because they’re not going to stop doing it just to be level with you.

And while I think I have expressed my distaste for That Guy, I can’t fault the Patriots on this score. Football history is littered with teams exploiting rules or trying anything else for an advantage until those loopholes are closed up. The Patriots are just a cerebral version of the reputedly dirty Raiders teams of the 70s. It’s one thing to be That Guy in a game between friends. It’s another when money and prestige are at stake, and that is what all the people complaining about level playing fields know but aren’t saying. If you were an NFL owner and an interviewee for the head coaching position said, “I will do anything I can get away with to win for you,” wouldn’t you hire him?

Their success and titles won’t be erased from rulebooks. This isn’t the NCAA, and Roger Goodell is not the NFL’s Dad, coming down the basement stairs to tell everyone to play fair. In a way, this is good for the NFL because it gives them a true villain storyline, and as anyone who follows wrestling can tell you, games are always more exciting when there’s a villain. So there’ll be some punishment, some draft picks, and twenty years from now when looking back at the Patriots, there’ll always be that, “yeah, and of course they were cheating as much as they could” footnote–but it’ll be no more than a footnote.

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