Backbiting and bitterness in the inbred AFC East   

Updated: March 12, 2008, 4:26 PM ET

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It's rife with drama, bad blood and backstabbing. Its business dealings are often spiteful and incestuous. The dirty tricks played are of the same ilk you'd expect to find in a political campaign.

You might think we're alluding to "All My Children" or "Desperate Housewives."

Nope.

We're talking about the AFC East.

Don Shula

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Don Shula played a lead role when the AFC East soap opera debuted. His character came back for a series of cameos in 2007.

Think this week's news that the Jets are granting linebacker Jonathan Vilma permission to seek a trade to any team except the Patriots is unusual? It's just the latest incident in the sordid history of the AFC East.

No other division in professional sports can rival it in terms of acrimony and inbreeding by transaction. The roots of the AFC East soap opera trace all the way back to its inception in 1970.

That year, the Dolphins were accused of tampering with Colts coach Don Shula and ordered to forfeit a first-round draft pick in order to hire him away from their new division rival. The Jets already were coached by another former Colts coach, Weeb Ewbank, who had won a Super Bowl against Shula and Baltimore.

When the Dolphins scripted their perfect 17-0 championship season in 1972, two key players were former members of division foes -- quarterback Earl Morrall, an ex-Colt, and All-Pro linebacker Nick Buoniconti, a former Patriot.

When the Patriots made their first Super Bowl appearance following the 1985 season, their coach was Hall of Fame Colts receiver Raymond Berry.

The next season, the Colts hired former Pats coach Ron Meyer.

In recent years, however, the AFC East soap opera has reached new heights in backbiting. We rate each incident on a scale of one to five -- one being merely catty, five being outright vicious -- on the Page 2 melodrama scale.

Parcells defects to Jets

Bill Parcells

AP Photo/Winslow Townson

Pats fans loved Bill Parcells when he coached New England to the Super Bowl. Weeks later, they might have wished he'd caught pneumonia.

January 1997
It was one of the most poorly kept secrets in NFL history. Even as he prepared New England for Super Bowl XXXI, Pats coach Bill Parcells -- the rift between him and owner Bob Kraft growing seemingly by the day -- was headed to the Jets. His replacement? Former Jets coach Pete Carroll.

The Pats ultimately received a third- and fourth-round pick in 1997, a second-rounder in '98 and the Jets' first-round pick in '99 as compensation. The Jets also paid $300,000 to Kraft's charitable foundation.

Rating: Five. The gold standard by which all incestuous AFC East moves are judged. Not only did the Jets successfully steal Parcells, they distracted their rivals when they should have been focused on Roman numerals.




Martin fitted for new jersey

March 1998
One season later, Curtis Martin joins Parcells in the Meadowlands. Martin signed an offer sheet with the Jets as a restricted free agent. The Pats chose not to match the six-year, $36 million offer and instead got the Jets' first- and third-round picks in the upcoming draft. Martin goes on to become the Jets' career leader in rushing yards.

Rating: Four. The Jets make out like bandits for the second year in a row.




Belichick defects to Pats

Bill Belichick

Malcolm Clarke/Getty Images

Have you ever seen someone look less enthusiastic while being introduced as an NFL head coach?

January 2000
Twenty-four days after resigning as head coach of the Jets -- a span 24 times longer than his tenure as Jets head coach -- Bill Belichick is introduced as Carroll's successor in New England. As compensation, the Pats had to cough up their first-round pick in 2000 and their fourth- and seventh-rounders in '01. The Jets sent their fifth- and seventh-rounders in '02 to the Pats. Got it? Good.

Predictable fallout: The Jets promote linebackers coach -- and former Pats defensive coordinator -- Al Groh to head coach.

Rating: Five. Not only did the Pats get the Jets back for the Parcells fiasco, the move paid off nicely with Belichick winning three Super Bowls in four appearances. Coincidentally, Belichick's first NFL coaching job was with the Colts in 1975, in the AFC East.




Pats bring in enigmatic Cox

July 2001
New England acquires one of the most fined players in NFL history by signing linebacker Bryan Cox, who previously played five seasons with the Dolphins and three with the Jets. He also has a Buffalo connection, having famously flipped off the fans there once; later, he sued the NFL for his treatment by fans there.

Rating: Three. One point for each AFC East team that employed Cox.




Lewis ushers in the Brady era

Mo Lewis

David Stluka/Getty Images

Page 2 wonders if the Pats voted Mo Lewis a playoff share in 2001.

September 2001
Surely, Jets linebacker Mo Lewis had no idea he was opening Pandora's box. He was simply playing to the whistle when he delivered a jarring hit to Pats quarterback Drew Bledsoe late in a Week 2 game. Bledsoe suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest, allowing untested Tom Brady to take the reins in New England.

We assume you've heard how things worked out for the Brady kid in Foxborough, so we won't bore you with the details here. But consider this: the Jets won seven of the previous eight meetings against the Pats before Brady became a starter. The Jets are 2-11 against New England since.

Rating: Two. Lewis didn't injure Bledsoe deliberately, but there's no debating how much his hit affected NFL history.




Pats trade Bledsoe within the division

April 2002
Bledsoe, once the face of the New England franchise, became expendable after Brady led the Pats to victory in Super Bowl XXXVI. But did they jettison him to the other coast or the other conference? Of course not. They shipped the former No. 1 overall pick to the Bills for a first-rounder in 2003.

Rating: Three. Unlike many teams, the Pats were undaunted to make such a big transaction within the division, essentially daring Bledsoe to beat them twice a season.




Just like old times

September 2002 to present
The Colts were assigned to the new AFC South when the NFL realigned in 2002. The Colts still seem like a divisional foe, however, having played the Pats twice each in the 2003, 2004 and 2006 seasons.

Rating: Two. What is it about the magnetism between these two teams?




A Patriot one day, a Bill the next

Lawyer Milloy

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

One day you're a Patriot, the next you're a Bill.
Such is life in the AFC East.

September 2003
Leading up to the season opener, the Pats ingloriously cut safety Lawyer Milloy after seven seasons with the team. The following day, Milloy signed with the Bills, presumably providing Buffalo with some inside information for the opener against the Pats. With Milloy in the starting lineup, the Bills routed the Pats 31-0.

Rating: Three. Cutting Milloy after most teams had firmed up their rosters was a cold-blooded move by the Pats, although they avenged the shutout with a 31-0 victory of their own in Week 17.




Dolphins shake Belichick coaching tree

December 2004
Miami lures LSU coach Nick Saban aboard with a five-year deal worth more than $20 million. Saban is a former Belichick lieutenant who's also the cousin of former AFC East coach Lou Saban, who guided the Bills from 1971-76.

Rating: Two. Saban's AFC East ties are significant, but it was believed at the time that the Dolphins simply hired one of the best coaches available. That is no longer thought to be true.




Jets take Law into own hands

August 2005
After the Patriots released former All-Pro cornerback Ty Law after the 2004 season, who was there to scoop him up? The Jets, of course. Law returned an interception for a touchdown against the Pats in Week 16.

Rating: One. After a tremendous 10-year run with the Pats, his lone season with the Jets amounts to a one-night stand. If he re-signs with the Pats this offseason, the rating gets a boost.




Mangini defects to Jets

January 2006
The carousel keeps spinning, as the Jets hire Pats defensive coordinator Eric Mangini as head coach. At the time, Mangini said, "Being compared to Bill Belichick is one of the highest compliments you can be paid." We wonder if he might choose slightly different words today.

Rating: Three. Mangini didn't have the track record of Parcells or Belichick, but the hiring definitely made an already-uncomfortable rivalry even more awkward.




Seau comes out of "retirement"

August 2006
Five months after being released by the Dolphins and four days after a "retirement" ceremony in San Diego, Junior Seau signs with the Pats.

Rating: One. At this point, Miami had no idea how productive its table scraps would become in New England.




Pats accuse Jets of tampering

September 2006
New England files a grievance with the NFL accusing the Jets of tampering with holdout wide receiver Deion Branch. Branch was traded to Seattle, and the league ultimately cleared the Jets of the charges.

Coincidentally, the teams played each other the week the grievance was filed. The Pats won 24-17.

Rating: Two. Just another brick in the wall.




Pats acquire Welker, Morris

Wes Welker

AP Photo/Don Heupel

The Dolphins should've known better than to trade someone as scrappy as Wes Welker within the division.

March 2007
New England trades second- and seventh-round picks to the Dolphins for wide receiver Wes Welker, who goes on to tie for the NFL lead with 112 catches.

Days before the trade, the Pats signed Sammy Morris, whom Miami allowed to leave via free agency. Morris, who played four seasons in Buffalo to begin his career, turned in two 100-yard rushing games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 6.

Rating: Three. Welker was a significant cog in the high-flying Pats offense in 2007. Welker, Seau and Morris didn't fit the plans in Miami (1-15), but acclimated just fine in New England (16-0).




Spygate

September 2007
What hasn't already been said about this episode? The Pats were caught filming signals of the Jets coaching staff and were penalized heavily by the NFL. New England lost its first-round pick in 2008. Belichick was fined $500,000, and the team was fined $250,000.

Rating: Five. In a story that continues to evolve, the fact that Belichick committed this act against Mangini, his former protégé, makes the plot even juicier.




Asterisks and neighborhoods

November 2007
Regarding Spygate, Shula was quoted in the New York Daily News as saying, "I guess you got the same thing as putting an asterisk by Barry Bonds' home run record." A day later, the coach of the perfect '72 Dolphins backpedaled from the comment, but feathers were already ruffled in New England.

Former Miami running back Mercury Morris then told ESPN that the Pats, then 9-0, weren't in the same "neighborhood" as his 17-0 Dolphins. "Don't call me when you're in my town, call me when you're on my block, and I see you next door moving your furniture in," Morris said.

Rating: Four. These comments helped keep Spygate under the media microscope and clearly ticked off the Pats and their fans.




Tuna joins the Dolphins

December 2007
Less than a year out of the NFL, Parcells become executive vice president of football operations for the Dolphins, his third stop in the division.

Rating: Three. Parcells is one job away from becoming the Steve Finley of the AFC East.




Flirting with Zach Thomas

February 2008
When the Dolphins released franchise icon linebacker Zach Thomas last week, the Pats were at the front of the line to negotiate and quickly offered him a contract. Thomas' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said the Jets were also interested in Thomas' services. Thomas, apparently tired of all this drama, signed with the Cowboys instead.

Rating: One. Flirting isn't enough to make anyone jealous in the tawdry AFC East.




Anywhere but Foxborough

February 2008
The Jets allow Vilma to seek a trade anywhere except New England.

Rating: Two. Considering that the Pats could use a linebacker, it's unclear whether this move is spiteful, smart or both.




Russell Baxter, David Rose and the ESPN research department contributed information for this story. Thumbnail illustrations by Kurt Snibbe. Thomas Neumann is an editor for Page 2. You can contact him here.


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