Commentary

A few reasons we should let the spy game die

When Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini exchange halfhearted pleasantries as they leave Gillette Stadium's field Sunday, let's hope we can close the book on the spy episode, writes Michael Smith.

Originally Published: December 15, 2007
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

Bill BelichickWayne Scarberry/Getty ImagesIt's not going to be a Pleasant Valley Sunday when the Jets visit the Patriots. But is Bill Belichick, seen here in 1998 when he was the Jets' defensive coordinator, really bent on destroying his former team?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Since Week 2, I've dreaded the buildup to the Patriots' and Jets' Week 15 rematch. It has lived down to my expectations.

But when Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini exchange halfhearted pleasantries as they leave frigid Gillette Stadium's field Sunday, let's hope we can close the book on the spy episode. Then we can get back to talking about an actual football game and not spy games.

I'm with the NFL, which quickly destroyed evidence of the Patriots' illegal recordings after its brief investigation into the infamous Week 1 incident. I just want the whole thing to go away, though not for the same reasons. In my opinion, the NFL didn't want to further tarnish -- in some minds -- the accomplishments of arguably its marquee franchise. Me, I'm just tired of all the "he said, he said" we've heard and read this season. Most of it being said off the record, of course.

If only the stiff punishment the league imposed on the Patriots had been the end of it. But the controversy didn't die. Throughout the season, the nonstop, off-base commentary and speculation about the issue has annoyed me to death.

The thing that really gets me is the idea that Mangini is some kind of rat or snitch or traitor, or that he violated some unwritten code because the Jets blew the whistle on Belichick. Huh? First off, it wasn't Mangini who confiscated the tape. But let's say he was behind it. How should he have handled it? Continue allowing the Patriots to gain an unfair competitive advantage simply because he used to work for them?

Trust me, Belichick will go to just about any length to protect the interests of his football team. Why should his protégé have done differently? Especially when you consider that, before last season, the Patriots accused the Jets of tampering with former New England wideout Deion Branch and tried to get two No. 1 picks and $7 million in damages. (The league found New York not guilty.)

So Mangini and GM Mike Tannenbaum were supposed to take the Patriots' trying to screw them and like it? Belichick -- who, as we all know, hasn't exactly been supportive of Mangini since he left the nest in 2006 -- was bold enough to cheat right under the Jets' nose, when obviously Mangini had a sense of what the Patriots were doing.

And I don't assume Mangini took part in the cheating while he was a Patriot and took the practice with him to New York, or that everyone does it and the Patriots just got caught.

Then there's the nonstory this week about how the Jets supposedly asked for and received permission (although Belichick disputed that contention Friday in an interview with NBCSports.com) from the Patriots to record their playoff game at Gillette Stadium from both end zones. The Patriots supposedly reneged and removed the Jets' video guy. Uh, hello, the Jets were taping the game. Not the same ballpark, the same league or the same sport. The league even said the Jets didn't violate any policies.

And then there's the idea the Patriots' historic romp through this season is somehow fueled by the Week 1 spying incident. How ridiculous. They can't be that petty.

I prefer to think there are more obvious reasons the Patriots have been so determined and focused and aggressive on offense late in their lopsided wins.

For instance, in the aftermath of their second-half collapse in last year's AFC title game loss to Indianapolis, Belichick and his staff spent the entire offseason and preseason preaching to the players about playing at peak performance every play, every game. I believed the players this week when they said the scandal hasn't been on their minds since the week it happened. If the Patriots' motivation for crushing the opposition this year has been revenge for the spying incident and any questioning of their legitimacy as past champions, then they're really twisted.

I think not.

Think about how backward the idea is: The coach cheats, he gets caught, people openly wonder just how much of an advantage the team has gained over the years by said cheating and … the Patriots supposedly believe their critics are out of line?

No. I'd much rather believe the Patriots are sincere when they say their motivation comes from within and is not a reaction to what's said or written about them. This talk about the Jets' having hell to pay Sunday for daring to defend themselves against an unsportsmanlike practice to me seems so manufactured. Anyone who knows Belichick will tell you he doesn't need any more reason to loathe the Jets, anyway. He and his team want to win every game in impressive fashion.

Colts coach Tony Dungy presumably got a half handshake from Belichick earlier this season in reaction to Dungy's comparing the inevitable -- and justifiable -- doubts about the Patriots' dynasty to the doubts about Barry Bonds' accomplishments. I, too, liken New England to Bonds in this regard: The Patriots were and are great without any help. They broke the rules, and we might never know the extent of the advantage gained. But Don Shula (although he has since backed off the suggestion) or anyone else who says what the Patriots have done this season or in years past deserves an asterisk is flat-out wrong.

The spying episode will always be in the back of our minds, but the Patriots' dynasty nonetheless will be remembered as the greatest in the era of free agency to this point.

Every angle of this story -- from the notion that Mangini betrayed Belichick to measuring the size of the chip on the Patriots' shoulders -- has been overblown, mainly by those of us in the media. The spying game has been the silliest subplot of this or any other football season in recent memory. Here's hoping it's a soap opera that's about to be canceled. Sunday at 4 can't get here quickly enough.

Oh, wait. The team Shula used to coach comes here next weekend. More spying nonsense to come. Damn!

Michael Smith covers pro football for ESPN.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.