What’s Lost in the Who’s Cheatin’ Who Saga

So here we go again with yet another NFL offseason filled with controversy surrounding a successful NFL franchise. This time, it’s Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wanting to have his footballs prepared a certain way, some of the footballs were under-inflated, and everyone picks a side.

As silly as this whole debate is over whether or not the Patriots or Brady gained any real advantage by deflating footballs, are the responses from those people who seek to prove that the debate is silly, by pointing other teams cheat, or cheat worse. That brings me to the website YourTeamCheats.com, which lists the Broncos as the worst offenders among teams cheating.

Whoever put together the site, attempted to debunk claims regarding Spygate, Bountygate, and Deflategate, and concluded the two controversies surrounding the Patriots weren’t really a big deal, but the ones surrounding the Saints probably were. Hey, it’s fine if somebody wants to point out the misconceptions about certain NFL controversies.

But in doing so, that same person fell into the trap of misconceptions when discussing the Broncos’ past violations; namely, the salary cap violations the Broncos were penalized for in 2001 and 2004. The site’s creator declared those violations were far more egregious than anything the Patriots did, because it was “more probable than not” that it allowed the Broncos to sign players they wouldn’t have signed otherwise.

Let’s make one thing clear: Yes, the Broncos violated salary cap guidelines by asking the likes of John Elway and Terrell Davis to defer money owed to them when the Broncos had cash flow issues as it pertained to the team making its share of payments toward the new stadium being built at the time. However, the thought that it allowed them a competitive advantage is just a myth touted by critics — in particular, former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

To be fair to Davis, the roots of his criticisms of the Broncos’ violations are not unique to him. Davis was an overly competitive person, he was defensive of any methods his players or coaches utilized that got called into question, he was sharply critical of referee calls that benefited an opponent, and he didn’t like to lose to a division rival. Add to this one trait that was unique to Davis: Mike Shanahan was coaching the Broncos at the time, Shanahan coached the Raiders previously, and the two had a bitter split for which neither forgave the other.

Setting that aside, a quick check of the Broncos’ roster changes from 1996 to 1998 shows that the changes really weren’t as earth shattering as they may first appear. The one roster change that gets touted above all others was the Broncos signing defensive end Neil Smith, in which it was public knowledge that quarterback John Elway had agreed to restructure his contract to create salary cap space for Smith.

It’s important to note that restructuring a contract is not illegal under salary cap rules, although it can have repercussions on future seasons, as you punt cap hits further down the road. Regardless, the Smith signing was hardly the one signing that made the difference between the Broncos winning two Super Bowls and not winning them.

So what about the rest of the roster moves the Broncos made? They did make other free agent signings in 1997. Darrien Gordon jumped from the Chargers to the Broncos, but he was the only high-profile signing other than Smith. The Broncos added Tony Jones from the Baltimore Ravens, but Jones wasn’t going to return to the Ravens after they drafted Jonathan Ogden in 1996, plus Jones was thought to be on the downside of his career. Howard Griffith and Keith Traylor, meanwhile, were journeymen. And while Rod Smith became one of the best players to wear a Broncos uniform, his replacement of Anthony Miller in the starting lineup was not a move thought of at the time it happened, as one that would put the Broncos over the top.

Then more roster turnover happened. Michael Dean Perry was benched midway through the 1997 season, then later cut. Gary Zimmerman flirted with retirement in 1997, opted to play, but then officially called it a career in 1998. Also, in 1998, Brian Habib left in free agency to join the Seattle Seahawks and depth players from the year before such as Harry Swayne, Dan Neil, Glenn Cadrez, and Maa Tanuvasa had to step into the starting lineup. The only roster move that could be considered “high profile” for 1998 was 1997 first-round draft pick Trevor Pryce becoming a starter at defensive tackle. But who really considers Swayne, Neil, Cadrez, or Tanuvasa a top player who tipped the competitive scales in the Broncos’ favor?

More importantly, when the Broncos’ cap violations were discovered, the Broncos complied with the investigation and opened the books. At no point did Pat Bowlen or Mike Shanahan engage in denial as to what was happening. That doesn’t mean what they did was OK, but the fact they openly acknowledged the violation should indicate they weren’t trying to hide something. Remember, it’s not the violation that really gets you, but any cover-up you attempt.

With that out of the way, there are certainly legitimate reasons to point out that the Patriots videotaping opponents’ defensive signals and personnel letting air pressure out of footballs to suit Brady’s liking, did not automatically lead to Super Bowl wins for the Patriots. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real issues regarding the NFL, the Patriots, and the handling of these controversies. If one is going to deliver an honest assessment of what should or shouldn’t be done, they need to acknowledge the following:

  • Roger Goodell has been inconsistent with the way he has handed out discipline for various infractions. He seems to hand out discipline based only on what the public happens to know at the time and what seems to feel right to him, rather than maintaining a level of consistency. We saw this happen with situations ranging from Ray Rice to Bountygate to Atlanta Falcons team president Rich McKay. If Goodell is ever going to save face with the way he handles disciplinary measures, he needs to put out discipline guidelines that are brief and to the point, and that penalties are only stiffer for repeat offenses. Disciplinary measures are meant to be a form of punishment, but Goodell seems to want to use them as a public relations mechanism, and that practice needs to end.
  • Robert Kraft has a tight relationship with Goodell, to the point that certain team executives believe that nothing Goodell does, is done without the specific approval of Kraft. As long as it remains common knowledge that Kraft and Goodell are so close to one another, the perception of the Patriots getting favoritism isn’t going to change. And it certainly isn’t going to be helped by Kraft reading statements that sound like he is begging and pleading to Goodell to go easy on his team, coach and star quarterback.
  • I can understand that Bill Belichick doesn’t like answering questions from reporters who aren’t putting a lot of thought into what they ask, but that doesn’t mean he needs to go calling press conferences to explain the science behind why a football might lose air pressure. He also needs to stop being so defensive when he interprets a rule to mean one thing, and somebody has a different interpretation. He would be better served by simply acknowledging that certain rules are either confusing or poorly written and need to be revised.
  • Tom Brady needs to stop letting others do the talking for him, and simply recognize that he did violate a rule. At the same time, he is free to acknowledge that other QBs before him have violated the rules, or indicated a preference for having footballs prepared a certain way. He can do that without turning it into a “somebody did worse than me” argument. All he needs to do is acknowledge he broke a rule, but that he’s not the first and likely won’t be the last, and that perhaps it’s time to revisit rules about the preparation of footballs, given that every quarterback in the NFL wants them a certain way. It would do far more to generate meaningful discussion than to hide behind a lawyer or watch your father make statements to a reporter.
  • Yes, every team in the NFL has violated the rules at one point or another. The trick is to not blow it out of proportion every time it happens. NFL history shows that teams try to bend the rulebook to their advantage, and other teams will object to it, because the name of the game in the NFL is to win. As long as winning is the goal, teams will bend whatever rules they can, and other teams will claim that certain interpretations of a rule are dirty pool. In the case of the Broncos, there were complaints about the cut blocking linemen used (not illegal under NFL rules) and about the linemen putting Vaseline on their jerseys (illegal under NFL rules). But arguing either one was the sole difference between the Broncos winning a game and losing a game, is a silly argument to make. In most cases, the outcome of a football game is not solely determined by one factor.

Regardless, it’s ridiculous to downplay one team’s violation of rules by declaring other teams had worse violations. You’re better off simply acknowledging that violations were made, but that they didn’t result in as much of an advantage as people may be led to believe. And the best thing for people to do when a team violates rules, is to first relax, then call for accountability, but ensure a consistent process for handing out disciplinary measures is in place.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.