Just before halftime of last Sunday's game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots at Giants Stadium, a slight, unassuming man in a dark blue Pats polo shirt and khaki shorts was stopped by NFL security officials as he tried to enter the visitors' locker room. Suddenly, a 26-year-old video assistant named Matt Estrella found himself in a scene that might have been lifted from "The Bourne Ultimatum."
Suspected of having filmed hand signals from Jets' coaches while standing on that team's sideline, Estrella was interrogated in the bowels of the stadium by Jets and NFL security officials. New Jersey state troopers and FBI agents were also summoned. Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets' general manager, left his seat during the second half and entered the fray, sternly lecturing Estrella about his apparent violation of NFL rules.
At one point, somebody brought Estrella a glass of water. He was shaking so hard that he spilled it all over himself. For all we know, that wasn't the only liquid that ended up on Estrella's person during the hour-long grilling.
Congratulations, Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini: your petty, childish little feud just made a member of the hired help wet his pants.
Now that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has come down hard on Belichick and the Patriots, fining the coach $500,000 and docking the organization $250,000 and a first-round NFL draft pick (if New England makes the playoffs) or second- and third-round choices in 2008, we can all sit back and condemn him for blatantly cheating in the pursuit of a competitive edge. Some people, including a few current members of the Philadelphia Eagles, are even questioning whether the Pats' three Super Bowl victories in the previous six seasons are tainted by this behavior.
It's a public relations nightmare for an organization that has been mostly classy and commendable in creating the 21st century's first mini-dynasty, but focusing on the potential advantage New England gained from the stolen signals is missing the point.
The people who've truly been cheated are those in the Patriots' organization – and their counterparts among the Mangini-coached Jets – who've been subjected to this consuming and unbecoming sandbox fight between two shrewd yet self-absorbed coaches.
If you don't think Sunday's bust was a setup (granted, a well-deserved one), you're not looking closely enough. Belichick ordered an employee to engage in a practice that Mangini knew all about, as it had been commonplace during his time as Belichick's defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach in New England. Anyone with a brain, let alone a brainiac like Belichick, would realize that videotaping an opponent's coaches in that particular context was a disaster waiting to happen. Arrogantly and blatantly, Belichick did it anyway, operating under the Clintonesque rationale that because he wasn't breaking down opposing coaches' signals until after the completion of the game in question, he wasn't violating any rules. I did not view tape from that camera (until later, when I used it for future signal-stealing reference.) So Slick Billy was there for the taking, and Mangini took down his former mentor, and hard, while watching his team suffer a 38-14 defeat.
Lest you think this was some random occurrence, consider the incestuous connections between the two organizations:
• The Jets' video director, Steve Scarnecchia, formerly worked for the Patriots' video department. Sources say he once had the same duties that landed Estrella in spilled water last Sunday and that Scarnecchia was the one who trained Estrella to clandestinely compile the verboten footage in the first place. Oh, and Scarnecchia's father, Dante, is New England's longtime offensive line coach and has been Belichick's assistant head coach since 2000. Theirs should be a whale of a Thanksgiving dinner.
• Another Jets employee, coordinator of college scouting Jay Mandolesi, was an intern in the Patriots' video department in 2002 and '03. Sources say he was fired after a dispute with then offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, possibly over similar video subterfuge.
• Tannenbaum and his Patriots counterpart, vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, were once close friends, having previously worked together in Cleveland and with the Jets. Their relationship is now frayed.
How did all of this happen? How did Belichick, probably the greatest defensive strategist of his era and a future Hall of Fame coach, allow one of his prodigies to distract him from the task at hand and make him look like a fool?
It goes back to the end of the 2005 season, when the Jets were courting Mangini as a replacement for departed coach Herm Edwards. Belichick, who as the Browns' head coach in '95 had given his fellow Wesleyan alum an assistant's job after having noticed Mangini's work as a public relations intern, had a deep-seated disdain for the Jets' organization dating back to his infamous one-day stint as New York's head coach following Bill Parcells's resignation in January of 2000.
Go be a head coach anywhere but there, Belichick told his then-34-year-old defensive coordinator. There'll be other opportunities, and I'll help you get them, Belichick insisted. Just don't take this one.
Mangini took the job anyway, and Belichick felt betrayed. When Belichick learned that Mangini, while still serving out his final days with the Patriots, was soliciting Pats coaches, support staff members and players to join him at his new gig, the war was on. Belichick had Mangini's key card access revoked, but not before Mangini, a source says, took a laptop with confidential files stored in its hard drive out of the building. Mangini hired a Pats employee, Erin O'Brien, as his administrative assistant.
"He did exactly what Bill would do in the same situation," says one high-ranking league source who knows both men. "Bill raised him too well."
Whereas Belichick remained on good terms with ex-assistants Romeo Crennel, who took the Cleveland job, and Nick Saban, who went to the division rival Dolphins, Mangini was persona non grata the second he went to the dreaded Jets. Worse, the Patriots believed, star wideout Deion Branch felt empowered to hold out before the 2006 season because he'd been told by Mangini that the Jets sought his services at the price he desired.
Last August, when the Patriots gave Branch a week to negotiate with other teams in pursuit of a possible trade, the Jets were one of two franchises, along with the Seahawks, who made big-money offers. Branch was ultimately traded to Seattle, and the Patriots filed tampering charges against the Jets, who were later cleared by the league of wrongdoing.
The bad blood between Belichick and Mangini was evident after each of the two teams' regular season meetings in '06. First, following a 24-17 Pats victory at Giants Stadium, Belichick refused to look at Mangini during their brief handshake at midfield. Two months later, after the Jets pulled off a 17-14 upset at Gillette Stadium, Belichick tried a similar tack before Mangini grabbed his arm and gloated, "Great job!"
In January, after the Pats eliminated the Jets from the playoffs by a 37-16 score, Belichick shoved a photographer out of the way to get to Mangini and gave his former assistant what appeared to be a showboating, insincere hug.
After the season Mangini hired Brian Daboll, the Pats' wide receivers coach the previous five seasons, as his quarterbacks coach, compelling Belichick's staff to change much of its terminology over the offseason.
The gamesmanship continued before the start of the '07 season when Mangini brought in two players, wideout Reche Caldwell and cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who'd just been released by New England, a move some believed was little more than a ploy to pick the players' brains about the upcoming opponent's plays and terminology. The Pats countered by bringing in wideout Tim Dwight, who'd just been released by the Jets.
What went down on Sunday, of course, escalated this hissing match to a much darker place. Now that Mangini has made him the object of national embarrassment – and taken a $500,000 chunk out of his bank account – how should Belichick retaliate?
Here's how: Stop the madness. Take the high road. Start focusing on what he does best – coming up with brilliant game plans, picking the best players for his system and motivating them to perform at the highest level – and let go of a grudge that is totally beneath a coach of his stature.
When I hear about Mangini's paranoia, the secrecy over injuries, the threats of fining players whom he suspects of having given anonymous quotes or whose agents comment publicly about their clients' ailments, I think, "What a bunch of wasted energy." But I also can somewhat forgive him: He's young, and he thinks that by emulating Belichick in these ways he'll be destined for the same kind of towering success. Or perhaps he just got caught up in his "Mangenius" nickname and the guest turn on The Sopranos. Whatever: He's 36, and hopefully he'll grow up in the years to come.
Belichick is 55, and even though he's smarter than a fifth grader, he's acting like one. I've been a fan of his work from way, way back, through the post-Browns days when he was considered a classic head coaching washout, and despite his media-repellent ways we've had a good relationship for a long time. I want to see him enjoy the fruits of his labor and the legacy he has earned through hard work and exceptional acumen; I don't want to see him pushing photographers or revoking key cards or, worst of all, getting popped for cheating because he seemingly believed he could do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, no matter who was watching.
Well, Little Brother was watching, and now he's laughing at Belichick because he's gotten so far under his skin.
Belichick may think it was the height of hypocrisy, not to mention an ungrateful maneuver by a guy who owes him a career, and he might be right. It doesn't matter.
As a very smart coach has often said, it is what it is.
And now, gentlemen, it's time to let it go.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM:
The Texans will keep it going with an upset victory over the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte … After watching Sunday's game in Baltimore, Jets fans will never again cheer when Kellen Clemens takes the field … Yahoo! Sports will remain No. 1 a lot longer than USC.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
I was New England-bound even before all the madness went down, because Patriots-Chargers is the first of three round-robin regular season battles between the league's Big Three, and I didn't get enough of these two teams last January. And though LaDainian Tomlinson and Belichick hugged it out at the Pro Bowl, don't be fooled into thinking there's not a ton of tension between these two teams. After last Sunday's victory over the Bears, I asked San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman about facing the Patriots, and he responded, "I'll play 'em tomorrow. I'll play 'em when I get out of church. I'll play 'em before I get out of church." Can I be a witness?
LIES, LIES, LIES:
1. Because Randy Moss caught nine passes for 183 yards in his Patriots debut, that proves he's a great person and teammate who was completely misunderstood in Minnesota and Oakland.
2. After Katie Couric's stellar performance in Baghdad, the ghost of Edward R. Murrow tapped the CBS Evening News anchor on the shoulder and said, "Good night and good luck."
3. Upon learning that a woman and her toddler son were bit by a Rottweiler at the home of Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal, a group of canines known as DETH (Dogs for the Ethical Treatment of Humans) angrily called for the pooch to lose his endorsement deal with Purina.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL:
Just because there's a rule that you can't pick a team to win more than once doesn't mean the same rule applies to losers. Thus, after surviving last week thanks to the Houston Texans' 20-3 thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs, we're calling another K.C. barbecue, this time on the road against the very grumpy Bears.
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE:
After all the moaning and groaning about his lousy draft, and my role in it, my friend Malibu was forced to concede that I might have helped him just a bit – if only for one week. Thanks to breakout efforts from Adrian Peterson and Andre Johnson, and solid performances from Clinton Portis, Kellen Winslow and Matt Schaub, Beat the Gypsy rolled to a near-40-point victory over Bangers in its opener. "Silver comes through – finally," Malibu said begrudgingly. Only one of the league's 12 teams posted more points than Beat the Gypsy: Pure Hell, whose GM, two-time-defending champion Frank, is already trying to "claim" Corey Dillon before the former Bengals and Patriots back officially signs with an NFL team. Whether or not that goes down, Beat the Gypsy does own one distinction: Most suspended players on its roster (Chris Henry and Dominic Rhodes). Up next is a matchup with Tom Brady Is God, a team which, oddly enough, is quarterbacked by Vince Young. Led by Joseph Addai, Roy Williams and Antonio Gates, TBIG is favored by 14 points in this one, and Malibu is fretting once again. I told him to jump in the Pacific and chill. I expect big things out of Santana Moss on Monday night in Philly, and Carson Palmer is playing in Cleveland.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE:
Given the way Greg Ryan coached in the U.S. women's soccer team's 2-2 tie with North Korea in the World Cup opener, he has to be thrilled that the games are being telecast in the middle of the night back home. Uh oh – Tivo. Other than not allowing for the rainy conditions, making no strategic adjustments, playing a woman down for 10 minutes while Abby Wambach got stitched up (and watching his team allow two goals in the process) and showing absolutely no faith in his bench, Ryan had a stellar debut. Give Wambach and the U.S. credit for bouncing back with a 2-0 victory over Sweden Friday morning, but right now I still think April Heinrichs's former assistant seems like the spitting image.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR … :
Alfred Peet, who died late last month at 87 and left behind a legacy of insanely powerful and delectable caffeinated beverages in tastefully decorated retail stores. Were it not for Peet's iced tea, my wife would not be superwoman … and I would have fallen asleep while writing this sentence.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK:
"Bad Duck mascot"
IF CAL WINS A FOOTBALL GAME I'LL …:
After drawing out to a 34-14 lead at Colorado State last Saturday, the Golden Bears gave up a pair of late touchdowns, provoking some serious anxiety among their fan base. Once Cal's 34-28 victory was secured, it was alum Michele Tafoya who was destined to get the shakes, the ESPN broadcaster having sworn off her morning coffee in this space a week ago. In keeping with the beverage theme, former Golden Bear softball pitching great Kristina Thorson – she of the many tattoos, piercings and post-strikeout glares – vows to swear off a substance near and dear to her heart should Cal defeat Louisiana Tech at home this Saturday. "If Cal wins I will give up beer until midnight Jan. 1," proclaims Thorson, whose fiance, former Bears offensive lineman Erik Robertson, almost certainly won't approve. Look for the beer-free Thor, who earlier this summer earned Rookie of the Year honors in the National Pro Fastpitch league for the Philadelphia Force, to be drunk with pleasure after scoring a modeling gig this fall.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK:
Dedicated to our favorite estranged AFC East coaching confidants, to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Rough Justice."
"One time I was your baby chicken
Now I've grown into a fox
Once upon a time you were my big rooster
But now you're just one of my cocks
It's rough justice on ya'
You didn't have to trust me
It's rough justice and you know I had to break your heart"
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL):
"I have been reading your column for a little while now, and you are the dumbest, most obnoxious piece of slime I have ever heard of. That's what you expected me to say? It seems that most of the e-mails I see are more about insulting you and your opinion, than actually offering a decent response. I honestly don't understand how people can't get this concept: 'If you don't like what is written, then don't read it.' But to each their own. The more hate mail you get, the more people are reading you on this whole little Yahoo! thing (This floundering organization needs some people to use it, or it may never make it). Anyways, the real reason I am writing in is about your article on the grit and versatility of the Chargers when they beat the Bears. I am one of the very few Chargers fans from (Connecticut), and I really don't like the whole Patriots organization, so that playoff loss, and subsequent offseason haven't been kind to me. What I have noticed though is that people always say that the Chargers are the most talented team, and always talk about the offense, offense, offense. But no one really talks about the defense and how the front seven is still one of the best front sevens in football. They handled the Bears offense like a top five defense (either the Bears are that bad, or Chargers that good remains to be seen), and to me showed signs of an amazing team that has the skills on both sides of the ball. I suppose we will see what happens this coming Sunday against the Pats. Keep up the good work. Holla."
Windsor Locks, Conn.
Thanks. I like the Chargers' front seven, but I like Yahoo!'s (Wetzel, Wojranowski, Robinson, Cole, Passan, etc.) even better.
"You're one cocky (expletive). I know its 'cool' that you know Brian Urlacher, but we don't care, so don't write about it. We read articles to make us smarter and wiser about the game; not to listen to you ramble. While you make valid points, especially with the disloyalty of Jets fans to their starting QB – (expletive) Yankees, doesn't surprise me in the least – save your many opinions and pointless tidbits for your boyfriend. Enough is enough."
Are you saying that Brian Urlacher is my boyfriend? I hope he doesn't read it that way, or you may have a hard time typing your next email.
"After I read all the hate mail week in and week out, I could never understand it … Until you talked down on the Cheesecake Factory. Why, Michael, why?"
OK, my NFL editor isn't going to like this, but here goes: Ridiculous menu featuring obscene portions of watered-down pseudo-ethnic specialties, for starters, in an antiseptic atmosphere masquerading as hip. It must be me, though, because every single Cheesecake Factory in every city is overflowing with happy-looking customers at all times.
"Phil's right. If your going to over react to Week 1, then impressing you is A) not very hard; B) a complete waste of time. Fact is, a win is a win. Bonus, it was a win against a very tough superbowl experenced D. If anything the only team out of the 3 (Pats, Chargers and Colts) to impress were the Chargers. They're the only ones that play a quality team. Colts played a overrated Saints team at home. Pats took apart a high school D in the Jets. Chargers faced the defending NFC champs and won going away at the end. So you weren't impressed. Well maybe that's cause your a moronic sports reporter."
And you are? (Consider that Question #33. You're welcome.)
"You aren't going to last very long in this business with your petulant banter. Could you possibly be more biased against the Chargers? You forgot to mention the Rivers fumble was subsequent to an offsides. Oh, and that the Chargers beat the NFC's best by 11 … and would have been 18 if not for the ref blunder. Dogging Rivers for being happy about winning? Dogging Merriman because of a single subpar game? You either got fired at some point by the Chargers or you wet yourself after one of their players didn't autograph your Underoos for you. After they beat the Cheatriots on Sunday, please stick to your guns and don't raise the Chargers in your rankings. You already sound like a douche bag, so why not solidify the personification?"
If you're this emotional about my rankings, I can't imagine what happens to your Underoos during the actual games. Is that petulant enough for you?
"As a Charger fan I agree with most of your points regarding Rivers. The one exception is the fumble. Even the most diehard Bears fan has to admit that (Tommie) Harris was offsides when he caused the fumble. You can not blame that on Rivers."
Upon further review, you definitely have a point.
"If I see you one more time on Yahoo! Sports with that La Jolla (Calif.) backdrop and trashing the Chargers I'm going to puke. I might live in Texas now but I was born in San Diego and grew up there. Where did you come from anyway? Boston? Rivers is right: who cares what you think? And today's cheap shot at Merriman after only one game is pathetic."
I'm a Californian, dude. I love San Diego and enjoy covering the Chargers. And if you're taking that Rivers comment – or my reaction to it – in a literal manner, you need to stop vomiting and start paying attention.
"Nice job. SI's loss is my gain. Now I have two great columns to read every week: Yours and MMQB. Which first? That's a sweet dilemma to have. Best wishes."
As long as you have a spare 40 minutes, you can read them both, in either order.
"Stop trying to be funny. Your a dumbass."
To your credit, you're funny without trying to be.
"Michael, Time to revise your Rose Bowl fantasy: The team playing Cal will be wearing Blue and White! With Ohio State and Wisconsin coming in to Happy Valley and Michigan on hiatus, this is Penn State's year. We will white out the Rose Bowl! We are Penn State!"
Cool. Just make sure Joe Pa's on the sidelines and not in the upstairs coaches' box. I want him to get a nice view of DeSean Jackson and Jahvid Best whizzing by through those Coke-bottle glasses.