John Harbaugh mentions ‘asterisk’ on Belichick’s Super Bowl wins, quickly backs off

On Tuesday morning, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said something on the radio that will most likely be interpreted by many as sour grapes, coming as it did from the man whose team lost the 2011 AFC championship game to the New England Patriots.

Asked by Baltimore radio station 98 Rock about recent NFL scandals involving the Patriots and New Orleans Saints, Harbaugh gave his philosophy regarding the "It ain't cheating if you don't get caught" philosophy that prevails in certain front offices and locker rooms. Specifically, the Spygate scandal which gave the Pats a black mark that won't wash off.

"The funny thing about that is ... in the end, everything is brought before the light of day when it's all said and done. Even the thing in New England -- no matter whether those things had any impact on whether they won any of their championships or not, they've got asterisks now. They've been stained. So to me, it's never worth it. I mean, you've got to figure out ways to use the rules to your advantage, and figure out ways to make the most of everything. We've got new work rules [in the new CBA] about what he can and can't do with our players, and we're going to make the most of it. What we're finding out is that ... man, we can do something even better than we did before, because these rules make us focus on some things we didn't do before. That's what success is in this world -- you've got to find ways to do things better than somebody else.

"But if you're cheating? In the end, you're going to get discredited. It's just not worth it."

Harbaugh was then asked if he's ever been on the sideline during a game and suspected the other team had illegal intel -- that his opponent knew things about their play selection they should not have.

"Yeah, I have. But if I say when, there's going to be like, Pro Football Talk is going to blow up and go crazy, and I'm going to get accused of accusing somebody."

Harbaugh's comments are making the round on Twitter in headline form, frequently parsed as if he's saying something specifically directed at the Patriots and Bill Belichick in a transparent attempt to drum up controversy. I don't see it that way -- in fact, the two coaches are longtime friends, and Belichick gave Harbaugh a positive recommendation when he was in the hunt for his current job. Soon after the inevitable poopstorm happened, Harbaugh released a statement through the team:

"While on the 98 Rock show this morning to talk about the run to honor O.J. Brigance and raise funds for ALS research, I answered a question about playing within the rules and referred to the perception that the Super Bowl championships won by the Patriots and Saints have a stain. My reference was to the perception out there that came as the result of the league's actions.

"I could have been more clear that I was referring to those viewpoints. I totally believe that the Patriot and Saint coaches and players earned those championships. Bill (Belichick) and Sean (Payton) both know that.

"There has been some distortion about what I said.

"The original tweet indicated I pointed the finger at Bill Belichick and mentioned Bill's name. I did not. I have so much respect for Coach Belichick and the job he does and has accomplished in his Hall of Fame career. I called him to remind him of my respect for him. I also reached out to Tedy Bruschi, who rightfully defended those Patriot players and coaches on ESPN, to tell him that I agree with him that the Patriots earned every victory."

According to the team, Harbaugh also "called Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and former Pats player turned ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi to explain his comments."

Again, I don't see the big deal. Harbaugh was asked about cheating in general, and he could have just as easily said that the Saints' Super Bowl win now had some extra punctuation around it because of the illegal hits Gregg Williams ordered up, and the recent allegations that Saints GM Mickey Loomis bugged opponents' locker rooms in the Superdome. (We would also add the shocking news we recently uncovered, courtesy of's Holly Anderson: The press box in the Superdome doesn't have a ladies' room.)

[Also: Prolific QBs headline the 2012 Yahoo! Sports All-Undrafted Team]

To put a fine point on it, Harbaugh said that New England's Super Bowl titles do have asterisks, not that they should. Seems like a small semantic difference, but it isn't. We can't have it both ways. We can't clobber coaches and players for giving generic boilerplate answers, only to clobber them harder when they say what's really on their minds.

And we'd all better get used to this line of inquiry, because when coaches and players come back up from the offseason, they're all going to be asked about it -- especially when their orbits match those of the Saints and Patriots.

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