|James A. Finely / Associated Press|
|Mike Martz was so concerned about spying that he had a giant tarp put up to block view of the Rams' practice field.|
Your name doesn't have to be Bill Belichick to evoke suspicion from an opponent in the NFL.
If your title is "head coach," you can pretty much expect the other team to be wary of all that you do, or might do, in your efforts to gain any possible edge. Why? Because your counterpart is doing the same.
Thanks to his team's 2007 video-taping scandal, Belichick will forever be the first name mentioned in any discussion about NFL espionage. His New England Patriots were caught red-handed violating league rules by videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets, and commissioner Roger Goodell punished Belichick and the Patriots accordingly.
Yet, for as long as there has been football, opposing teams have suspected each other of stealing, or trying to steal, whatever information they can.
That's why the offense began calling plays in the most private of gatherings called the huddle. That's why audibles are delivered in code and through various body movements. That's why coaches hold play sheets over their mouths when they call plays from the sidelines. That's why practices are partly or fully closed to anyone not connected with the team, and outside sessions are typically held behind tall fences covered with tarpaulin.
That's why assistant coaches are paid to study hours upon hours of videotape and surf the Web in hopes of gathering even the tiniest morsel of intelligence from the opposition, and why "quality assurance" assistants examine their own team's tendencies to see what it might be giving up to other clubs. That's why teams no longer distribute the game plan to players on loose sheets of paper that can easily be left behind in the visitor's dressing room and are never tossed into the waste basket (which the opposition routinely checks for such material) and instead hand out bound copies that are collected (usually by a security staffer) before players take the field and locked away.
It's that same paranoid thinking that could be found in the responses heard around the league after the following recent transactions:
» A few weeks ago, the Miami Dolphins made wide receiver Patrick Turner one of their final cuts before the start of the regular season. The New York Jets promptly signed Turner, released him two days later, and then re-signed him to their practice squad. And, oh, by the way, the Jets face the Dolphins Sunday night. Any chance -- as was widely believed throughout the NFL -- the Jets were looking to pump Turner for a little info?
» On Sept. 18, the day before the Patriots were to face the Jets, they signed wide receiver-running back Danny Woodhead, whom the Jets released four days earlier. Woodhead wasn't active for the game; he didn't even make the trip to East Rutherford, N.J. Did the Pats download any information from him before they left? If they did, it certainly didn't help because they were beaten soundly, 28-14.
Acquiring a player from a divisional opponent for debriefing, especially the week before a game, is a common tactic. Quarterbacks tend to be the most helpful in this regard, but any player who is familiar with a team's audible system and other play-changing mechanisms might be able to provide something useful about his old employer to his new one.
In the late 1980s, the Buffalo Bills signed a middle linebacker who had been released from the Dolphins right before the Bills were to travel to Miami for a game. The linebacker, who was inactive and wearing street clothes for the game, stood on the sidelines next to then-coach Marv Levy, deciphering every hand-signal from then-Dolphins defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti.
Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton recalls the Bills being on the opposite end of a similar situation in the early '90s when he was a receiver for them. At the time Buffalo ran its fast-paced, no-huddle offense and was preparing to face the Indianapolis Colts. Scott Radecic, a former Bills linebacker, was playing for the Colts and because he knew all of Buffalo's offensive calls, the Bills decided to change them for that game. It proved to be a bad idea; the Bills were making mistakes because of their lack of familiarity with the new signaling system. After a few blunders, they decided to go back to the original method.
"We said, 'The heck with it,' " Lofton said. "Even if they know what's coming, he can't communicate it to the rest of the team that quickly."
Now, stealing defensive signals, even with a video camera, is impossible because they're no longer relayed through hand/body movement. Just as on offense, defensive coaches communicate with a defender via a microphone-to-helmet-headset system. That effectively reduced the need for some assistant coaches throughout the league who were employed primarily for their ability to steal hand signals while using binoculars from the coaches' box.
"I think it's a tad overrated," Lofton, an analyst for CBS Radio Sports/Westwood One's NFL coverage, said of the value of swiping information from an opponent. "I really believe, as a coaching staff, when you're studying teams during the offseason, you know their playbook almost as well as they do. You look at their tendencies, things that they do well, that individual players do. And from playing against a divisional opponent over a span of a couple of years, you pick up audibles, you pick up a lot of different things."
Nevertheless, NFL lore is filled with wild stories about the lengths teams go to find out something it could use in a game. For instance, before Super Bowl VII, "friends" of the Washington Redskins would take turns showing up at the Dolphins' practice. A different friend would show up at each workout, and those who went to more than one did so in disguise.
"Nothing obvious, like a big beard or fake nose and glasses," recalled an assistant coach with the Redskins at the time. "But if you normally have hair and this time you're bald, they're not going to know who you are. And if you're bald and you suddenly have hair, they're not going to know you, either."
What would a coach be able to learn if he did have a pair of "friendly eyes" at an opposing team's practice?
"Certain blitzes they might be installing," Levy said. "Blitzes are game-changing plays. Also, it would be helpful to know if they're putting in any special plays for that game, such as a reverse or flea-flicker. Every team prepares one or two during the week, but they've run 15 by the time you play them."
Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka said "it would be nice to see if any injured players are favoring anything or doing something to compensate for an injury," while former Redskins defensive tackle Dave Butz would be interested to see "what they're doing in short-yardage situations ... that's the most critical time of the game."
That helps explain why, when Mike Martz coached the St. Louis Rams, he was uncomfortable with the construction of a hotel next to the team's practice field, with windows that provided a clear view of workouts. As a result, Martz had 30-foot steel poles installed on a small hill, to which he attached a wall of giant green tarp. Unfortunately, within a few weeks, a severe wind storm blew down the tarp and it had to be replaced.
In the AFC Championship Game before Super Bowl XI, then-Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll learned the hard way the danger of not taking steps to guard against espionage before facing the Oakland Raiders. With running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier due to be sidelined with injuries, Noll quietly switched to a one-back attack, something the Steelers had never used before and intended to keep secret before kickoff. Eventually, Martz one day chose to have the tarp removed permanently but the poles still stand.
For most of the week preceding the game, the Raiders' defense prepared for a two-man backfield. However, all that changed at the 11th hour, when the Raiders suddenly received some "new" information that prompted a dramatic change of strategy.
"We had just finished our final day of practice and were taking off our uniforms and pads," former Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano said. "All of a sudden, (coach John) Madden walked into the locker room and said, 'Everybody put your pads back on. We're going out there again.' We went back out and practiced against the one-back offense until dark.
"Sure enough, the Steelers tried to open up with that offense, and we stuffed 'em."
Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci