Last week, a senior NFL executive explained why piping in crowd noise and texting to the sideline is forbidden by NFL rules. It is, the executive said, a matter of the integrity of the game. Did using fake crowd noise at home cause the Atlanta Falcons to notch a win they otherwise wouldn't have over a two-season span? Probably not, considering their record at the Georgia Dome from the start of the 2013 season to the midway point of 2014 -- they were notified about the violation in November -- was 5-6. Did texts sent by Cleveland general manager Ray Farmer -- reportedly discussing the quality of former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's play-calling and personnel deployment, and not calling for specific plays to be run -- give the Browns an advantage by providing an extra perspective on the game plan? Almost certainly not, considering their offense was one of the lowest-ranked in 2014 and they lost six of their last seven games.
But however innocuous and seemingly inconsequential the rules-breaking was, the NFL announced punishmentsfor team executives of the Falcons and Browns on Monday for their integrity infractions anyway -- and while the punishments weren't particularly harsh, they were punishments nonetheless. That news should give the New York Jets pause.
The case against Jets owner Woody Johnson for tampering -- concerning his comments at a December news conference that he would like to have cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was under contract to the Patriots at the time, back -- seems to be a far more clear-cut violation, and one with greater consequences. Revis signed on to return to New York as a free agent this offseason, after all, and the Patriots will certainly point to Johnson's publicly-stated ardor for Revis as proof that tampering, in this case, might have benefited the Jets very directly.
The punishments for the Falcons and Browns, as it turned out, are manageable. Farmer will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season, which probably impacts internal club dynamics -- as in, who gets in the ear of owner Jimmy Haslam while Farmer is exiled -- more than it does real team business. The regular season is actually the quietest time of the year for a general manager. Free agency is over; the draft is complete; even the routine personnel moves made during training camp are done with. Losing Farmer, then, will at most be an inconvenience, one that won't put a significant dent in how the franchise will operate; it's the equivalent of suspending a player during the offseason only.
Perhaps most important to the rebuilding Browns is the fact that they didn't lose a draft pick, only money, in the form of a $250,000 fine. If the NFL had wanted to really harm Cleveland for the violation, it would have suspended Farmer right now, when he is in the throes of roster construction and draft preparation, and it would have punished someone above Farmer.
The Falcons did lose a draft pick, but it was only a fifth-rounder, and it won't be taken away until the 2016 draft, giving the Falcons plenty of time to compensate by acquiring extra picks before then. They, too, were fined -- $350,000 -- but the person who the NFL says was responsible for improperly using an audio file to augment crowd noise, former director of event marketing Roddy White, has already left the team. No other team executive was found to have known about the violation taking place over two seasons. Still, team president Rich McKay will be suspended until at least June 30 from his role as co-chair of the Competition Committee, because he oversees game-day operations. That the NFL punished someone above the perpetrator in the chain of command in Atlanta but not in Cleveland is curious, but neither team will fight its penalties.
The bulk of the work of the Competition Committee is already done this year. McKay -- a widely liked and respected executive -- will miss the wrangling over the creation of a proposal to change the extra point, but the busiest time of the year for the group just ended with the NFL Annual Meeting. The committee has already sifted through dozens of rules proposals and hours of tape to decide which rules changes should be supported.
The NFL, then, let the Browns and Falcons go with conveniently timed penalties that were designed to serve as a slap on the wrist without doing much in the way of real damage. The thornier issues are ahead, with the Jets' tampering situation and the ongoing investigation into the Patriots' use of underinflated footballs during the AFC Championship Game.
It is unclear when either of those cases will be resolved. The purposeful underinflation of footballs, if it happened, will likely be difficult to prove by outside investigator Ted Wells, but the NFL must still decide who is responsible for the footballs being at the proper pressure and who is to blame for improper footballs being used. All the while, the reigning Super Bowl champions await their fate, led by owner Robert Kraft, who last week reiterated his displeasure with members of the league office for how the investigation has been conducted.
After the league disciplined the Falcons and Browns, it seems unlikely it can completely turn a blind eye to Johnson's comments about Revis, even though penalizing an owner is relatively rare. That has long been an irritant to the NFL Players Association -- that players are routinely punished for infractions while teams and their braintrusts often are not. If the punishment of Farmer and McKay was designed to send a signal that executives will be held responsible, too, it was a mixed one. A much clearer one could come for the Jets.