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a fun project for someone out there, to study the spread of information in
the NFL. certainly, should be eminently possible to study the flow of
players among teams....
October 26, 2008
Spreading the Word Is No Secret in the N.F.L. By JUDY
In the N.F.L.<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/n/national_football_league/index.html?inline=nyt-org>'s
version of phone-a-friend, the calls start on Monday, coach to coach, player
to player, trolling for the subtleties of a game plan — a code word here, a
tendency there — that only a trusted colleague would share. It is the sort
of conversation Brett
with the former Detroit
Matt Millen a few weeks ago, one that began with hunting talk,
only to turn — as Favre suspected it would — into a fishing expedition for
information about his old team.
Favre's chat with Millen, depending on which version one believes, might
have been brief and cursory or lengthy and detailed. But more than anything,
it was entirely common and wholly within the rules. The controversy in which
Favre found himself last week — had he turned on the Green Bay
telling Millen what he remembered about how they had attacked the
in previous games? — was met largely with a shrug from around the N.F.L. But
it pulled back the curtain on a widely practiced slice of the football
culture that does not just accept the casual trading of information, but
"Every team that you play against, your friends who play for other teams are
like: 'Hey, tell me about this. Tell me about that. This defense, how does
it run its scheme? Do they tip it?' " Washington
back Shaun Alexander said. "That's what happens. It's like advance
scouting. You do the best scouting through your friends."
It may seem incongruous that in the most paranoid of sports, where coaches
cover their mouths to thwart those trying to lip-read their plays and
security personnel sweep hotel rooms to check for an opponent's forgotten
playbook, sharing of trade secrets is embraced. What set Favre's chat apart
is that he did not tell his new team, the
inside information about the Packers — that is practically a daily
occurrence in the N.F.L. — but instead told a division rival of the Packers,
giving the exchange a whiff of betrayal by the quarterback scorned. But the
N.F.L. is an exclusive fraternity, and even if there were an outcry to stop
sharing it would take a ban on conversations between close friends to halt
"There's no way to regulate it," said Charley Casserly, a former Redskins
and Houston Texans<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/houstontexans/index.html?inline=nyt-org>general
One look at the playing field in the hours before kickoff — when players and
coaches from both teams mingle as they warm up — reveals the close ties that
form the underpinnings of the N.F.L. Players who went to high school or
college together catch up, although some do that the night before the game,
when they may go out to dinner together. Coaches who may have been
colleagues on the same staff early in their careers trade war stories. Even
scouts, seeking confirmation of their player evaluations, check in with
their peers as preparations for the draft begin.
"I probably knew coaches and scouts on every one of the 32 teams," said Steve
the former San Francisco and Detroit coach who is now an analyst for the NFL
Network. "You can't keep your head in the sand and assume your team knows
everything there is to know. Communicating with your friends is not only
accepted, it's necessary. Asking a question — what did you think about
so-and-so, what about their plan against you? — those conversations can
occur. No harm, no foul. It's commonplace."
But what makes the sharing of information all but inevitable is how often
players and coaches switch teams. Coaches frequently call former colleagues
during the season, and if their old friend just happened to have faced a
future foe, so much the better. And if a friend coaches a team that is about
to play a division rival, he will pour out the details.
Coaches will also call their counterparts on other teams on Monday, asking
for tips about their next opponents.
The coaching job interview is also a preferred time for a team to glean
information about what strategies the candidate's former team used, or even
how it ran practice. It would be impossible to gauge the worthiness of the
candidate for the job without hearing what he did in his earlier position.
But if a team interviews six candidates for a coordinator position, it also
gathers fresh intelligence on six potential foes. Occasionally, coaches say,
it seems that is the only reason for the job interview — something that Al
Davis, the owner of the Oakland
has been accused of.
The tactics are even less subtle when players switch teams. They turn in
their playbooks before leaving their old team, but their memories are not
expunged. That is why players who have recently been cut by one team will be
quickly snapped up by another, particularly if those teams are facing each
other soon — a tactic elevated to an art form by the Jets and the New
who regularly bring in each other's castoffs for debriefings. When Casserly,
now an analyst for CBS, was with the Redskins, the
up a player who had been a Redskins backup, he said.
"He's got all our signals, and he's giving them to the Giants," Casserly
said. "Our coaches were furious. 'How can you do this?' He's getting paid by
them, that's how you can do it."
The former N.F.L. player Marcellus Wiley, now an
said that he was on a team that acquired a player who had been with
The player was asked what certain words in the Colts' signals meant.
"You try to pick up on cues, that's about as good as it gets," Wiley said.
Wiley touched on a fundamental truth of the sharing: it might not provide
much advantage beyond psychological comfort to players and coaches looking
for reassurance that their peers see things the same way they do. Earlier
this season, the Jets asked linebacker Calvin Pace for tips on the Arizona
Cardinals, his former team. Pace volunteered that safety Adrian Wilson
blitzes a lot and plays close to the line to assist in run defense. It was
nothing that could not be seen in the most rudimentary film study. And
Wilson did not play.
Still, the extra reconnaissance sometimes pays off. One broadcaster said he
was told that before the Baltimore
their season opener, the Ravens asked offensive lineman Willie
who signed with Baltimore days after the Bengals cut him at the end of the
preseason after 12 seasons — why the Bengals had so much success blocking
the Ravens' blitz. Anderson gave the Ravens' defense the Bengals' offensive
line calls. The Bengals had not changed them. The Ravens were so effective
that Bengals receiver Chad Ocho Cinco actually praised the blitz-oriented
defense after the game.
"Is Baltimore the bad guy?" the broadcaster said rhetorically. "Is Willie
Anderson the bad guy?"
No more than Favre was, it seems. When asked to conjure a situation that
would cross the line into the unethical, Casserly had to pause and think.
"What would be wrong would be with the Jets playing Kansas City, if the
Jets' coaches called a Kansas City coach and said, 'Give me your game plan,
give me your audibles,' " Casserly said. "That would not be acceptable. This
is an extreme absurd example. But if Kansas City cuts a corner on Tuesday
and the Jets bring him in and say, 'Let's talk about what they do,' whether
it's ethical or not, what are you going to do?"
Greg Bishop contributed reporting.
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