***** To join INSNA, visit http://www.insna.org ***** 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.... dl October 26, 2008 Spreading the Word Is No Secret in the N.F.L. By JUDY BATTISTA<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/b/judy_battista/index.html?inline=nyt-per> 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 Favre<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/f/brett_favre/index.html?inline=nyt-per>had with the former Detroit Lions<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/detroitlions/index.html?inline=nyt-org>president 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 Packers<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/greenbaypackers/index.html?inline=nyt-org>by telling Millen what he remembered about how they had attacked the Lions 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 encourages it. "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 Redskins<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/washingtonredskins/index.html?inline=nyt-org>running 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 Jets<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/newyorkjets/index.html?inline=nyt-org>, 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 the practice. "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 manager. 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 Mariucci<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/m/steve_mariucci/index.html?inline=nyt-per>, 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 Raiders<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/oaklandraiders/index.html?inline=nyt-org>, 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 England Patriots<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/newenglandpatriots/index.html?inline=nyt-org>, who regularly bring in each other's castoffs for debriefings. When Casserly, now an analyst for CBS, was with the Redskins, the Giants<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/newyorkgiants/index.html?inline=nyt-org>picked 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 ESPN<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/espn/index.html?inline=nyt-org>analyst, said that he was on a team that acquired a player who had been with the Colts<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/indianapoliscolts/index.html?inline=nyt-org>. 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 Ravens<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/baltimoreravens/index.html?inline=nyt-org>played the Cincinnati Bengals<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/profootball/nationalfootballleague/cincinnatibengals/index.html?inline=nyt-org>in their season opener, the Ravens asked offensive lineman Willie Anderson — 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. _____________________________________________________________________ SOCNET is a service of INSNA, the professional association for social network researchers (http://www.insna.org). 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