Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Stealing signals isn't just a sign of the times

STEVE SABOL He's seen it all STEVE SABOL He's seen it all

He was the George Washington of the NFL, the father of the league, but George Halas could tell a lie. In fact, the coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, it seems, told many.

Like when NFL teams in the late 1950s were required to send copies of their coaches' practice films to opponents in the days leading up to the game. Halas hired two cameramen to record the practice: one who shot in perfect focus for the Bears and one who purposely twisted the lens to blur the players and the field. The Bears sent the blurry film to their prospective opponents. And when the films arrived and the coaches invariably called to complain, Halas always feigned disgust.

"Oh that no-good cameraman we got, I'm going to fire him. All our films are terrible; I can't see a thing," he was said to have muttered into the phone.

On a week in which Patriots coach Bill Belichick was caught having an employee film Jets coaches sending signs to players on the field, Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films, laughed as he sat in his office outside Philadelphia. As the official chronicler of the league, along with father Ed for a half-century, Sabol has peered through the viewfinder at a paranoid world of professional football - a place where coaches have schemed and connived for decades as a way of getting ahead.

"I think in the NFL knowledge is power," Sabol said. "And you try to get the knowledge by whatever means."

The difference, he said, between Belichick and the long list of coaches before him who tried to win with trickery and deceit is that Belichick crossed the line and actually broke a league rule. He had been warned and continued to do it.

The others? They just smudged the line between right and wrong.

Like former Redskins coach George Allen, who at times might have been the most paranoid man to pull on a headset. Allen was notorious for believing his practices were being spied upon and his offices bugged, even installing guards around practice fields to prosecute anyone who happened by, including autograph-seeking fans on the off chance they might actually be spies.

Then again, he was probably familiar with every tactic an opponent might pull, having tried many of them himself.

Gil Brandt, a longtime Cowboys executive, recalled the time the team got a call from a local airport car rental agency back when Allen coached the Los Angeles Rams. The rental agent said a man who worked for the Rams had just rented a car and had asked for directions to the Cowboys' practice fields.

Sure enough, the undercover man was captured.

"I always think the guys who are most suspicious have been doing it themselves," said former coach Dick Vermeil. "It's because they know it can be done."

Gamesmanship has forever been a part of football. Teams have been accused of adjusting the fields to make it harder for other teams' passing or running attacks. The Oakland Raiders swore, for instance, that the Steelers cut the edges off the Three Rivers Stadium tarp to leave the outside part of the field exposed to the weather, in an effort to make the turf more slippery for the Oakland receivers.

It was widely believed in the NFL that Allen ordered the gates to Washington's RFK Stadium to be thrown open as opposing teams attempted important field goals. The ensuing wind, everyone thought, blew the kicks away from the goal posts. Even today teams in domed stadiums have been suspected of opening doors to let in sudden gusts of air that have affected kicks. There's also a belief that some teams are piping crowd noise into the stadium speakers to amplify the roar of the fans.

But in the wake of Belichick being caught and fined $500,000 along with potentially losing a first-round draft pick, players and coaches insist the spying that went on in the old days is gone now.

"The media is everywhere now," Sabol said. "In the '60s and '70s, a network had three cameras at a game and now it has 20. The game is under a CAT scan scrutiny. There is no way you can get away with anything."

Joe Bugel, the Redskins' assistant head coach, called the Belichick incident "embarrassing" for the league. But he also believes the NFL's security department is so efficient it usually will find any coach who might be trying to break the rules.

"Does every team try to get the other team's signals?" Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said last week. "Yeah. It's usually your third quarterback or somebody. You look and try to get it. Half the time it's wrong. It's not a real exact science. Everybody tries to do that."

It is common for a player released by one team to be picked up by that team's next opponent, who - for the cost of a week's salary - brings that player in for a debriefing and a week of practice before casting him off again.

Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs said he calls friends in the league after they played teams he will face soon. They compare notes on that team's cadences and terminology, all of which might give him a hint of what they might try in a game. What he's come to learn is most quarterbacks don't have a firm enough grasp of the team's offense to throw out fake calls while on the field. What they shout at their teammates before the snap is often what they are going to do.

That little bit of understanding is the difference between an interception and perhaps a touchdown, he said.

Holmgren said he is certain the Seahawks have had their signals stolen in a game within the last five years.

The bigger question in the case of Belichick: What exactly was he trying to do? Was he taping Jets signals for a game later in the year? Did he hope to have the signs figured out by halftime? And if so, did he think he could use them in the game?

Brandt said the transmission from coaches to the quarterback's helmets cuts off with 10 seconds left on the play clock. That doesn't allow for enough time to see what the other team called, decipher it, come up with a counter strategy and then get it out to the field in time.

Then again, sometimes it's important to know something.

Paul Brown, the legendary Browns coach, used to send fake reporters to other team's games, his former players said. Sabol tells the story of Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman, who as a young college coach at Miami (Ohio), sent a graduate assistant to walk on to the team of the season's first opponent, Nevada. The assistant practiced for 10 days, then mysteriously disappeared just before the first game only to show up on the Miami sideline.

Of course, sometimes coaches do things just to make the other team uncomfortable. The Seahawks, for instance, made sure to put the visitor's benches at Qwest Field on the east side of the stadium and in the face of storms that come off Elliott Bay, while the home team stayed dry under a giant roof on the west side.

But no one might have been better at this than Halas, who once sold tickets to the visitor's benches at Wrigley Field. When the Vikings showed up for their game with the Bears, they found fans sitting on their bench and unwilling to move. The Vikings had to sit on the grass and on their helmets.

When Minnesota complained to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Halas denied he ever did such a thing. A search was on for photographic evidence. Eventually a call went to the Sabols. Would they have any shots of the Vikings' bench? They did. And sure enough, upon reviewing the film, there were the fans.

The Bears were fined. Halas tried to ban NFL Films from his stadium and justice had been served.

Just as it has all these decades later.

More from