The 2008 Battle Was Epic, seemingly pitting the "good" G-men vs. the cheating team everyone wanted to hate. But are this year's contestants much different after all?
In one corner of the ring: Convenient scoreboard mishaps, Spygate allegations and punishment of lost draft picks.
In the other: Faking injuries on no-huddle drives and openly admitting targeting a player with multiple concussions while calling other teams (like the Falcons) dirty.
Some fans and even former players say football is meant to be played through hell-and-high-water, within the whistle and beyond. And as a Green Bay Packers fan, I'll admit we had a dirty player in Charles Martin (and possibly Chuck Cecil though many argue those were good, clean hits by Cecil in that era) when he infamously body-slammed Jim McMahon in a brutal, way-after-the-play fashion.
Others seem to equate the NFL with warfare, even giving credit to teams that have the attitude of "win at any cost." They attribute questionable, below-the-belt and even all-out spying as simply demonstrating a greater desire to win. The other excuse is "well, every team is probably cheating to get an edge so why punish one over the other?"
And still others, including former players and coaches, talk about a line that can get crossed.
On one hand, there are behind-the-scenes tactics off the field, beyond NFL rules which teams as well-respected as George Seifert's 1994 49ers were accused of when they were able to load up on star free agents including Hall of Fame, all-time great, Deion Sanders (via Yahoo Sports).
The 49ers this year were also accused by two powerful NFL owners of breaking NFL rules in salary cap violations, according to SF Gate.com.
As much as I loved Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and the Walsh/Seifert dynasties, one has to wonder about the validity of it all if they were also busted in 1985 (82? can't find source in google searches, didn't they lose draft picks one year?) resulting in a lost draft pick.
Hall of Fame center Jim Langer has even publicly declared that Redskins' great George Allen sent spies to Dolphins' practices before the 1972 undefeated Dolphins Super Bowl game: "“We were chasing the spies (Redskins coach) George Allen sent out of the bushes all week" (via Yahoo Sports).
On the other hand, there are those hot-headed, heat-of-the-moment brutalities like Ndamukong Suh's way of saying "thanks" to Evan Dietrich-Smith this past Thanksgiving Day followed by a tongue-in-cheek, at best, apology.
Fortunate for Suh, he can walk away from this year with one award in his name: "Dirtiest Player" as voted by fellow players, according to NFL.com.
So where's the line between a brilliant franchise just slightly ahead of its time in building a dynasty versus a straight-up cheater?
On the field, the NFL wants to reduce concussions by preventing all-out spearing to the head and other head shots (particularly in protecting it's biggest money-maker, the quarterback) but rule changes and fines haven't slowed Steelers' LB James Harrison down, according to ESPN.
This article takes a look at two cases against both of these esteemed franchises competing in this year's Super Bowl.
If someone targetted Jacquian Williams' head before Kyle Williams' fumble, would he have been able to play in the Super Bowl??
Every team has its class acts as well as a few brash, out-spoken, unethical dolts.
As far as the New York Giants go, I for one was rooting harder than I ever have for a team other than the Packers when the Giants took down the Goliath to end the Patriots' undefeated season in their last Super Bowl matchup.
This year, I'm all for a highly-competitive game and wish both teams well. I admire both the Giants and Patriots' ability to develop very talented rosters and consistently find ways to win through challenges.
That said, let's take a look at a few recent examples that cast a shadow over an otherwise excellent elderstatesman franchise of NFL history—The New York Football Giants (not to be confused with their Ping Pong Giants squad).
Flopping like a fish out of water
When this year's Giants faced the mighty St. Louis Rams (I kid you not), they must have thought they were facing a time-travel version of the "Greatest Show on Turf."
Why do I make this accusation?
Because they had to fake injuries to stop the Rams no-huddle offense. As if that's not bad enough, the Deon Grant and Jacquian Williams fake injuries took place in THE FIRST QUARTER of a 7-3 ballgame with both players seen standing up after the play only to have a mysterious wormhole sweep out their legs from under them.
If you're not sure whether to laugh or scream at this monstrosity, you're not alone.
Why should a team that prides itself on defense and creating pressure, have to stoop this low when they do in fact have a great front seven? What example does this set for the pop warner kids at home? Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell's face says it all in this clip.
At least they were honest
With yesterday's story of Jacquian Williams (coincidence?) and Devin Thomas battling in the press to overtake Suh's "Dirtiest Player" award from him (via the Huffington Post), the Giants look a little less like David and more like a maniacal, conniving version of Goliath this year.
It's one thing to play hard, but its entirely another to seek out brain damage of your opponent, no matter what the era.
Stating, "The thing is, we knew he had four concussions, so that was our biggest thing, was to take him outta the game," Williams crossed any and all lines in both the rules and basic ethics of competition (via the Huffington Post).
Players of NFL caliber athleticism and skill sets can create fumbles without striving to achieve the brain's smashing against it's own skull outright.
In defense of the Giants, Micheal Boley provided an example of what a true leader, class-act and diplomat of the NFL should say:
In our meetings, we do not talk about it. Concussions are a big deal and we don't talk about it at all. We are a fraternity of brothers across the league, linebacker Michael Boley said.
You don't think about someone's past injuries or what was wrong with them. Obviously if something is wrong with them, they would not be on the field.
Many other players share these bonds of playing hard and playing fair, either as college and high school teammates and even as past and current rivals. A good example: Amidst great division-rivalry battles, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Chicago's Jay Cutler remain friends due to Cutler's Vanderbilt roots helping Rodgers' brother lead Vanderbilt this year.
With 75 former players, including several Hall of Famers, filing a lawsuit against the NFL for the consequences of head injuries suffered during their careers, Williams' statements are nothing to scoff at (via Fox Sports).
Belichick's legacy will forever be shrouded as both a Nixon-like controlling evil-dooer and an all-time great.
It's been well-documented in innumerable stories associated with Spygate and further allegations which seemed to keep surfacing long after the NFL wanted to turn the page on the New England Patriots' cheating ways.
For many NFL fans, this tarnished legacy with Bill Belichick and the same Kraft ownership at the helm dooms the Patriots to the label of "cheater" to this day.
Did the Patriots do the time for their crimes when the NFL took away draft picks and fined Belichick?
How do we know the Pats ever stopped cheating? Is the NFL continually checking on the Patriots?
Will we ever know if the Patriots would have won the tightly-contested Super Bowls against the St. Louis Rams, Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles (where each was won by three points) without cheating?
If we don't know for sure that the Patriots were cheating or not for the Eagles big years, imagine how differently Donovan McNabb's legacy would be with a ring (though I doubt Eagles fans would be any less ornery, according to NBC Sports.
From taping teams' practices illegally to allegedly stealing signs from the stands during games, the Patriots' exploits may remain half-truth and half tall tale for years to come without further investigation by the NFL.
One thing's for certain though: the rewards (in dollars as well as having the trading chips to add first-round draft picks in recent years) of winning three Super Bowls in four years and reaching another in 2008 far exceed the punishment dealt by the NFL in 2007.
If cheating pays, will the Patriots legacy set a precedent for other teams to follow to become relevant teams again? If we ignore ethics, what effect will that have in the long-term on a game we all love as fans?
As for this fan-writer, I think our love of sports stems from a desire for fairness and the possibility that an underdog whom we identify with, can beat a juggernaut. A recent Slate.com report by Daniel Engber suggests the great majority of fans root for the underdog. If this is true, how will we interpret fairness if we succumb to ambivalence on baseball's steroid era, HGH testing in sports and cases of cheating in the NFL?
Interestingly enough, the Pats public image went from a darling underdog when they beat St. Louis to the evil empire of cheating since Spygate broke.
Superbowl XLVI: May the best team win!
To conclude this piece without putting too much of a damper on an otherwise festive, nationwide event, I'd like to believe that in this Superbowl XLVI, we won't see any flopping of fake injuries, spying, intentional targeting of concussed players for injury or anything out of the Charles Martin and Suh post-whistle playbook.
I'll never forget the play that defined fairness (and the previous outcome of the last Superbowl matchup of these teams), in all its greatness. An under duress Eli Manning tossed up a jump-ball-like prayer for David Tyree to fight for mid-air against his helmet versus Rodney Harrison and the Patriots secondary.
Let's hope this year's Superbowl is defined by well-fought, hard-played moments like we witnessed in the last matchup.
Congratulations to the fanbases of both of these talented franchises. Enjoy the moment, you never know when gravity will turn the waves of success into a tsunami of rebuilding—just ask the Panthers fans after their last Superbowl.
This Superbowl XLVI, may the best team have an honest and honorable win the nation can be proud of.
So which team do you think is more honorable?
Option 1: The Patriots
Option 2: The Giants
Option 3: Neither team is dirtier than the any other NFL team.
Option 4: Who cares? I just want to see the commercials this year!
Post your comments and opinions below!