The NFL's version of the hot stove league warmed our hearts with news of stiff penalties for players who run the streets badly. Now that games have begun, we're seeing how Roger Goodell's sense of justice impacts entire teams.
The Bill Belichick camera caper inspired many impassioned orations about justice last week. Unfortunately, the discussion never ranged beyond punishment as a remedy for using videotape to steal signals.
For whatever reason, we're hung up on punishment. All week, we awaited the punishment. When Goodell pronounced from the NFL commissioner's office that the Patriots would pay fines and lose at least a draft pick, the chorus wept. Not enough punishment.
The risk of confusing vengeance for justice is that we lose a chance to make a difference for the better. If we just want to hang Belichick, then say we just want to hang Belichick, but don't pretend punishment is the golden path to making the world whole and just.
Civil courts recognize a variety of damages, including punitive damages, but also compensatory damages intended to restore the victim's condition as much as possible. An entirely different range of options would have emerged in the Belichick matter if not for the fixation on punishment.
Goodell finally went to that well when the winds told him that fines of $500,000 against Belichick and $250,000 against the New England Patriots were too meager for the gods of public opinion. Goodell announced Sunday that he has ordered the Patriots to turn over all notes, videos and files obtained against the NFL's rules.
It's unclear what the commissioner intends to do with the information, but if he really wants to make the other teams whole, he will distribute the information to the other teams.
The Patriots stole the information, so make them give it back.
What do the Patriots know about how other teams signal their defenses and tip their calls? Make them give it up.
Watching the Bengals in that dreadful loss in Cleveland on Sept. 16, one supposed the striped tacklers could use help from the Patriots' database for understanding their own schemes and signals. But we also know that if the Bengals can't place a sure tackler near a ball carrier or pass receiver, it's not simply a matter of schemes and signals.
It's another matter of Roger Goodell's administration of justice -- the kinds of players who've made him famous -- and poor luck.
Odell Thurman, alone, would make a huge difference. The Bengals knew they took a chance when they drafted him high in the second round two years ago, but that chance wasn't about productivity on the football field.
Thurman showed up as a game-changing player, and he might be a sensation in the league right now if he could stay out of trouble. But he's suspended again this year for his off-field behavior.
The Bengals took a chance on linebacker A.J. Nicholson and his checkered history going back to Florida State. But in today's get-tough environment, they just can't carry his legal problems. They took a chance on defensive end Frostee Rucker and his issues, to no good end.
Then we recall linebacker David Pollack, the first-round pick in 2005 who might never play again after suffering neck injuries. In short, lost and wasted talents have kept the Bengals from improving their defense during the Marvin Lewis regime, quite a surprising outcome considering that Lewis ran that Super Bowl Baltimore Ravens defense lauded as one of the greatest ever.
The Bengals have practically introduced a new genre of defense. An all-or-nothing offense comes along in common course, but the all-or-nothing defense is a new wrinkle. Either the Bengals take six turnovers, as in their opening win against Baltimore, or they give up 51 points, as in their loss at Cleveland.
The Thurman suspension is a clear matter of the Bengals paying a price for taking a risky player. Without Thurman, Nicholson, Rucker and Pollack, the Bengals are set back a good two years in the building of their defense.
In view of the Bengals' tattered defense, the offense assumes a greater responsibility than merely scoring points. Despite scoring 45 points, the Bengals offense isn't entirely innocent in last weekend's 51-45 debacle. That's easy enough to say in hindsight, of course.
Before the Cleveland game, we thought the defense might be fine. We now understand otherwise.
Knowing their defense is vulnerable, it's more important for the Bengals to not expose it. Offensive mistakes by the Bengals in the first half way over-taxed the defense, which finally cratered.
After the Bengals scored on their first possession, the Bengals defense forced a three-and-out. So far, so good. But then Carson Palmer threw an interception and Cleveland took the ball on the Bengals' 37, from which it drove to a field goal.
Early in the second quarter, Rudi Johnson fumbled at the Bengals' 29. The Browns turned it into a touchdown.
Turnovers will matter more to the Bengals than any other NFL team this year because their offense is powerful enough to win any game and their defense is leaky enough to lose any game. Until the Bengals can play a consistent defense, they will win and lose every time in the breaks.
The Patriots don't need breaks. They don't even need motivation. But they've got it anyway.
Once commentators and fans started questioning the legitimacy of New England's three Super Bowl wins this decade because of the videotaping scandal, you knew the Patriots would turn ferocious.
They destroyed the San Diego Chargers 38-14 on the evening of Sept. 16, clearly marking themselves as the best team in the AFC, which is the better conference. Two weeks into the season, one is more confident than ever that the Patriots will play with a grudge and a point to prove. They're the best team in the NFL and, as everyone says, the smartest.
But some of that smartness is ill gotten, and now the Patriots are forced to share it with the commissioner. And if the commissioner kicks that info to the other teams, the situation is somewhat reversed.
Then we'll see how smart and good the Patriots really are. That's the right start on the path to justice.