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Jackie MacMullan

You're too smart for this stuff, Bill

FOXBOROUGH - I don't get it.

You are recognized as the best coach in the National Football League. You have won three Super Bowls and the Patriots have been anointed as the model of how to run a successful franchise.

You have staked your reputation on being a shrewd, relentless competitor who never - ever - lets emotions cloud your judgment.

You are usually one step ahead of the pack.

And that's why I don't understand why you authorized one of your staff members to videotape the early moments of last Sunday's game against the New York Jets.

C'mon, Bill Belichick. You are smarter than that.

Belichick finds himself embroiled in a controversy over the league's seizure of equipment used by Patriots video assistant Matt Estrella along the New England sideline in the 38-14 win over the Jets. The story that has been dubbed "Videogate" dominated the conversation at Gillette Stadium and around the league yesterday, and it's not hard to understand why.

The Patriots are favored to win it all again, and a rare misstep by their resident genius is headline news. The fact the opponent in question was the Jets, coached by Belichick's former apprentice, Eric Mangini, who had the audacity to leap from the mother ship to New England's division rival, only adds to the drama. Mangini was here from 2000-05 and was a member of Belichick's inner circle. Mangini knew all his boss's tricks - including, most likely, his videotaping tendencies. Do you believe it's a coincidence the Patriots were busted on J-E-T-S soil? I think not.

New England's embattled coach tried to sidestep the controversy yesterday during his daily press conference. He was asked if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gave him a timetable on when he would take action regarding the video. He was asked if he had contingency plans in place in case he was suspended. He was even asked if he was embarrassed by the negative publicity his actions have caused.

"Any questions about the Chargers?" Belichick asked.

Sunday night's game against San Diego should be fueled with emotion. The Chargers are still hot over Patriots players celebrating at midfield after their playoff win last season. Ellis Hobbs performed Shawne Merriman's trademark "Lights Out" dance on the Chargers' logo, prompting San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson to refer to the Patriots as "classless," and intimating it started with their head coach. LT has happily chimed in on New England's latest flap, saying, "I think the Patriots actually live by the saying, 'If you're not cheating, you're not trying.' "

There will be serious consequences for Belichick regarding Videogate - consequences that cannot be dismissed as embellishment by the media. Goodell will punish the Patriots, possibly with the loss of draft picks. His highest-profile coach has thumbed his nose at the league and will now pay the price.

And that's the part I don't get. Do the benefits of such video outweigh the obvious detriments of breaking the rules? Although some NFL experts have suggested stealing defensive signals could provide significant advantages, others insist the information is merely a low-level form of gamesmanship.

"I don't really see why it's a big deal," said Patriots tight end Kyle Brady. "The same thing happens every week. An offensive group goes on the field. The defense sees it and responds. Everyone kind of knows who does what in this league. It doesn't necessarily have to be a big secret what the [defensive] signals are. They often change week to week anyway."

Who honestly believes the Patriots' ability to intercept defensive signals is the secret to their success? Call me crazy, but I think it's got a little more to do with the guy running around in the No. 12 jersey. We do know Belichick hates to lose - particularly to Mangini - but is he so hellbent on gaining every little edge that he would jeopardize tarnishing the reputation of his team? This has created a major distraction in the week leading up to one of the biggest games of the season, a distraction that could have been avoided entirely had he simply listened to the commissioner.

The crux of the problem is this: Belichick was warned. Questions were raised last season about alleged New England videotaping in a romp over Green Bay. Multiple league sources indicate everyone in the NFL knew or suspected the Patriots were engaged in forbidden videotaping for years. It wasn't as if this came out of the blue. Belichick knew his team was being scrutinized, and he knew the league considered unauthorized taping a serious matter.

So why did he so brazenly continue to do it? In his statement yesterday, Belichick acknowledged he spoke to Goodell about "my interpretation of the rules."

There doesn't appear to be much (if any) wiggle room in regards to those rules. Here's what the game operations manual clearly states: "No video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game."

Sounds pretty clear to me.

There must be something else at work here. Perhaps this was yet another example of Belichick tweaking the league for guidelines he feels are unnecessary. He is vehemently opposed to releasing information regarding injuries to his players, but the league mandates he must. So, every week quarterback Tom Brady is listed as "probable" with a right shoulder injury - regardless of his status.

Is that what this is about? Or is Belichick so arrogant that he believes the rules do not apply to him? Is he so obsessed with winning that he is willing to do so at all costs? He wouldn't be the first - or the last - to subscribe to the theory that it's not cheating unless you get caught.

The Patriots have been nabbed twice in two weeks - first when Rodney Harrison was suspended four games for using human growth hormone, and now for stealing pictures of the Jets' defensive brain trust. Not exactly a recipe for a model franchise.

The real shame of Videogate is Belichick's actions have placed the entire team under scrutiny. He apologized to his players yesterday, and some of them expressed dismay that all their years of hard work are now tainted by allegations of an unfair advantage.

"Just because someone maybe made a mistake, it doesn't mean your whole team is trash," running back Kevin Faulk said.

Maybe not, but while the Patriots used to be universally known as champions, this morning they are being called something else: cheaters.

And the smartest coach in the NFL is the reason why.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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