The 49ers today lost their fifth-round pick and had to swap third-rounders with the Chicago Bears for the equivalent of traveling 75 mph in a 65 mph zone. Commissioner Roger Goodell decided he had heard enough evidence to decide that the 49ers had tampered with Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs prior to the 2007 trade deadline, and the sheriff doled out some rough justice, especially for a team that purports to build through the draft.
Are the 49ers doe-eyed innocent victims? Eh. In 2006 they contemplated a trade-deadline deal for cornerback Nate Clements, then beat every other team to the punch by signing Clements on the first day of free agency. Since the McCloughan-Nolan regime took over, they have been uber-aggressive in signing free agents and have landed several whoppers in the opening hours of the free-agency period. Had any early negotiations gone on? Have the 49ers been guilty of tampering in the past? It would be hard to prove in a court of law, but in the NFL Goodell is judge, jury and executioner.
And you also can understand where Goodell is coming from. His biggest obstacle as commissioner has been individuals and teams playing loose and fast with the law. Goodell quickly has established himself as the tough-love sheriff, and many applaud him for the big, white hat he wears.
But you have to wonder if Goodell has been too quick to shoot – or if he has shot the right guy -- in this instance. By taking a fifth-rounder from the 49ers and lowering the value of their third rounder, he seems more like the Sheriff of Nottingham – taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The Bears, if you’ll remember, were in the Super Bowl only 13 months ago and – this can’t be stressed enough – WOUND UP RETAINING BRIGGS. I’m not sure I understand where the crime occurred.
Goodell’s decision inevitably will be compared to the one he made regarding Spygate. For that, he took away the New England Patriots’ first-round draft pick (No. 31 overall) this year, a punishment that has little bite considering the Patriots were able to keep the No. 7 overall pick they obtained from – who else? – the 49ers last April. In that case, Goodell had video evidence that the Patriots were stealing their opponent’s defensive signals, something that every coach in the league agrees would give a team a decided advantage. In the 49ers’ case, they are guilty of something that is acknowledged as commonplace in the league, and it’s not clear that Goodell had any rock-solid evidence on which to base his decision.
So why were the 49ers busted? The new sheriff needed to make an example of somebody. Docking the 49ers a fifth-round pick is like pulling a car over on the side of the highway. Once the other drivers see the flashing lights, they slow down to 65. McCloughan, who has been a general manager for all of three months, also makes an easy target. It’s hard to see Goodell slapping the wrist of a more venerated personnel man like, say, Bill Parcells. That’s why the Dolphins won’t suffer the same fate for their suspiciously quick signing of former 49er Justin Smiley last month.
-- Matt Barrows