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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ethics, Trade Secrets and Job Changes in the NFL

As an Eagles' fan, this headline puzzled me. The article reports that the Eagles' linebackers' coach, Steve Spagnuolo, is leaving Philadelphia to become the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. That's right, the arch-rival New York Giants.

How does this happen? After all, in most businesses, there are trade secret laws that would prevent an employee from taking company secrets to a competitor, and, in many cases, there are employment contracts with non-compete provisions that can effectively have someone sit on the sidelines for a year or more should they want to compete directly against their former company. After all, would you want a key sales guy to go to your competitor and then beating your brains a week after he left your employ? If you're a stockholder in the now-former employer or an employee of the now-former employer of the key sales guy, how would you feel about the main competitor's taking this guy away and putting him on your team?

In the NFL, most coaches are mobile so long as the job another team offers is a step up. As a result, the Giants could recruit Spagnuolo because being defensive coordinator is a step up from being a position coach. As a result, they offered him the job within the NFL rules, and by all accounts Spagnuolo is an excellent coach who has been overdue for a coordinator's position. So, congratulations to him on his new job and to the Giants for picking a good coach to fill their coordinator's spot. In contrast, the Giants, by NFL rules, would have been prohibited from pursuing a current defensive coordinator, because the job being offered was not a step up. Sounds simple, right?

As far as employment mobility goes, it does, and in fairness to the coaches there are only 32 NFL teams and the number of opportunities are limited. Prevent a Spagnuolo from going to the Giants, and you might prevent him from becoming a coordinator, ever. Also, what's the diference between a trade secret and common football knowledge. These coaches watch tons of film, so they know a great deal about defenses generally and about other offenses. That said, most of the film that Spagnuolo has been watching, presumably, has been that of the offenses that his team, the Eagles, were going to face during the NFL season. You would guess that he wasn't watching film of defenses other than his own, which means, yes, that the one defense he knows intimately is that of the Giants' arch-rival, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Which means that if you're an Eagles' fan, you're a little scared, because not only do you lose a respected position coach (you also might lose another one, the DB coach who is rumored to be a possible successor to Mike Tomlin as the Vikings' defensive coordinator), you have that guy go to a division rival loaded up, in his mind, at least, with detailed knowledge of your team's defensive schemes -- which, presumably, he can then share with the Giants' offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride. (Truth be told, given that the Eagles' defensive performance was uneven last year and teams seemed to have figured out Jim Johnson's vaunted defenses to a greater degree than previously, perhaps it's not a total loss -- what will the Giants learn that they don't already know?).

The hard part in the entire analysis is that these coaches can't split their brains, and neither, probably, could a court. What does Spagnuolo know that is common knowledge to good defensive football coaches that is out in the public domain? Probably a lot. What does he know that is indigenous to the Eagles -- more than you probably think. He knows their coverage calls, he knows their schemes in detail, and he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Birds' defensive players as much as anyone other than, say, Jim Johnson.

So what's the protocol in the NFL? My guess is that Spagnuolo cannot take any Eagles' documentation with him, no defensive playbook, no film compilations, nothing. It's hard to say whether he may reveal to Giants' head coach Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride what he knows about the Eagles' defense that could help them devise plays to beat it. Does that happen in the NFL, or is the rule that Spagnuolo is off-limits for those purposes?

Or is it just not a big deal at all?

The papers in Philadelphia haven't made this an issue, and, of course, the beat writers know much more about this sort of stuff than I do. But I hope that someone asks the question and writes about it, because the answers would be interesting reading.

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