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Thursday, September 13, 2007
Updated: September 14, 9:24 AM ET
NFL penalty for Belichick, Patriots is far too light

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

It took NFL commissioner Roger Goodell only five days to react to Bill Belichick's spying incident and the penalty was worse than many expected.

But maybe the commissioner acted a little too quickly on this one. The penalty was too light.

The Patriots will lose their 2008 first-round choice if they make the playoffs, Belichick loses $500,000 and the Patriots will be fined $250,000. The only thing that might have been missing is a possible suspension, and that is the only thing that Goodell might have neglected.

Goodell said he considered a suspension, but he felt the draft choice penalty and the fines have a more lasting effect on the franchise. That's a fine premise, but spying affects the outcome of individual games. Taking Belichick out of one game could affect the Patriots' chances of making the playoffs. For example, he's still coaching Sunday's game against the Chargers, and if he wins, he will have a potential home-field tie-breaker if the two teams finish with the same record.

Here's the problem with Goodell's decision: Whether by design or not, the Patriots had themselves covered for such a penalty because they are so good at what they do. They acquired the 49ers' first-round pick in a trade that enabled the 49ers to select Joe Staley. They have an additional third-round pick from the Raiders in another trade. They have enough draft choices to survive the loss of one first-round choice.

Initial reaction around the league was negative. At the very least, many felt, Belichick should have been suspended one or two games along with the draft choice penalties. Those two games could be the difference between the Patriots making the playoffs or not making the playoffs. They have a tough schedule, and it will be hard for them to win more than 11 games with the quality of opponents they'll face.

Belichick now has the ability to coach 16 games, get into the playoffs and take the team to the Super Bowl. As everyone knows, Belichick doesn't think about the future. He focuses on the next game. Sure, he lost the ability to use signals of other teams to help him make offensive adjustments. He'll deal with that. He's the best coach in football.

But the Patriots lost a pick that isn't even as good as the one they received from the 49ers unless the 49ers make the Super Bowl.

This was a harsh penalty, but in many ways, the Patriots got off easy.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.