- Christian Petersen/Getty
When the NFL came down hard on the New England Patriots over the “Deflategate” scandal, many people mentioned the Patriots’ 2007 “Spygate” scandal as one reason for the extensive four-game punishment, which was later overturned.
According to a bombshell report from ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” the Spygate scandal – in which the Patriots were caught videotaping opponents’ defensive signals – is perhaps the primary reason the NFL tried to nail them for Deflategate.
The report details Spygate as we’ve never heard it, painting a picture of systematic cheating that went way further and looks way worse for the Patriots than people previously realized.
First, the Patriots had a detailed, efficient system for finding out opponents’ plays. ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham describe a scene in Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s office before a season-opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
“[A backup quarterback named John] Friesz was told that the Patriots had a tape of the Bucs’ signals. He was instructed to memorize them, and during the game, to watch Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and tell [offensive coordinator Charlie] Weis the defensive play, which Weis would relay over the radio headset system to quarterback Drew Bledsoe.”
Van Natta and Wickersham report that although the Patriots lost that game, they realized a “schematic” edge over other teams. They “streamlined the system,” finding a more efficient way to note the plays and relay the information, cutting out the quarterbacks, with only a few people, including Belichick.
Soon, advanced scouts would be sent to the games of upcoming Patriots’ opponents to film the play signals. The scouts would go undercover as media members, with media credentials listed under “Patriots TV” or “Kraft Productions” and were prepared with excuses of what to say they were filming if security asked.
According to Van Natta and Wickersham, “Each video sequence would usually include three shots: the down and distance, the signal, and, as an in-house joke, a tight shot of a cheerleader’s top or skirt.”
The tapes would then go to a Belichick confidant named Ernie Adams, an “amateur historian of pro football,” who would have the tapes edited and match the notes of the play calls and signals to the action on the field.
The Patriots started a library of videotapes from teams all across the league. A former Patriots assistant coach told ESPN “It got out of control.”
According to the report, the system grew to the point that the Patriots would add players cut from upcoming opponents to look at Adams’ tapes and judge their effectiveness.
But wait, there’s more!
The effectiveness of the spying is reportedly debated among former Patriots staffers, some of whom say Adams wasn’t good at his job.
Other methods of cheating reportedly include:
- Sending low-level Patriots employees to sneak into the visiting locker room during pregame warm-ups and steal the play sheet. As Van Natta and Wickersham note, “The practice became so notorious that some coaches put out fake play sheets for the Patriots to swipe.” Sending employees through the visiting team’s hotel to try to swipe playbooks and scouting reports. “Scrambling and jamming” opponent radio headsets to interfere with opponent communication.
Peyton Manning is reportedly paranoid about the Patriots’ methods of cheating; he leaves the Patriots’ visiting locker room to discuss schemes with coaches in case the room is bugged.
Still, the spying was reportedly the biggest deal. The entire operation came to a head when Eric Mangini, coach of the New York Jets and a former Patriots coach, realized that the Patriots were filming teams. He ordered security to be on alert, and they caught a Patriots employee taping the Jets.
- Jeff Haynes/Reuters
Roger Goodell, then only 18 months into his role as NFL commissioner, fined Belichick $500,000, the Patriots $250,000, and docked the team a first-round pick before investigators ever even went to Foxborough to look for the tapes.
There, investigators found “a room accessible only to Belichick and a few others” with a “library of scouting material containing videotapes of opponents’ signals, with detailed notes matching signals to plays for many teams going back seven seasons.”
However, as Van Natta and Wickersham report, “almost as quickly as the tapes and notes were found, they were destroyed, on Goodell’s orders: League executives stomped the tapes into pieces and shredded the papers inside a Gillette Stadium conference room.”
The report says the Patriots never told the league how many games they filmed and offered up only eight tapes, and the league never asked.
Goodell was accused by some owners of sweeping the issue under the rug and helping out his close friend, Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Belichick said he had simply misinterpreted a rule prohibiting the taping of other teams’ play signals. Goodell reportedly took the stance that any team that cheats in the future will be “dealt with forcefully.”
Naturally, in wake of the report, both the NFL and the Patriots have come to their own defense:
Goodell on today’s ESPN report: “I’m not aware of any connection between the Spygate procedures and the procedures we went through here.”
— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) September 8, 2015
— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) September 8, 2015
The report paints a picture about why league insists on dragging out Deflategate – it’s a “make-up call” for sidestepping the severity of Spygate, if the ESPN report is accurate.
If the details are all true, it looks damning for both sides, but particularly for the Patriots. What initially seemed like a cheap blunder trying to videotape opponents’ play signals now looks like an advanced operation meant to give the Patriots a serious advantage.