- Maddie Meyer/Getty
Despite a convincing 28-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL opener on Thursday night, the New England Patriots find themselves steeped in more controversy.
One week after Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension was overturned, and only several days after ESPN’s bombshell “Spygate” report, the Steelers are accusing the Patriots of tampering with their headset connections during the game.
During the first half, the Steelers say their headsets were tuned to the local radio broadcast of the game. NFL rules require that if one team’s connection is lost, the other team may not use its headsets. When NFL personnel approached the Patriots about their headsets, the Steelers say their connection was magically repaired.
After the game, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said such happenings were “always the case” at Gillette Stadium.
This wasn’t the only complaint from the Steelers, though. In a second-half rally, the Steelers were called for a false start on a third-and-goal. Ben Roethlisberger argued that the Patriots did a “line slide” during his pre-snap cadence – a move that could fool offensive lines (via USA Today’s Tom Pelissero):
“I thought that there was a rule against that. Maybe there’s not. Maybe it’s just an unwritten rule … We saw it on film, that the Patriots do that. They shift and slide and do stuff on the goal line, knowing that it’s an itchy trigger finger-type down there.”
Steelers guard Ramon Foster added, “They time [the slide] up in the cadence. Yeah, that’s one of the things they do. Welcome to Foxborough.”
One day into the season, there are already two new cheating allegations against the Patriots. The NFL took the blame for the headset failures, saying it was due to the inclement weather, complaints about radio miscommunications are nothing new. As ProFootball Talk’s Michael David Smith points out, teams complained that their radio communications were jammed up in Foxborough during the same period as the Spygate investigation.
Even if the latter complaint about a line slide isn’t exactly cheating, it’s the type of gray area the Patriots specialize in exploiting. During the off-season, the NFL made an official rule banning the tricky formation the Patriots used in last season’s playoffs, in which they completed pass after pass to a receiver disguised as a lineman. Ravens coach John Harbaugh later called it “deception.”
As a former Patriots assistant told ESPN: “You’d want Bill and Ernie [Adams] doing your taxes. They would find all the loopholes, and then when the IRS would close them, they’d find more.”
In light of the Spygate report, the allegations in Deflategate, and the new allegations, the NFL world is increasingly comfortable in making its suspicions public. And that right is earned to a certain extent. The Patriots may have a larger target than other teams, but there’s valid reasoning behind these accusations. No other team has found itself surrounded by controversy as often as the Patriots in the past 10 years, and it seems to have now reached the point at which teams don’t consider it taboo to publicly say they suspect the Patriots of foul play.
After the newest Spygate report, Bill Simmons took to Twitter to defend the Patriots, and though Simmons is an unabashed Patriots fan, he made a good point:
Not sure what to make of the sour grapes stuff. Sure seems like everyone who ever lost to 2001-07 Pats now has a built-in excuse for failure
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) September 8, 2015
This is an exaggeration – teams will lose to the Patriots and accept it graciously because the Patriots are a good team and win lots of football games.
However, where there may be a cultural shift in the NFL is when teams suspect something went wrong – radio failures, line slides, funky formations – and they don’t know how to react, or feel some rule was exploited. The normal tendency to tread lightly over accusing another team could fall out the window, and the Steelers’ reactions after Thursday night’s loss could become the norm.