DAVIE (CBSMiami) — Two days from the start of the NFL season, the New England Patriots have to be feeling liberated after Tom Brady’s four-game suspension was dismissed by a federal judge last week, right?
Not so fast.
According to a damning, detailed report published by ESPN on Tuesday morning, the initial punishment imposed by the NFL over Deflategate was seen by some owners as a “makeup call” over Spygate, the previous Patriots scandal highlighted by illegally taping opponents’ play signals.
The report claims Roger Goodell ordered the destruction of Spygate evidence after investigators undercovered findings that could hurt the NFL brand.
Those investigators hadn’t come up empty: Inside a room accessible only to Belichick and a few others, they found a library of scouting material containing videotapes of opponents’ signals, with detailed notes matching signals to plays for many teams going back seven seasons. Among them were handwritten diagrams of the defensive signals of the Pittsburgh Steelers, including the notes used in the January 2002 AFC Championship Game won by the Patriots 24-17. Yet 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…
Just before he finished speaking, Goodell looked his bosses in the eye and, with dead certainty, said that from then on, cheaters would be dealt with forcefully.
And so Deflategate was seen as the makeup call, imposing a harsh penalty for not simply the deflating of footballs but Spygate before that. But it gets worse for Bill Belichick.
In fact, many former New England coaches and employees insist that the taping of signals wasn’t even the most effective cheating method the Patriots deployed in that era. Several of them acknowledge that during pregame warm-ups, a low-level Patriots employee would sneak into the visiting locker room and steal the play sheet, listing the first 20 or so scripted calls for the opposing team’s offense. (The practice became so notorious that some coaches put out fake play sheets for the Patriots to swipe.) Numerous former employees say the Patriots would have someone rummage through the visiting team hotel for playbooks or scouting reports. Walsh later told investigators that he was once instructed to remove the labels and erase tapes of a Patriots practice because the team had illegally used a player on injured reserve. At Gillette Stadium, the scrambling and jamming of the opponents’ coach-to-quarterback radio line — “small s—” that many teams do, according to a former Pats assistant coach — occurred so often that one team asked a league official to sit in the coaches’ box during the game and wait for it to happen. Sure enough, on a key third down, the headset went out.
And the Miami Dolphins were also mentioned in the investigative piece, labeled as a “less sophisticated team” because coaches “didn’t bother changing their signals.”
Looking back on it, several former Patriots coaches insist that spying helped them most against less sophisticated teams — the Dolphins and Bills chief among them — whose coaches didn’t bother changing their signals. Even when they had the perfect play teed up, sometimes the system would fail, owing to human error. Several opposing coaches now say they wish they had messed with Belichick’s head the way he had messed with theirs. You want to tape signals? Fine. We’ll have three guys signaling plays and disguise it so much that Ernie Adams has to waste an entire day trying to decode them, then change them all when we play.
Among the extensive findings after speaking with “90 sources” was also this nugget: the Patriots videotaped signals of opposing coaches in 40 games from 2000 to 2007. Goodell told the media back in 2008 he believed there were “six tapes.”
Update: The Patriots have issues a statement:
“The New England Patriots have never filmed or recorded another team’s practice or walkthrough. The first time we ever heard of such an accusation came in 2008, the day before Super Bowl XLII, when the Boston Herald reported an allegation from a disgruntled former employee. That report created a media firestorm that extended globally and was discussed incessantly for months. It took four months before that newspaper retracted its story and offered the team a front and back page apology for the damage done. Clearly, the damage has been irreparable. As recently as last month, over seven years after the retraction and apology was issued, ESPN issued the following apology to the Patriots for continuing to perpetuate the myth: ‘On two occasions in recent weeks, SportsCenter incorrectly cited a 2002 report regarding the New England Patriots and Super Bowl XXXVI. That story was found to be false, and should not have been part of our reporting. We apologize to the Patriots organization.'”‘
“This type of reporting over the past seven years has led to additional unfounded, unwarranted and, quite frankly, unbelievable allegations by former players, coaches and executives. None of which have ever been substantiated, but many of which continue to be propagated,” the Pats said in a statement. “The New England Patriots are led by an owner whose well-documented efforts on league wide initiatives – from TV contracts to preventing a work stoppage – have earned him the reputation as one of the best in the NFL. For the past 16 years, the Patriots have been led by one of the league’s all-time greatest coaches and one of its alltime greatest quarterbacks. It is disappointing that some choose to believe in myths, conjecture and rumors rather than giving credit for the team’s successes to Coach Belichick, his staff and the players for their hard work, attention to detail, methodical weekly preparation, diligence and overall performance.”