Everyone else across the country seems to love a good “Patriots are cheaters” story, but the back-to-back revelations by ESPN and Sports Illustrated on Tuesday detail allegations of rulebreaking that deserve attention by fans and the National Football League alike.
Here are the top takeaways from Tuesday’s developments:
■ After the NFL conducted its investigation into Spygate, in which the Patriots were disciplined for videotaping the New York Jets’ coaches signals, the NFL allegedly told former Rams head coach Mike Martz to exonerate the Patriots so the league would avoid a federal investigation.
In the ESPN article, Martz said that Commissioner Roger Goodell persuaded him in 2008 to publicly exonerate the Patriots of cheating before the ’02 Super Bowl because Goodell feared an inquiry to be led by Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
“He told me, ‘The league doesn’t need this. We’re asking you to come out with a couple lines exonerating us and saying we did our due diligence,’ ” Martz, who is now out of coaching, told ESPN. “If it ever got to an investigation, it would be terrible for the league.”
Martz also said that the statement that was given to Specter was not the one Martz wrote, and that the NFL must have “embellished quite a bit.”
Specter died in 2012, but it will be fascinating to see if anyone from Congress picks up his torch and reopens an investigation into Spygate, or investigates the NFL for the allegations of criminal wrongdoing stemming from the statement to Specter.
■ NFL owners flat-out admit that Deflategate was owner-driven revenge.
The crux of the ESPN piece is that because Goodell allegedly covered for Robert Kraft during Spygate, completing a hasty investigation in three days while having league executives destroy the videotapes, the owners encouraged the commissioner to be extremely tough on the Patriots for Deflategate.
No owners commented on the record, but several made it clear that they wanted to see the Patriots be punished severely this time.
One owner quoted by ESPN called Deflategate “a makeup call.”
“Roger did the right thing — at least,” another owner said. “He looks tough — and that’s good.”
“Pleased,” a third owner said.
On ESPN Radio, Goodell denied that there was a connection between Spygate and Deflategate. But the connection is obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.
Deflategate wasn’t about deflated footballs. It was about punishing the Patriots once and for all.
■ The Patriots’ videotaping of opponents between 2000-07 wasn’t necessarily illegal, but they knew it was wrong.
The Patriots allegedly had 40 games worth of videotapes of opponents’ signals, as well as several binders full of notes dating back to 2000.
What we don’t learn in the story is how widespread this type of filming and scouting was across the NFL during that period. As former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said in 2007, “This is exactly how I was told to do it 18 years ago by a Kansas City Chiefs scout.”
But the Patriots acted as though they knew it was wrong while they were doing it. According to ESPN, the Patriots informed their videographers to wear their shirts inside-out, or to put tape over the Patriots logos on their clothing, so as not to be discovered. They wore media credentials to blend in, and were told that if they were ever questioned, they were to say that they were with Patriots TV or Kraft Productions.
What got the Patriots in trouble is that they continued to film the signals after NFL executive Ray Anderson circulated a memo in 2006 and again before the 2007 season warning teams to cut it out.
■ A lot of the juicy allegations sound like sour grapes.
Nothing against the folks at Sports Illustrated, but they didn’t quote one person on the record, except for a couple of former players who don’t really have any actual knowledge of Patriots cheating. Their report includes allegations that opponents’ headsets didn’t work at Gillette Stadium and that members of the Rams, Panthers, and Eagles claimed the Patriots had to have been taping their walk-throughs before the Super Bowl. Those reports sound like pure jealousy.
■ But it doesn’t mean the Patriots weren’t doing it.
The ESPN article is interesting because it quotes former Patriots coaches and employees detailing their espionage (as anonymous sources, of course). “Several” former employees acknowledged that a low-level staffer would sneak into the visiting locker room to steal play sheets. And “numerous” former employees said the Patriots would have someone rummage through the visiting team’s hotel for playbooks or scouting reports.
ESPN didn’t mince words, saying that Bill Belichick “placed an innovative system of cheating in the hands of his most trusted friend,” Ernie Adams. But again, more context is needed to assess the misdeeds. We don’t know how widespread this type of cheating was across the NFL.
It’s important to note that the Patriots’ response Tuesday dealt only with the allegations that they filmed walk-throughs before the Super Bowl.
■ Roger Goodell was in serious trouble last year.
The ESPN piece marks the first time we’ve heard from owners and high-level executives that Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice fiasco had some questioning whether he was right for the job, although of course all of the quotes were anonymous. Goodell initially handed Rice a two game suspension for punching Rice’s then-fiancee, and then later admitted he had not handled the Rice case correctly.
One owner said, “We’re paying $45 million for this?” a reference to Goodell’s yearly salary.
Kraft was publicly very supportive of Goodell, but according to an unnamed friend of Kraft’s, he privately was telling people that “Roger’s been very disappointing in the way he has handled this. And I’m not alone in feeling like that.”
Another high-ranking executive said the league’s owners were “really split” last fall.
Goodell is signed through 2019, and there was talk about not renewing his contract once it expires. But his handling of Deflategate seems to have won him back some supporters, even if Tom Brady’s penalty was thrown out by the courts.
■ The Patriots were their own worst enemy in Deflategate.
One aspect highlighted by ESPN is that the NFL’s standard of “more probable than not,” which was widely mocked by Patriots fans, was instituted as a direct result of Spygate. In 2008, Goodell promised owners that he’d never go lightly on a team again after the widespread criticism for his handling of Spygate, and the standard of guilt was reduced to a preponderance of the evidence, i.e. “more probable than not.”
Another revelation comes from the NFL Films piece “Do Your Job: Bill Belichick and the 2014 Patriots,” which airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on NFL Network. In the film, Kraft talks about his infamous speech that he delivered right after getting off the plane at the Super Bowl in Arizona, in which he demanded an apology from the NFL if it didn’t find any wrongdoing in its Deflategate investigation.
“I wanted to set the tone for the week that this was a bunch of hogwash,” Kraft says.
Talk about the exact wrong tone to set. Kraft should have known that Goodell and the other 31 owners were looking for an excuse to get him and his team. Instead he antagonized and mocked the league with his statement.
No wonder the team got crushed with its Deflategate penalties.
■ There’s still a disagreement over who suspended John Jastremski and Jim McNally.
In his interview with ESPN Radio, Goodell was asked if the NFL suspended the two Patriots employees who were accused of deflating the footballs.
“Absolutely not,” Goodell said. “That was a decision by the Patriots.”
But the NFL’s press release on May 11, announcing the punishments, stated that “Neither of these individuals may be reinstated without the prior approval of NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent.”
Vincent noted on Twitter the other day that the Patriots have not applied for reinstatement. So which one is it? Neither side wants to take credit for the suspensions.
■ Goodell is willing to change the discipline system – to a point.
Goodell admitted for the first time that “we want to get to a better discipline system,” echoing comments from Jonathan Kraft and Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Goodell said he’d be willing to cede some of his disciplinary powers, but isn’t ready to go to a fully independent system.
“We believe that a discipline officer or some type of panel could make at least the initial decision,” Goodell said, “and then a designee of mine (would hear) some type of appeal. But we also have some resistance to third-party arbitration. We believe you don’t delegate that responsibility or those standards.”
The disciplinary system is going to be a major point of contention in the next negotiation with the union in 2021, so the league office isn’t going to give away the right to be the final decider of discipline unless it gets something major back in return.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.