FOXBOROUGH — Less than 24 hours after the opposing head coach fumed over a curious glitch in the communication system at Gillette Stadium, saying, “That’s always the case” when teams play there, the National Football League exonerated the Patriots, who hadn’t played even a full quarter of football before finding more controversy.
During Thursday night’s 28-21 season-opening win over the Steelers, the system enabling coaches to communicate with each other didn’t work properly. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said after the game that the radio broadcast of the Patriots’ game was heard repeatedly over the Pittsburgh headsets, instead of talk between the coaches. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said there were issues with the communication system on the Patriots’ sideline as well.
An initial investigation by the NFL cleared the Patriots of any wrongdoing, the league announced Friday evening.
“Based on our review to date, we believe that the audio interference on the Steelers’ headsets last night was entirely attributable to an electrical issue made worse by the inclement weather, that it involved no manipulation by any individual, and that the Patriots had nothing to do with it,” the NFL said in a statement. “The issue was promptly resolved and there were no further problems for the remainder of the game.”
Fresh off seven months of suspicion related to underinflated footballs and eight years of notoriety over their Spygate scandal, the Patriots were again put on the defensive. In reaction to more veiled accusations that the Patriots leave no stone unturned in looking for a competitive advantage — and days after stories in two national magazines described a pattern of shady behavior by the team while it was winning four Super Bowls — Belichick responded Friday by defending his program.
Initially, speaking with reporters via a conference call, Belichick was asked if he had received additional answers to the headset issues.
“No. It’s pretty common,” he said. “Look, there’s a lot of stuff down there. There’s the coach-to-quarterback stuff, offense and defense, there’s the headsets to the press box, there’s the tablets. There’s a lot of stuff going on there.’’
Belichick added that the Patriots had problems off and on during Thursday’s game.
“Sometimes it goes along and it’s fine, and then for some reason something happens and you go to the guys on the sidelines . . . and then you tell them about it, and they fix it. I don’t know enough about technology to know how any of that works, but that’s how it goes.
“We look at it as something you have to be ready for every single week, and we practice it. Home, away, I don’t think there’s any common denominator on that.”
Then, unprompted, Belichick spoke about recent stories that have described the Patriots as fostering a culture of bending the rules. Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine each released stories on Tuesday, and without mentioning either by name, Belichick made his feelings quite clear.
“I’d just say, kind of tying this in with a couple things from last week, or earlier in the week, I just think overall it’s kind of sad, really, to see some stories written that obviously have an agenda to them with misinformation and anonymous type comments,” he said. “Writing about warm drinks and trash cans, stuff like that, it’s just . . . I think it’s a sad commentary.
“It’s gone to a pretty low level, it’s sunk pretty deep.”
Sports Illustrated reported that the Patriots, among other things, often delivered late or warm sports drinks to visitors, and intimated they stole play sheets from the opponent’s locker room at Gillette Stadium. ESPN the Magazine reported that low-level Patriots employees would look for scouting reports and playbooks at an opponent’s team hotel.
Both reports relied heavily on anonymous sources.
“First of all, I would say that I think our program here is built on competition and trying to improve every day, trying to work hard, and it’s not built on excuses. We just try to go to work and improve and find a way to get better.”
Belichick seemed to take specific offense at having the championships earned by current and former Patriots smeared in any way.
“This organization has won a lot of games, but particularly in reference to the great teams from ’01, ’03, ’04, back in there, and all the great players that played on those teams, to take away from what those guys accomplished, what those teams accomplished, how good they were, how many great players we had, how well they played in big games, how they consistently showed up and made big plays, game-winning plays, it’s just not right.
“I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth on it, but that’s how I feel about it.”
According to another NFL head coach, headset malfunctions are not a problem that is limited to Gillette Stadium.
“It is a league problem. It’s wherever,” Ron Rivera, head coach of the Carolina Panthers, told reporters on Friday. “Anytime you’re using Wi-Fi and Internet and all that stuff, it can go out anywhere.”
But a story posted on the Steelers’ website said whenever league officials approached the Patriots sideline Thursday night to shut off their coach-to-coach communication system — the NFL has an equity rule that says if one side’s system is disabled, the other side needs to be disabled as well — the Steelers coaches’ headsets would resume operating properly. But as soon as the league officials left the Patriots’ sideline, according to the report, the Steelers’ headsets would revert back to receiving the radio broadcast.
Tomlin said the technical difficulties lasted for the majority of the first quarter, which ended in a scoreless tie.
Despite conflicting reports, a Steelers spokesman said Friday that the team has not and will not be filing a formal complaint with the league. The same spokesman pointed out that the story which cited the on-again, off-again effectiveness of the communication system is not an official statement from the team, even though it was posted on the Steelers’ website.