When it comes to cheating allegations, the Patriots have priors. They have a history of flouting protocol, pushing rulebook boundaries, and drawing suspicion. Spygate, Deflategate, etc. So, they’re not going to get the benefit of the doubt or any sympathy outside of New England regarding their latest accusation of competitive misconduct.
Reputation becomes reality, and the Patriots bear responsibility for their reputation.
Still, I find it hard to believe that Patriots coach Bill Belichick would ever engage in signal-taping again after Spygate, which serves as the single greatest black mark on his football dynasty and his legacy. It would be career suicide. It would take a special kind of hubris to brazenly revive this practice, one that Belichick himself said had “minimal” impact back in the wake of Spygate. Wasting such reconnoitering on the feckless 1-12 Cincinnati Bengals is criminally stupid. In Bill I Believe on this one. But it’s hard to blame those who don’t.
The Patriots rule-breaking allegations are on to Cincinnati. A credentialed camera person took video footage of the Cincinnati Bengals coaches and signals last Sunday from the press box during the Bengals game in Cleveland against the Browns. He was purportedly filming for the team’s docu-series “Do Your Job,” which profiles unsung employees that contribute to the team’s success. The footage was for a feature on a Patriots advance scout who was scouting the Bengals, this Sunday’s opponent. The Bengals and the NFL confiscated the footage, which, according to The Athletic, contains eight minutes of the Bengals’ sideline operation.
The Bengals believe the Patriots were stealing signals — again. The Patriots put out a statement Monday night, accepting responsibility and explaining it was all a misunderstanding, saying an in-house media “video crew, which included independent contractors who shot the video, unknowingly violated a league policy by filming the field and sideline from the press box” for the feature. Belichick has vehemently denied any knowledge of the situation.
Which version do you think America is eager to believe?
Patriots paranoia runs rampant in the NFL. When you so rarely and freely volunteer the truth and take a black ops mentality to football, people think that level of secrecy is covering up improper activity, especially when at least once it turned out to be true.
This is yet another self-inflicted integrity wound for the Patriots. Their explanation is completely plausible. The scout they were profiling for the show is deserving of recognition and has received honors in the NFL scouting community.
The problem is that it mirrors the cover story they fed their football operations video people who illicitly filmed other teams’ defensive signals and offensive signals (look it up) that were then fed to Belichick aide de camp Ernie Adams for decoding between 2000-07. They were coached to say they worked for Kraft Sports Productions or were media members.
When Matt Estrella was busted taping signals on the sidelines of the Meadowlands during the Patriots’ 2007 season opener against the New York Jets, launching the Spygate saga, he was wearing a vest handed out to designate media outlet photographers and videographers.
Spygate is the identifying scar on the Patriots franchise. It remains a black box of a scandal that has never fully been explained or punished to the satisfaction of much of football America.
The tapes and notes the league confiscated were destroyed. In what investigation is evidence that can potentially exonerate the accused destroyed? NFL commissioner Roger Goodell initially said the taping only dated back to the 2006 season, but then later admitted to the late Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter that it dated back to 2000.
Belichick never explained why the Patriots engaged in the practice in the first place, especially if it provided, as he has repeatedly claimed, no competitive advantage. In February of 2008, Belichick told the Globe that on a scale of one to 100 the taping rated a “one” in terms of impact. It’s counterintuitive to believe the greatest football mind of our time would waste time on something that has no tangible effect in his mind on winning.
Also, Belichick has only begrudgingly accepted responsibility for Spygate, claiming he misinterpreted the league’s rules on the filming of opponents’ signals. In September of 2006, a full year before the Patriots were busted by the Jets, the league put out a memo spelling out that “videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent’s offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches’ booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game.”
Two months later, the Green Bay Packers removed Estrella from the sidelines at Lambeau Field.
In 2010, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was head coach of the Denver Broncos, who were punished by the NFL for filming a San Francisco 49ers walkthrough in London. (The cameraman was Steve Scarnecchia, a former Patriots video employee and the son of Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.)
In explaining why the punishment for the Broncos and McDaniels, fined $50,000 apiece, wasn’t as severe as that of the Patriots, who were docked a first-round draft choice and fined $250,000 while Belichick was fined $500,000, NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash provided a damning explanation.
“You had an incident that, as best we could identify, was carried out by a single employee without direction from the coaching staff or anyone else at the club,” said Pash in 2010. “That’s obviously different from what we saw in New England where the head coach was actively supervising the activity.”
There are only two caveats when it comes to Belichick’s brilliant career — the presence of Tom Brady and Spygate. Belichick has won three Super Bowls since Spygate. His greatness is undeniable, but the fallout from Spygate has proven like radioactive contamination on his résumé. It lessens with time but remains stubbornly toxic.
During the famous “Mona Lisa Vito” press conference rebutting Deflategate in January of 2015, Belichick was defiant and emphatic in regards to Spygate, a sobriquet he has always resented.
“The guy is in front of 80,000 people. 80,000 people saw it. Everybody [on the] sideline saw it. Everybody sees our guy in front of the 80,000 people,” said Belichick. “I mean, there he is. So, it was wrong, we were disciplined for it. That’s it. We never did it again. We’re never going to do it again, and anything else that’s close we’re not going to do either.”
That’s why it’s more plausible that Belichick is simply collateral damage of a colossal error by the team’s media department.
There is so much awe and fear for the football acumen of Belichick and the mysterious Adams, an inscrutable figure who is Belichick’s personal Belichick, that opposing teams and fans are inclined to think there’s something more nefarious behind New England’s nearly two decades of unfettered success. How else could Belichick always be steps ahead?
The whispers, the allegations, the violations, they all blend into an explanation that’s easier to swallow.
The Patriots have earned that distrust, but this time their alibi rings true more than the allegation.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.