January 10, 2011
SpyGate: The Most 'Overblown' Story of the Decade
BY: Russ Goldman
It's a new year and a new decade, and there's a word that finally needs to be buried, much in the same way head coach Bill Belichick buried the football back in 2001 following a loss to Miami. That moment has followed with an amazing run of success for the Patriots which has included three championships over a 10-year span, and it's certainly been a decade to remember.
However, it's time to bury something else, and I think all of Patriots Nation will probably agree with me.
On September 9th 2007 the Patriots played the New York Jets and were caught videotaping their defensive signals. This act was against the rules of the NFL, and the Patriots and Belichick were fined a combined $750,000 dollars - along with losing a first round draft pick. This scandal ended up being referred to as "Spygate" by the media. Three years later I look back at this crazy situation, and I believe more than ever that it was probably the most overblown controversy in the history of sports.
I have reasons why, like most fans, I feel this controversy was taken too far. Most used it to try and taint the reputation and history of the New England Patriots. The worst part was, the Patriots later ended up being tainted more for what they didn't do than what actually happened - although we'll get to that later on.
Before I go too far, I want to make this clear: I know the Patriots did something that was against the rules of the NFL. They were punished for their offenses, and that should have been the end of the controversy. However, for any fan who roots for this football team, the term "cheaters" continues to be thrown out there despite the fact there's been more than enough evidence to show they didn't exactly develop a form of espionage that no one else had figured out.
Very little was actually said from the majority of coaches out there following this discovery, and there's obviously a reason for that. That's because ultimately it was simply about sign stealing, which has been a part of most sports in one form or another for decades. In baseball, it's obviously commonplace. In fact, I believe it is thought of in many circles as "gamesmanship" in this sport. It is a part of the game that I learned going back to playing little league baseball over 30 years ago. We used to change signals often during the game, because the other team would try to steal our signs. I can only imagine what it is like in Major League Baseball where there's a lot more at stake.
What the Patriots did was take that same practice to the next level. They videotaped the signals, and used it as part of a library as a reference the next time they would play that team. There is no evidence to suggest this videotaping was used for in-game situations. Again, from a rules standpoint, what the Patriots did was wrong. However, I honestly don't think the practice was the reason or difference for any of the Patriots' success.
One of the primary reasons they were punished was because according to several reports, the NFL was aware of the practice by teams in the league and had sent a memo out regarding it, yet Belichick continued doing it anyway. That's reportedly the main reason why both he and the organization suffered such a large penalty from the league following the incident.
There is much more to the game than calling signals. It is about preparation, execution, and performance. The players and coaches of the New England Patriots still made the plays to win games and championships. To make that leap that stealing signals is the difference to winning games and titles is ignorant. Who knows what kind of advantage stealing signs really gave the Patriots, but regardless, the players still needed to execute at a high level and make the plays to win. Even if a player knows where they're going with the football, you still have to make the play.
The reason Spygate is still brought up until this day is primarily from fans and some media members out there who are bitter over of the success of the Patriots. They seem to lack the ability to understand how this football team could have won three Super Bowl Championships in four years, as well as dominate the league for an entire decade. If you're a fan who has followed this football team during that period, you already know the answer.
After all, the Patriots had to have cheated to win those titles, because it's just too difficult to believe that they could have accomplished such an amazing feat otherwise.
They talk about those trophies being "tainted". To me, the only thing tainted was the reputation of the team by the Boston Herald after an article appeared claiming New England filmed the St. Louis Rams walkthrough prior to their first title - which came out the day before the Patriots played the Giants in the Super Bowl. It turned out to be false, but it didn't stop it from putting a damper on the excitement surrounding this team prior to that football game. The newspaper later issued an apology, but the damage was done.
Many people out there believe Spygate was the reason for New England's decade of dominance. At some point fans, and players of teams that were beaten by them should look in the mirror, and realize both they and their teammates were defeated on that day by the better team. It was ultimately not about Spygate. The Patriots clearly earned those three titles.
Down in Pittsburgh, they still aren't quite over it. I want to share an excerpt from a Joe Starkey article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review prior to the Patriots and Steelers game in November. In his article entitled "Spygate's haunting question", Mr. Starkey mentions that Spygate is a bad subject for fans of the Steelers, because fans believe the Patriots stole away Super Bowl appearances in 2001 and 2004.
"Why would Mr. Bill have continued the practice for so long if it wasn't doing him any good?" wrote Starkey in the article. "The subject is particularly sore for Steelers fans who believe their team was robbed of Super Bowl trips in 2001 and/or 2004. They believe the stealers beat their Steelers in AFC title games those seasons, though team officials have consistently maintained that the Patriots won fair and square."
"Others within the organization wonder, and likely always will. Whenever I have raised the issue with players or coaches, asking if they believe the Patriots might have utilized an ill-gotten advantage, they are careful in their responses. Nobody wants to make excuses. But nobody answers with a flat no, either."
I tried to contact Joe Starkey shortly after he wrote this article to hopefully ask him a few questions. My contact was never returned.
So if Mr. Starkey and fans feel the Steelers missed out on two more potential trophies, I'm curious to know what they think of what their former head coach recently said about it?
On December 3rd, former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher made an appearance on the "Felger and Massarotti Show" on 98.5 The Sports Hub. In this radio interview, Coach Cowher was asked about the taping the Patriots did and the possible effect it had against his Steelers when they played. He also mentions that when he was coach, he did his own share of sign stealing. He admitted during the interview that he didn't believe what New England did was as bad as it was made out to be, nor did he think it cost his team a win in any of those meetings.
"Oh, heck no! I mean honestly, the taping that was involved in that story, was the taping of Tom Brady making some pretty accurate throws, and that's what beat us," said Cowher. "That's the only taping that I remember. You know what? Listen, all that stuff at this point, I think a lot of it is overblown. Did they know the signals maybe of our Monday night when we came up there? You know, so what. Sometimes I thought we knew some plays because they got in certain formations. The bottom line is you've got to execute."
"The bottom line is they completed passes and they beat one-on-one situations better than we were able to defend them. So you know what? The game is still played between the lines, the game is still played by men, and it comes down to executing. Certainly anticipation helps, and certainly if you can know some things in a pre-snap that can help you execute, so be it. But right now, all those things are moot points because everybody's got communication. The defense has it, the offense has it, so all this 'signal calling/stealing' of the years past are that - in the past."
In the interview Felger asked him about a situation during a 4th-and-1 play involving Ted Johnson following a timeout by New England. During the timeout Johnson went over and had a conversation with Belichick, and when play resumed, Johnson was the one who ended up stopping then runningback Jerome Bettis short of the first down. Cowher dismissed it as coincidence, and that they should have run a different play.
"Yeah...oh yeah..." said Cowher when asked if he remembered the play. "And you know what? We called timeout. So how does he know what we're going to call in the huddle? I mean listen, they made the stop. We didn't get them blocked. In hindsight, we should have run to the other side. But listen, those aren't the signals - I don't worry about that."
"Our offensive plays we talk about them through a headphone. If there's a formation that we get involved with, we're going to run our play. A lot of times I think New England gets in a formation, you know what they're going to run. Knowing what they're going to run is one thing, and having to stop it is another thing. A lot of times the best team that can execute - even when the other team knows what they're doing - those are the teams that win championships, and we weren't good enough that day."
According to published reports, the Broncos came forward voluntarily to the league once they found out about it. However, when confronted, McDaniels claimed he had no knowledge of what had gone on.
The Broncos and McDaniels ended up being fined over the incident, and that ultimately appeared to be the final straw in Denver's decision to fire him.
In his interview Cowher felt the penalty in that occurrence wasn't as severe as it should have been. He also disagreed with the idea that McDaniels didn't know what was going on.
"I don't know of any employee that's in a National Football League building that doesn't answer to some superior," said Cowher. "Even the head coach answers to the owner. So when you look at a video guy, he was answering to somebody. I have a hard time believing that he did that independently."
Obviously Cowher's been around a while, and he's admitted that it wasn't just the Patriots who have used methods to try and steal defensive hand signals. During his interview he talked about the practice of how it was done, and even came out and said he had guys of his own in the stands doing the same thing during his tenure as head coach.
"We had people out there trying to look at signals," explained Cowher. "We had guys go to games, they would take the signal caller, write it down, and they would take it back. They would match up the signals with certain defenses or the certain plays that were being called - particularly the defenses that were being called - to see if we could come up with some kind of alert for the signals. So what they did with the videotaping of the signal caller, people do it with the people in the stands.
"There's people in the stands that are sitting there looking at the signal, writing the signal down, and then matching up the 1st and 10 - here was the signal. You go back on 2nd and 10 - here was the signal. You do that for a whole game. You'd go back and match up the defenses with the signal, and you can come up with what the signal was. You don't need a videotape to do what they were talking about doing. And people were doing that - we were doing that. Everybody does that, you're trying to gain a competitive edge. There's nothing wrong with that.
"That's why you see baseball players, they sit there and go through the whole mirage of signals and they've got all these different codes, that's part of the competitive spirit of the game. So I think it's all overblown and I think if you get caught, then go to - like we did - with wristbands if you're worried about it. We started putting defenses on wristbands, so you find a way to not get caught. And when you're good at something and people try to steal it from you, I think it's flattering."
Cowher's not the only one who feels that way. Former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson talked about it in an interview on WFAN in September 2007, weeks after the Spygate story broke. Johnson, who won 2 Super Bowl rings during his tenure in Dallas, discussed his thoughts on what Belichick did, but also that videotaping signals was commonplace while he was a coach in the NFL.
"Oh please. I've said it on our show," said Johnson when asked if he was bothered by what Belichick did. "Eighteen years ago a scout for the Chiefs told me what they did, and he said what you need to do is just take your camera and you go and zoom in on the signal caller and that way you can sync it up. The problem is that if they're not on the press box side you can't do it from the press box, you have to do it from the sideline. This was 18 years ago."
Johnson said that the reason why the commissioner came down as hard as he did on New England was because of the fact a memo was sent out to stop that practice shortly before that it was discovered they were still doing it.
"No, no, I said it on the show. He was wrong for doing it for the simple reason that the league knew this was going on not just in New England but around the league," said Johnson. "And the league sent out the memorandum to all of the teams saying you cannot do this. And so that's when Bill Belichick was wrong. After he got the memorandum saying don't do it any more, he did it.
When asked if he ever stole signals, Johnson said, "Oh in a heartbeat, yeah. Yes I did."
"I did it with video and so did a lot of other teams in the league. Just to make sure that you could study it and take your time, because you're going to play the other team the second time around. But a lot of coaches did it, this was commonplace."
If these coaches don't make you think that maybe the Spygate scandal is overblown, how about comments from the person who originally broke the story?
Dan Leberfeld of Jets Confidential was the writer who originally broke the story about the Patriots videotaping scandal. I had the pleasure of having Dan help me out with a "5 Questions With..." post prior to the last Pats and Jets game at Gillette Stadium. In this article, Dan had an answer that mentioned that he thought the original spygate scandal was blown out of proportion.
I was very curious why he felt that way. So I followed up with him, and he was nice enough to expand his thoughts on the original SpyGate scandal.
"It was overblown," said Leberfeld. "It wasn't that big of a deal. If I didn't stumble upon the story, it probably would have never come out. I wasn't looking for it. The story fell in my lap.
"The only reason it became a story was because of the tussle between the Patriots video guy and the security. That tussle, drew the attention of more people in the stadium, so there were more people aware of what happened, and, or potential sources."
"I don't think there was much to be gained by what the Pats were doing. Honestly, I wish I never stumbled upon it. I respect the Patriots a great deal, and the aftermath of this fiasco really bothered me."
No matter what fans or some in the media may say, it's pretty clear that it's time for that discussion to come to an end. This season we've witnessed a 14-2 performance from the same coach and quarterback who helped win those three titles, and this remarkable run has come with a brand new group of players - who most weren't even around the last time they won a championship. We also saw a 16-0 regular season after Belichick was penalized, and he appeared to coach with a chip on his shoulder from that point on, with many even accusing him of running up the score during some of those football games.
With the firing of Eric Mangini coming last Monday, it was almost symbolic. Most feel a code of silence was broken among the coaching ranks in the NFL, and unfortunately we watched Belichick and the Patriots take the fall. They've gone 51-13 in the last four regular seasons - so it doesn't appear to have made much of a difference.
In the end, I don't expect this post to change the minds of fans and the media that feel Spygate is a big deal. Obviously two Super Bowl winning coaches have said there was nothing unusual about what Belichick did, just more with the fact there was a problem with when he did it.
My point is, the Patriots success this past decade didn't come just from some guy with a video camera. It came thanks to a guy wearing #12, along with the rest of his teammates who stepped out on that field with him and outplayed their opponents collectively on each of those given Sundays.
And that is the bottom line.
Editor's Note: A special thanks to Mr. Leberfeld of Jets Confidential for sharing his thoughts on this subject.
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