When the Patriots are involved in a scandal, it envelopes the entire NFL world. It’s going to be discussed on every single talk show and people will be buzzing about it around the water cooler.
Maybe the NFL wraps this up quickly or maybe, just maybe, the NFL allows a Patriots-related scandal to linger for multiple weeks as the playoffs near to ramp up excitement around the game. I’m not saying they’ve done that in the past, but I’m not going to say they hate the idea either.
There are lots of questions about the latest NFL scandal, dubbed SpyGate 2.0, so let’s try and answer them.
What exactly happened?
During Week 14, the Patriots sent a video team to Cleveland to film a documentary on an advance scout who was at the game, watching the Browns and Bengals play, with the Bengals set to play the Patriots in Week 15. The online doc was part of a “Do Your Job” series that exists on the Patriots website. Previously, they’d profiled the dietician, the training staff and the video department. The next job up for documentation was, apparently, an advanced scout who was visiting the Browns-Bengals game to prepare a report for Belichick on the 1-11 Bengals.
The Patriots sent a third-party video contractor to Cleveland for the shoot. They were credentialed by the Browns, but the Bengals and the NFL were not made aware — by either the Patriots or Browns — of the presence of a Pats video crew. According to a report from Dianna Russini of ESPN, a Bengals staffer spotted the Patriots.com credentialed cameraman with Boston Bruins gear on and proceeded to observe what the cameraman was doing. Allegedly, the cameraman proceeded to point his camera at the Bengals coaching staff and sideline for essentially the entire quarter. At this point, the employee watching the cameraman got media relations, who got security and things got a little awkward.
The cameraman asking — allegedly — delete the footage and just forget it all happened is a major red flag. If you’re security or media relations or just anyone with a brain, that’s getting your antennae up in a big way. But it also doesn’t mean anything concrete.
Anyway, this all really unfolded on Monday afternoon as we were preparing to watch the Giants and Eagles stumble around the football field. When news first started popping up about what was going on, it felt like it would be dismissed as a “oh that’s ironic because of SpyGate” situation.
But as more and more details popped up, Bill Belichick was forced to address it. The way he answered questions about it should indicate the seriousness of the situation for the Pats. (If Belichick wasn’t worried about how it looked, he wouldn’t give a full statement the way he did, he would simply decline to answer and point people toward some statement from the team.)
“Yeah I heard about this. And evidently this is our production people on the TV show who were there. I have — we have absolutely nothing to do with anything that they produce or direct or shoot or anything,” Belichick said during a WEEI appearance on Monday afternoon. “I have never even seen any of their tapes or anything else. This is something that we 100 percent have zero involvement with. This is something you’d have to talk to the production people about and what they were doing, or whatever it was.
“We’ve never seen anything that they’ve shot, other than what has come down on TV.”
The Patriots would later issue a statement admitting fault in the matter.
But this hasn’t necessarily eased the tensions, as the Bengals are still clearly not happy about it — they are in fact now reportedly “livid” that it happened — and believe the Patriots were trying to steal signals from their coaching staff.
At this point, the NFL is investigating and it’s believed the entire situation could be wrapped up as early as this week, although that might raise some eyebrows depending on what, if any, punishment is handed out.
What are the Patriots accused of here?
Nothing, technically. No one has come out and outright said what the Patriots might have done wrong. All of this is layered with anonymous sources pointing things out and innuendo. In fact, when news first emerged about the NFL investigating the Pats following a Bengals complaint into the videotaping matter, it.
So what rule did the Patriots break?
It’s against NFL rules for one team to film another team from the press box. The goal of the NFL is to create an equal playing field — via the coaches’ film that everyone has access to — and to prevent teams from stealing signs. You can’t just film other teams coaching staffs to get their signs without them knowing about it.
What could the Patriots actually learn from filming other teams?
It depends on who you ask. There are some former NFL players who have spent the better part of 48 hours noting how filming coaches isn’t quite as important as it used to be, in large part because of all the electronic communication available these days. Former NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz did a nice job at SB Nation breaking down his take of the events here. Matt Chatham — who it should be noted won three titles with the Pats — was not pleased with the media coverage and explained why here.
On the other hand, my colleague and good friend Brady Quinn thinks it’s a much more legitimate concern. Brady hopped on the Pick Six Podcast (you can listen to the full episode in the player below or just subscribe to the eight times a week NFL show here) and explained why it is potentially problematic for the Pats to be filming in this situation.
“Even though they have the green dot on their helmet and typically the offensive and defensive coordinator call the play into the quarterback or the mike [linebacker] and in some cases it could be the safety. Either way that’s who is communicating to everyone else. When you think about that communication, it’s usually not that efficient,” Quinn explained. “And usually defenses don’t actually huddle, because they don’t want to leave their sides of the field or run in to run back out, because they’re wasting energy. So a lot of times they’ll just signal — he gets the call, he makes the call and he’ll signal out to the secondary.
“The other thing is, a lot of time on offenses, they’ll get to the line of scrimmage, maybe they’ll look to audible. The defensive coordinator, if he has enough time, he obviously can’t use the headset right? Because it clicks out at 15 seconds. Dead air. So how do you audible then if you’re a defense? Look to the sidelines, you get a signal.”
Additionally, Quinn pointed out, you could be getting an edge on personnel formations used by the other team, or simply getting a grasp on what the coach does.
“You could get personnel groups from that so that might give you a head start for whatever their signal is so you don’t have to waste a series or two figuring that out,” Quinn continued. “Sometimes you can glean what a coach’s mannerisms are, if he’s running a fake, if he’s not running a fake on special teams. There’s a lot of things you can kind of get from that specific footage that could be valuable and useful to you.”
Bear in mind, Brady wasn’t saying the Patriots were doing this. He was simply explaining why the Patriots would do this and/or how it would benefit them. He makes a very compelling point. It’s also worth noting that Belichick has never faced Zac Taylor before, with it being the Bengals coach first year. One could make an argument that a smart coach would prefer to have additional intel on a coach he’s never seen before, if one was to hypothetically asses the situation.
Did the Patriots do anything wrong?
Yes, technically they did! And we can say that because. It’s not against the rules to have a videographer in another stadium, but by not alerting the league or the Bengals to their presence in the Browns stadium and by videotaping opposing coaches from the press box, the Patriots “inadvertently” (their word) broke the rules.
The full statement from New England:
So, yes, by virtue of filming another coaching staff without alerting said staff or the NFL to their presence and said filming, the Patriots broke the NFL’s rules.
Why is this called SpyGate 2.0? Was there a first one?
You must be new here. There WAS a first SpyGate. It happened back in 2007, when the Patriots were caught illegally videotaping the walkthroughs after former Pats coach Eric Mangini, who had taken the head coaching position with the Jets, and trying to acquire hand signals from opposing coaches. GM Mike Tannenbaum got wind of it and alerted the NFL. The league investigated the situation, rolling into Gillette Stadium, where they found a room full of tapes and notes about opposing signals. According to a later report from ESPN, this room was only accessible to Bill Belichick and a few other people. The league promptly destroyed the tapes and the notes onsite, causing conspiratorial outrage among other fanbases.
In the years since, the teams who lost Super Bowls to the Patriots prior to SpyGate have claimed they believed the Pats knew what plays they would be running. The 2001 Rams and 2004 Panthers, specifically, to determine what they would do on offense to win the Super Bowls.
Many people believe — right or wrong — the original SpyGate controversy taints the Patriots legacy. (Most reasonable humans see the ensuing three Super Bowl victories by New England and dismiss that claim, but haters gonna hate, etc.) The opportunity for a modern videotape scandal to resurface the old charges and link them to the current Patriots roster and coaching staff is top-shelf catnip for professional bloviators.
Are there any good conspiracy theories surrounding this new scandal?
Great question! Man, do I love a good conspiracy theory. And there are a couple you can run with in SpyGate 2: Spy Harder (credit Dan Hanzus, NFL Media).
The best one, by far, is that Bill Belichick used the Patriots team media entity — all NFL teams have one nowadays — to create a multi-layered documentary about various members of the Patriots organization, for the sole purpose of having videographers credentialed at random NFL games, his spies set loose on the NFL in order to capture tape of opposing coaching staffs. Now that’s fun and it’s actually a pretty smart way of finding a loophole to steal signals. But I refuse to believe Belichick a) has that much free time and b) did all that work just to find out what Zac Taylor is doing in Cincinnati. The Bengals’ involvement here is as much a mitigating factor as the Patriots’ involvement is an aggravating factor when people are flinging wild charges around in the ether that is the Internet. Like, Bill Belichick didn’t go through all the work to set up this content network and give it all away because he really needed to beat the Bengals this week. (Also the dude videotaping the stuff was wearing a Boston Bruins shirt. Come on.)
The other mini conspiracy that I sort of like is the Patriots only do this for rookie head coaches, to try and figure out what it is they do on the sideline. The Patriots have played other first-time head coaches this year, but Brian Flores (Dolphins) was a former Patriots DC, Adam Gase (Jets) was in Miami previously and Freddie Kitchens (Browns) has been in Cleveland for a while. Belichick was seen yelling “where’s McVay?” by cameras during last year’s Super Bowl, so he wants to know where the other coach is at all times. This is a big game for the Pats to get a bye, but it feels like a reach.
And, finally, in terms of conspiracies, it’s totally worth noting what Van Natta and Wickersham reported a few years back, as helpfully pointed out by my CBS Sports colleague John Breech on Twitter recently: back during the original Spygate, the Pats employees doing the videotaping were basically told to pretend they were getting footage for a team show.
That’s a less than helpful coincidence for the Pats.
So what happens next/what’s the timeline here?
The NFL is going to investigate the matter. This is, we think, a one-time situation so there shouldn’t be anything excessive in terms of interviewing people. Send an investigator or two to Cincinnati, have them interview the employees who saw this happen, get someone on the phone with the Browns media relations department and ask about the credential and then grill a couple of the folks involved on the Patriots’ side. Assuming no one spills the beans we didn’t know could be spilled, it feels like a pretty basic investigation that could be wrapped up before Week 16.
If for some reason the league uncovers a deeper, more tangled web then maybe it lasts longer. Or the league could simply decide to drag its feet and make Belichick answer questions about this for the next two weeks. Don’t rule the latter out.
Are the Patriots going to get in trouble?
I would guess they will not get in any major trouble. The NFL could very easily decide to fine them for breaking the rules and hit the team in general with something like a $250,000 fine. People would be mad, I guess, and that’s a lot of money in a vacuum, but the Patriots would probably cut a check for $250K right now just to make the whole thing disappear and not involve any future questions whatsoever.
CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora.
It would be extremely surprising if the league decided to flex muscles on the actual football operations of the Patriots here, either by fining members of the staff (aka Belichick) or by taking away draft picks.
Would I be shocked if the league yanked a third-round pick from New England out of spite and/or because of all the friction between the league office and the Pats over the past few years? Not in the slightest. But remember: there’s a new CBA negotiation on the horizon. Roger Goodell doesn’t need to unnecessarily create any kind of friction with the NFL owners or expand any chasm between he and Kraft, particularly if the void created by Deflategate has been reasonably bridged over the last few years.
My sense is the league would just as soon have this nonsense disappear and allow people to focus on what’s an increasingly exciting playoff bracket on both sides, particularly with a group of emerging young quarterbacks — Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson — on the AFC side of the ball.
The Patriots have plenty of problems to deal with right now without the league unnecessarily dinging them for a mid-round draft pick.