Throwback Thursday: NFL Handled ‘Spygate’ Accusations Very Differently In 2006

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — I write this knowing full well that I’m bordering on becoming a full-timer on the “Patriots Cheat Beat.” And to that accusation, I have no proper retort — writing about cheating accusations against the Patriots has been a very popular activity around the country for the past month.

So if you’ve had more than your fill of this topic, you have my permission to check out right now. But in the storm of all of this “Cheatriots” talk, I came upon one news story from 2006 that was just too good to pass up.

The story comes from Len Pasquarelli, who reported on the NFL for ESPN for nearly a decade. He was tasked with tracking down the NFL’s investigation, or lack thereof, into several Dolphins players claiming to have purchased a tape of Tom Brady’s calls at the line of scrimmage. These players boasted that they bought game tape of the Patriots, which helped them win 21-0 in a December meeting.

So Pasquarelli looked into it, and he came up with this:

Without convening a congressional hearing or hiring an independent counsel to investigate the incident, the NFL has ruled that the Miami Dolphins violated no league rules in the Tapegate affair associated with the team’s 21-0 victory over the New England Patriots last Sunday.

Those players strongly hinted that the tapes were critical in preparing for the game and provided the Dolphins inside information about New England’s offensive audible system.

The league’s response? Pretty much a stifled yawn, since there is no rule prohibiting such film study.

“Reaction around the league office was, ‘That’s football,’ ” AFC spokesman Steve Alic said.

Even with the contentions of the Miami defenders, there remains uncertainty over just what measures the Dolphins took in their surveillance of the New England offense. While players said the team “purchased” the tape, coach Nick Saban said his club simply watched TV replays of Brady in an attempt to decipher the calls.

Despite the attention garnered by the story, most league observers dismissed the importance of whatever the Dolphins did and chose to attribute the shutout victory to superior execution.

The Dolphins limited the Patriots to 12 first downs and 189 yards and held Brady to 78 passing yards and a passer rating of 55.1 while sacking him four times.

A sidebar from John Clayton reads: “Teams are always trying to steal signs and signals off other teams. That’s just football.”

Fascinating, no?

The fact that Pasquarelli jokingly said a congressional hearing was not required is almost too rich to believe, considering Sen. Arlen Specter made it his life’s work to try to bring down the Patriots for “Spygate” in 2007.

The best part of the story is that this actually is the appropriate response to such an “offense.” Everything done on a football field is fair game, and the dozens upon dozens of cameras around any given stadium are likely to pick up innumerable audio and visual clues as to play calls, strategies and the like.

Even the Patriots paid no mind to the “Tapegate” drama. Bill Belichick said little to nothing could be gained by an opponent studying that type of film. Tom Brady even fought back with an aggressive comment against a divisional rival, the likes of which we almost never hear anymore.

“They can say that [they figured out the calls via videotape], but I think that is a big crock of you know what,” Brady said at the time. “I think it’s a matter of how we played. If you ask them, it probably sounds good for them to say that they have it all figured out. But, you know, they’re 6-7 and we’re 9-4, so you tell me who’s got it more figured out.”

Dang. Please, Brady, don’t hurt ’em.

Anyway, none of this is to absolve the Patriots of what they did in 2007. A memo was sent out to teams in 2006 telling them not to record opposing sidelines from certain areas, and it was reiterated in 2007. Belichick’s staff recorded from these spots anyway. The new commissioner, intent on perpetuating his early reputation as a hammer of justice, came down hard. And really, the punishment was warranted. The Patriots ignored warnings, Belichick hid behind misunderstanding of the language, and so they deserved the cumulative $750,000 in fines and the loss of a draft pick. No issue there, really.

It is, however, intended to point out the discrepancy in how these two news items were handled by the media and the public at large. Just look at Clayton’s sidebars within the story on the Dolphins and the story laying out the Patriots’ fines and punishments:

John Clayton (ESPN.com screenshots)

John Clayton (ESPN.com screenshots)

A lot can change in nine months.

And even now, more than seven years later, one cannot hold any football discussion with anyone in this country without somebody inevitably bringing up “Spygate.” It’s why articles like that ridiculous Michael Rosenberg screed can get published, it’s why “DeflateGate” can become a real thing in the universe and lead to people like Mike Florio ripping David Letterman for not grilling Bill Belichick about the pounds per square inch of footballs, it’s why people still believe the Patriots filmed the Rams’ Super Bowl walkthrough despite the Boston Herald running a front-page apology saying it got that story wrong, and it’s why “Belicheat,” “Cheatriots” and “Spygate” might be the most-used words by dummies every single day on the Internet.

Meanwhile, in 2006, Congress did not get involved, the Miami Dolphins did not become the LIE-ami Dolphins (you like that?), and everyone in football responded appropriately: “Eh, not really an advantage to be gained, but you know football guys — always trying to gain any advantage they can!”

One year later, it was Armageddon.

What’s funny is that Belichick’s first real comments on Spygate, which came just a few weeks ago at his impromptu press conference, were very much in line with what then-Dolphins head coach Nick Saban said about “Tapegate” back in 2006.

Belichick: “The guy’s giving signals out in front of 80,000 people, OK? So we filmed him taking signals out in front of 80,000 people, like there were a lot of other teams doing at that time, too. Forget about that. If we were wrong then we’ve been disciplined for that. … The guy’s 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. I mean, there he is. So, it was wrong, we were disciplined for it. That’s it. We never did it again.”

Saban: “It’s on TV. You always try to get the other team’s cadence. I’m sure they try to get ours, so you know when a guy’s checking off, when he isn’t checking off.”

Saban’s response as generally accepted by the public, as it should have been. Meanwhile, the world still wonders why Belichick is such a liar.

Obviously, this revelation is about seven years too late, and I understand that everybody reached their saturation point on “Cheatriots” stories long ago. But a reader named Daryl sent me an email mentioning the ’06 Dolphins, I quickly hit the Google, and I deemed what I found to be too good to not share.

It’s relevant now, at least a little bit, as the country still ties itself in a knot while waiting for Ted Wells’ official report on deflated footballs to be released to the public. Why it’s taken four weeks to get to the bottom of a relatively simple situation is anybody’s guess, but even with a Super Bowl victory in the middle of it, the Patriots’ reputation has been getting battered for the duration.

It seems as though maybe, just maybe, the NFL is intent on letting history repeat itself.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here. You can email him or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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