By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston


BOSTON (CBS) — For some reason or another, ESPN decided to run a nearly 11,000-word story on Tuesday about Spygate.

Yes. Spygate. From 2007. Here, in 2015.

The timing is certainly questionable, and given that ESPN was recently forced to apologize to the Patriots for sharing a false report numerous times in recent months, and given that a false report by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen regarding the PSI of footballs in January launched “DeflateGate” into a full-blown national scandal, it’s safe to question whether perhaps the growingly icy relationship between the network and the team prompted this new investigation.

Now, the modern 24/7 news cycle being what it is, many folks ran with the new ESPN story as if it was a bombshell, one full of incredible new facts and details about the NFL scandal from eight years ago.

But really, all writers Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham had to show for their interviews of more than 90 people was a whole slew of anonymous quotes, a whole bunch of unverified suspicions, and a whole lot of nothing.

Of those 90 interviewees, only two (Bill Polian, Mike Martz) spoke on the record. Much of the information came from Matt Walsh’s testimony in 2008.

And of those 10,000-plus words, the writers used variances of the word “cheat” 18 times. They also used the word “espionage” and “spy tape” and “culture of sneakiness” to shape the tone of the story.

Buried halfway through the Spygate tome was this paragraph:

“The Patriots’ primary victims saw Spygate, and other videotaping rumors, as confirmation that they had been cheated out of a Super Bowl — even though they lacked proof.”

That could have — and should have — been the entire story.

Later, there is this:

“It didn’t matter that the Patriots went 18-1 in 2007. Or that they would average more wins a season after Spygate than before. Or that Belichick would come to be universally recognized as his generation’s greatest coach. Or that many with the Patriots remain mystified at the notion that a historic penalty was somehow perceived to be lenient. The Patriots were forever branded as cheaters — an asterisk, in the view of many fans, forever affixed to their wins.”

This statement is true, largely due to stories like this one. Essentially, “facts don’t matter, because stories (like the one I’m writing right now) perpetuate these feelings and suspicions of cheating.”

It is, truly, Spygateception.

With that established, here’s a run-through of all the claims made by the story, followed by a short note about each one. As a reminder, this is all about Spygate … from 2007 … and it is now 2015. OK, let’s go.

“Goodell didn’t want anybody to know that his gold franchise had won Super Bowls by cheating,” a senior executive whose team lost to the Patriots in a Super Bowl now says. “If that gets out, that hurts your business.”

“A senior executive whose team lost to the Patriots in a Super Bowl.” That’s a very trustworthy source right there. He’s not bitter at all.

“[Bill] Belichick, almost five years after being fired by the Browns and fully aware that this was his last best shot as a head coach, placed an innovative system of cheating in the hands of his most trusted friend, [Ernie Adams].”

Strong language, guys.

As much as the Patriots tried to keep the circle of those who knew about the taping small, sometimes the team would add recently cut players from upcoming opponents and pay them only to help decipher signals, former Patriots staffers say. In 2005, for instance, they signed a defensive player from a team they were going to play in the upcoming season. Before that game, the player was led to a room where Adams was waiting. They closed the door, and Adams played a compilation tape that matched the signals to the plays from the player’s former team, and asked how many were accurate. “He had about 50 percent of them right,” the player says now.

Teams do this all the time. Remember a few years ago when Rex Ryan and the Jets not only signed former Pats backup QB Kevin O’Connell but then made the kid a captain for the game against the Patriots? Nobody was up in arms about that … because it’s not a big deal. Alas, the Patriots did it, so … scandal.

Several [former coaches and employees] acknowledge that during pregame warm-ups, a low-level Patriots employee would sneak into the visiting locker room and steal the play sheet, listing the first 20 or so scripted calls for the opposing team’s offense. (The practice became so notorious that some coaches put out fake play sheets for the Patriots to swipe.)

Numerous former employees say the Patriots would have someone rummage through the visiting team hotel for playbooks or scouting reports. Walsh later told investigators that he was once instructed to remove the labels and erase tapes of a Patriots practice because the team had illegally used a player on injured reserve.

These would represent the harshest accusations levied … if they were substantiated. But they’re not. They’re attributed to anonymous sources, and they rely on accusations only.

And the last part of it is just funny. Picture a bunch of poor, low-level Pats employees dumpster-diving outside the Dedham Holiday Inn on a Saturday night. Tremendous comedy.

At Gillette Stadium, the scrambling and jamming of the opponents’ coach-to-quarterback radio line — “small s—” that many teams do, according to a former Pats assistant coach — occurred so often that one team asked a league official to sit in the coaches’ box during the game and wait for it to happen. Sure enough, on a key third down, the headset went out.

The accusations that the Patriots jam signals on headsets have been prevalent for years, but there’s never been a specific situation verified and the league has never accused the Patriots of wrongdoing. It does sell well, though.

Football’s tradition of cheating through espionage goes back to its earliest days, pioneered by legends such as George Halas.

Cheating through espionage. Again … that’s strong.

A former member of the NFL competition committee says the committee spent much of 2001-06 “discussing ways in which the Patriots cheated,” even if nothing could be proved. It reached a level of paranoia in which conspiracy theories ran wild and nothing — the notion of bugging locker rooms or of Brady having a second frequency in his helmet to help decipher the defense — was out of the realm of possibility.

These are unfounded accusations, described as conspiracy theories, yet they make the final cut of this story anyway, because who cares about accuracy when getting people riled up is the main goal?

There were regular rumors that the Patriots had taped the Rams’ walk-through practice before Super Bowl XXXVI in February 2002, one of the greatest upsets in NFL history, a game won by the Patriots 20-17 on a last-second Adam Vinatieri field goal. The rumors and speculation reached a fever pitch in 2006.

Rumors! We’re talking about rumors! Rumors which were later proven to be unfounded, no less.

Ray Anderson to send a letter to all 32 team owners, general managers and head coaches on Sept. 6, 2006, reminding them that “videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent’s offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited from the sidelines.”

Did you read those final three words? Here they are: “from the sidelines.” That is, of course, what Spygate is all about. Shooting video of opposing coaches on the sideline is legal when in a walled room in the stadium, just not from the sideline. That distinction doesn’t really get much attention in this story, save for that brief quote from Ray Anderson’s memo.

“Goodell didn’t want to know how many games were taped,” another source with firsthand knowledge of the investigation says, “and Belichick didn’t want to tell him.”

Prepare yourself: this is one of many unnamed sources.

So in a stadium conference room, [Jeff] Pash and the other NFL executives stomped the videotapes into small pieces and fed Adams’ notes into a shredder, Glaser says. She recalls picking up the shards of plastic from the smashed Beta tapes off the floor and throwing them away.

Just like the story of Patriots staffers “rummaging” through hotels, this story creates a hilarious visual. It’s like the tapes were some threat to society and HAD TO BE ELIMINATED. They’re tapes of coaches, people. Coaches on the sideline. Sending signals to football players. In public. Coaches who could have been legally filmed from a different location.

It seems like this actually happened, based on the fact that the Patriots’ lawyer told the story. But it certainly isn’t proof that these tapes were some smoking gun of incredible information. It was footage of coaches … on the sideline. Reporters were very bored when Goodell eventually showed them some tapes from Matt Walsh, proving that the footage did not unlock the secrets of the universe.

Sources with knowledge of the investigation insist that the Patriots were “borderline noncompliant.” And a former high-level Patriots employee agrees, saying, “The way the Patriots tried to approach it, they tried to cover up everything,” although he refused to specify how.

Unnamed sources.

… according to documents and sources, they recorded signals in at least 40 games during the Spygate era.

That’s the big nugget that generated all the headlines on Tuesday. It was provided by unnamed sources … and it’s a very imprecise number. Talk about a game-changer.

… what the Patriots’ cheating had accomplished in games.

For an investigative report, that’s some real loosey-goosey language.

“It felt like this enormous break was given to the Patriots,” a former exec says.

“It felt like.” Unnamed source. Stellar.

“Why would they go to such great lengths for so long to do it and hide it if it didn’t work?” a longtime former executive says. “It made no sense.”

Making no sense does not necessarily make something illicitly devious. Especially to an unnamed source.

“Our players came in after that first half and said it was like [the Patriots] were in our huddle,” a Panthers source says.

“It was like.” Unnamed source. Sensing a pattern here?

“Do I have any tape to prove they cheated?” this source says. “No. But I’m convinced they did it.”

That’s an amazing one. I have no proof … but I’m convinced of it. This story really is something else.

No player was more resolute that Spygate had affected games than Hines Ward, the Steelers’ All-Pro wide receiver. Ward told reporters that Patriots inside information about Steelers play calling helped New England upset Pittsburgh 24-17 in the January 2002 AFC Championship Game. “Oh, they knew,” Ward, now an NBC analyst who didn’t return messages for this story, said after Spygate broke. “They were calling our stuff out. They knew a lot of our calls. There’s no question some of their players were calling out some of our stuff.”

Oh, Hines Ward. This is a classic one. In the AFC Championship Game in question, the Patriots scored a touchdown on a punt return and scored another touchdown off a blocked field goal — neither of which could come from “spying.” That’s just making plays, people.

Also, Kordell Stewart was a terrible quarterback. He threw three interceptions in that game, which would raise suspicions if that wasn’t a habit of his. Of his 82 regular-season starts, he threw three or more picks in 10 of them. Of his four playoff starts, he three three picks twice. That’s 86 starts, and that’s a three-interception day in roughly 14 percent of them.

In short, the Patriots didn’t need to cheat to intercept that guy three times. Unless everyone in the NFL cheated against Kordell.

Some of the Steelers’ defensive coaches remain convinced that a deep touchdown pass from Brady to Deion Branch in the January 2005 AFC Championship Game, which was won by the Patriots 41-27, came from stolen signals because Pittsburgh hadn’t changed its signals all year, sources say, and the two teams had played a game in the regular season that Walsh told investigators he believes was taped.

Unnamed sources “remain convinced.” OK.

Plus, do you remember that play? It was a thing of beauty, Brady’s deep ball to Branch. And Branch was not exactly wide open — Pittsburgh had a man on him.

Deion Branch gets behind Deshea Townsend for a touchdown in the 2004 AFC Championship Game (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Deion Branch gets behind Deshea Townsend for a touchdown in the 2004 AFC Championship Game (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Brady and Branch simply beat him with a perfect pass and great catch. Believe it or not, that’s how football games are actually determined.

“To this day, some believe that we were robbed by the Patriots not playing by the rules … and knowing our game plan,” a former Eagles football operations staffer says.

Some unnamed sources believe something. Killer.

[More than 2,200 words about Arlen Specter]

It is wrong to speak ill of the dead, so we’ll politely leave that section alone, noting only that the fact that a senator becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories does not serve as proof of much of anything.

Walsh hinted that the cheating was more widespread than anyone knew — and, perhaps, that he possessed proof that the Patriots had taped the Rams walk-through.

Of course, Mat Walsh never did possess proof that the Patriots had taped the walk-through. Nevertheless, this line is in the final story.

And a few paragraphs later …

In the meeting in Specter’s office, the senator asked Walsh: “Were there any live electronics during the walk-through?”

“It’s certainly possible,” Walsh said. “But I have no evidence.”

Juicy.

“One coach who worked with an assistant on that 2001 Patriots team says that the ex-Pats assistant coach once bragged that New England knew exactly what the Rams would call in the red zone. “He’d say, ‘A little birdie told us,'” the coach says now.

This quote comes after a long explanation of of the Patriots’ suspiciously knowing new plays which the Rams installed in red-zone situations for the Super Bowl. However, these claims have been debunked long ago. Heck, while we’re linking to old stuff, remember how differently the NFL handed Spygate accusations against the Dolphins?? These writers clearly don’t read CBS Boston often enough.

On the exact day that Specter called for an investigation, Goodell left a voice mail message on Mike Martz’s cellphone. The Super Bowl against the Patriots had derailed Martz’s career as much as it made Belichick’s. Martz’s offense, dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf” in 1999, was never the same, and in 2006, he was fired as the Rams’ coach.

According to this story, Bill Belichick is such a powerful cheater that his win over Mike Martz destroyed Martz’s coaching career. Except … as stated in the same sentence … Martz kept his job for five seasons after that loss. And he got three NFL coaching jobs after that. Evil Belichick!

Martz was deeply suspicious of whether the Patriots had videotaped the walk-through or his team’s practices before the Super Bowl, even though he believes that the Rams’ three turnovers were the main factors in the defeat.

“It was hard to swallow because I always felt something happened but I didn’t know what it was and I couldn’t prove it anyway. Even to this day, I think something happened.”

At least these accusations with no proof are attributed to a real human being. That’s positive progress, I suppose.

Even the language of the tip [from the Colts about deflated footballs] seemed to echo suspicions shaped by the Spygate era. … “It is well known around the league ..”

So, because a low-level Colts employee cited unnamed sources’ suspicions, it proves that … it proves … something or another.

But to the many owners who saw the Patriots as longtime cheaters, it really didn’t matter that Goodell appeared eager, perhaps overeager, to show the rest of the NFL that he had learned the lessons of Spygate. One team owner acknowledges that for years there was a “jealous … hater” relationship among many owners with Kraft, the residue of Spygate. “It’s not surprising that there’s a makeup call,” one team owner says. Another longtime executive says a number of owners wanted Goodell to “go hard on this one.”

OK. So the commissioner acted improperly in DeflateGate? Good to know. A federal judge told me that last week.

[Giants owner John] Mara had signaled to Kraft, “It’s not there. We’re not there with you on this. Something has to happen. The commissioner has to do his job.” Mara insists that this account “is not true,” but…

This quote from Mara is attributed to a source close to Kraft, and even though Mara denies its truth, it runs in the story.

I actually think “It’s Not True, But … ” would have been a proper title to this ESPN story.

On the middle finger of his right hand, Brady flashed the new ring, the gaudiest of the four, glittering with 205 diamonds — and no asterisks.

No lie — that’s a great ending to this story. It’s a shame it couldn’t have been preceded by some actual information.

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

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