By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are going to play the Rams in the Super Bowl. This has happened once before. Humans, for all of our amazing achievements, tend to lack creativity. So you’ll certainly read and hear roughly 100,000 references to Super Bowl XXXVI in the forthcoming days and weeks.
And just as certainly, as Rams alumni are interviewed on Radio Row, and as members of the 2001 Super Bowl-losing team speak on various platforms, you will hear the following complaint: The Patriots cheated us out of a Super Bowl. They filmed our practice. They cheated.
This is a false accusation.
And for the sake of setting the record straight ahead of a flurry of radio hosts who won’t push back against these statements, let’s go through a quick timeline of what actually happened with regard to the Patriots and their old video practices.
Sept. 9, 2007: Jets head coach Eric Mangini orders Patriots employees off the field in New Jersey.
The complaint that started it all. Former Patriots coach Eric Mangini, at the time the head coach of the Jets, called for security to remove Patriots staffers from the sideline, where they were filming coaches from across the field. This was against the NFL’s policy — though not for the content of the footage but for the location of the camera operators. That same footage, if filmed from a location elsewhere in the building, would have been allowed.
But considering the league had pushed a memo to teams, and considering Roger Goodell was early in his tenure as NFL commissioner and was on a streak of doling out severe punishment to announce his presence, this violation presented an opportunity for the league to strike.
Bill Belichick called it a misinterpretation of the rules, but the NFL didn’t buy it. The league came down hard on the Patriots, taking away their 2008 first-round draft pick. It marked the first time that a team ever had its first-round pick taken away.
The league also fined Belichick $500,000, which was the largest fine ever issued to a coach. The team was also fined $250,000.
The league also demanded that the Patriots hand over all videos and files of any such recordings. The league then destroyed the footage. The Patriots went 16-0 during the regular season.
Feb. 2, 2008: Boston Herald reports that Patriots filmed Rams’ Super Bowl walkthrough in February 2002.
The day before the undefeated Patriots were set to play in Super Bowl XLII against the Giants, the Boston Herald dropped a bombshell story. Or so it seemed.
The report, written by John Tomase, was based on rumors of a filmed walkthrough prior to Super Bowl XXXVI — rumors that had circulated for a few years. Tomase cited an unnamed source as saying that the recording did indeed happen.
The Patriots strongly denied the report, though that did little to quiet the story.
Yet in May of 2008, the Boston Herald offered an apology to the Patriots. It was quite direct:
While the Boston Herald based its Feb. 2, 2008, report on sources that it believed to be credible, we now know that this report was false, and that no tape of the walkthrough ever existed.
Prior to the publication of its Feb. 2, 2008, article, the Boston Herald neither possessed nor viewed a tape of the Rams’ walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI, nor did we speak to anyone who had. We should not have published the allegation in the absence of firmer verification.
The Boston Herald regrets the damage done to the team by publication of the allegation, and sincerely apologizes to its readers and to the New England Patriots’ owners, players, employees and fans for our error.
Tomase said he made a “devastating leap of logic” in his report, and he wrote his own explanation:
“First and foremost, this is about a writer breaking one of the cardinal rules of journalism. I failed to keep challenging what I had been told. … I had repeatedly heard that this walkthrough had been taped, and from people I trusted. Eventually I accepted it as fact and stopped questioning the assertion. … I should not have written the story without seeing the tape or getting multiple, firsthand confirmations from members of the organization.”
Despite the clear retraction and apology, the notion that the Patriots filmed the Rams’ walkthrough has lived on for years. ESPN stated multiple times in 2015 that the Patriots filmed the Rams’ Super Bowl walkthrough, to the point where the network had to issue an on-air apology for being inaccurate.
May 13, 2008: Roger Goodell shows footage to media.
Though Goodell and the NFL did destroy the initial wave of footage, he at least learned from that moment. After meeting with a former Patriots video assistant named Matt Walsh — a man who claimed to have evidence of serious filming violations — Goodell determined that Walsh did not in fact possess such evidence.
And before Goodell spoke to the media in New York about his meeting, he played the footage provided by Walsh to the assembled media.
And that was, according to all confirmed reports, all the NFL ever had on the Patriots. Footage of coaches standing on the sideline, giving signals. Footage that would have been legal to obtain if it had been filmed from a location “enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead.” That was the violation the Patriots committed. Filming from the sidelines, instead of a room with walls and a roof, went against what the NFL wanted to allow teams to do.
“The guy’s giving signals in front of 80,000 people, OK? So we filmed him taking signals in front of 80,000 people, like there were a lot of other teams doing at that time too, OK?” Belichick said in January 2015. “The guy’s in front of 80,000 people — 80,000 people saw it, everybody’s sidelines saw it, everybody sees our guy in front of 80,000 people. I mean, there he is. It was wrong, we were disciplined for it. We never did it again. We’ll never do it again. On anything else that’s close, we’re not gonna do either.”
2008-present: The walkthrough story gets perpetuated, time after time.
You don’t hear much from Marshall Faulk these days, but back when he was still a prominent member of the national media, he spoke often about how he felt cheated by the events of Super Bowl XXXVI.
“I’ll never be over being cheated out of the Super Bowl. That’s a different story,” Faulk said in 2013. “We had some plays in the red zone that we hadn’t ran. And they created a check for it. It’s just little things like that. It’s either the best coaching in the world when you come up with situations that you had never seen before. Or you’d seen it and knew what to do.”
Of note: The Rams entered the red zone exactly once during Super Bowl XXXVI. They scored — and they scored on a play where Kurt Warner walked untouched up the middle on a QB sneak. Faulk did get stopped on the snap prior, so perhaps he’s still steamed about not getting a touchdown for himself. Additionally, the Patriots’ defensive game plan wasn’t particularly elaborate; it was clearly centered on hitting the Rams’ skill players as hard as humanly possible, thus slowing down The Greatest Show On Turf. It worked.
Mike Martz, who was the head coach of that 2001 Rams team, told ESPN in 2015: “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.”
Warner himself has been pretty level-headed about it, but Isaac Bruce and Orlando Pace are still highly suspicious. Dick Vermeil, who had coached the Rams to a title two years prior to the Rams’ meeting with the Patriots, lobbed the word “cheaters” out to the world last week.
Even Eric Dickerson, who played for the Los Angeles Rams from 1983-87 and had nothing to do with the St. Louis Rams, stoked the flames last week, when he said: “They cheated us. They cheated us. They know they cheated us back in New Orleans. They watched our film, so we want some more of them.”
It’s not just the Rams, either. Last year, former NFL fullback Jon Ritchie got so confused by the whole ordeal that he suddenly accused the Patriots of filming the Eagles’ walkthrough prior to Super Bowl XXXIX.
This will surely continue in the dramatic buildup to Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 in Atlanta. Yet no matter how many times people talk about it, that won’t ever actually make it correct.