By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — I never was much of a chemistry student, but it didn’t take long to learn that in the internet age, the equation to create the perfect storm of outrage, attention and controversy is quite simple. Say “New England Patriots,” say “cheating,” and then sit back and watch the world burn.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
That’s the stage that we’re currently at in what is being deemed “Spygate II,” a term that may be slightly premature. It started with a reporter asking Bengals head coach Zac Taylor about the rumors of the Patriots recording the Bengals’ sideline in Sunday’s game in Cleveland. (Literally nobody on earth had heard these rumors prior to the head coach getting asked about these rumors.) Taylor said it was being investigated, and thus, mayhem ensued.
That mayhem was short-lived, as multiple reporters — local and national — said that the Patriots had a video crew in the press box to shoot a feature on the team’s scout that was in Cleveland to study the Bengals. Crisis averted … for a few hours.
ESPN’s Dianna Russini had a source tell her that a Bengals employee closely watched the videographer, and that “the shot was of the Bengals coaches and staff on the sidelines for the entire 1st quarter.” Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic reported similarly, saying “eight minutes of footage focusing on recording the Bengals’ sideline.”
The advancement of the report seemingly inspired the Patriots to release a statement on Monday night, in which they admitted that the videographers “inappropriately filmed the field from the press box.” In the statement, the team admitted that the “independent contractors” who did the recording “unknowingly violated a league policy by filming the field and sideline from the press box.” The team said that it will “accept full responsibility for the actions of our production crew at the Browns-Bengals game.”
And that’s really where we are in terms of reports and facts. Unsurprisingly, it’s led to an eruption of takes. There has not been much of a push to wait for more facts to surface before reaching a final, educated conclusion. As previously mentioned, that’s just how simple internet science works.
Yet whether you’re on the “ban Bill Belichick for life” train or the “Patriots clearly didn’t do anything wrong” train, here’s what is absolutely needed in order for this story to ever be resolved in the proper manner.
We need to see the footage.
Let us see the tapes.
(Nobody uses tapes anymore, but the English language has yet to develop a replacement. “Show us the digital files” doesn’t sound right. Nor does “Play us the MPEGs!” I digress.)
Part of the reason that Spygate had (still has?) the shelf life it did was because Roger Goodell decided to destroy much of the evidence. Unless the commissioner’s goal was to create an eternal air of mystery and mistrust around his decision, this was a terrific misstep on his part.
The idea behind destroying the footage, in Goodell’s eyes, was to ensure that the Patriots could no longer use any of the footage that they had turned over to the NFL for the investigation. Simple enough. Goodell figured that issuing the first-ever stripping of a first-round pick would do enough to put the story to bed. He figured wrong.
In the eyes of everyone who wanted to see the death penalty given to the Patriots, the destroying of those videos was clear and definitive evidence that the footage was even worse than our wildest imaginations could dare dream. “If there’s nothing to hide,” the wolves howled, “then why destroy them?”
It’s a case that has always been a bit lacking in logic. As Belichick famously blurted out during his famous Mona Lisa Vito press conference in 2015, “A guy is giving signals in front of 80,000 people, OK? So we filmed them taking signals in front of 80,000 people like there were a lot of other teams doing at that time too. … Guy is in front of 80,000 people … 80,000 people saw it, everybody on the sideline saw it, everybody sees our guys in front of 80,000 people. I mean, there he is.”
The footage on those tapes — for which they were punished to an unprecedented degree — did indeed show coaches who were standing on a sideline and giving signals. Yet because the footage got destroyed (by literal stomping, which is an incredible visual), fans and media members from around the country were granted free rein to imagine whatever they wanted to be on those tapes. Somehow, by standing on the sideline and pointing a camera at coaches, the Patriots were able to unlock a whole world of information, far beyond what the rest of the world could see. That was the result of the tape destruction.
And certainly, when Goodell played footage for media members in New York after meeting with Matt Walsh a few months after the stomping of the tapes, suffice it to say that the commissioner might have learned a lesson. The footage in this instance came from Walsh, and it showed … coaches … on the sideline … being coaches.
It was not the explosive material than many folks imagined to have existed. But it was far too late. The story had already risen to unimaginable lengths.
That’s why in this instance, the NFL would be wise to release this footage. Russini reported that it’s currently in the hands of the NFL and the Bengals. Whenever this current investigation concludes — whether it’s Tuesday, Wednesday, or six months from now — that footage ought to be shown in its entirety and explained in detail to the public at large.
That should be the case if the league determines that the Patriots were up to no good and were busted for breaking the same rules of the past.
It should also be the case if the league determines that the production crew was merely gathering B-roll to fill their “Do Your Job” feature on the scout. (For those who may scoff at this possibility, there’s a relatively lengthy clip in the “Do Your Job” about the equipment staff that just shows guys doing laundry. A little game action would theoretically be a bit more scintillating.)
Because, as we’ve already seen on Twitter and on the radio and wherever else, the general response to anything in this realm is for people to jump to conclusions on their own. That part can’t be controlled entirely, but if the NFL chooses to keep anything secret in this case, it won’t help do anything but cast a cloud over the entire situation.
One bit of information that should be considered significant here is the rest of that Belichick quote from January 2015. Woven in between the comments about the coaches standing in front of 80,000 people, Belichick said this: “We never did it again. We’re never going to do it again. Anything else that’s close, we’re not going to do either. We always do, we always have. Anything that’s remotely close, we’re [going to err] on the side of caution.”
This recent news would, obviously, prove that sentiment wrong, but Belichick has been adamant over the past 24 hours that he and the football operations crew are not involved with anything that the production team shoots or produces.
“I personally have never viewed any footage at all of anything that those production people have done, other than what’s shown on public television or something like that,” Belichick said Tuesday morning. “We don’t have anything to do with what they do, so I don’t really have much knowledge of the situation at all.”
There are those who believe Belichick knows every single thing that goes on in every department at Gillette Stadium. There are those who will believe him.
Ultimately, what’s on that footage should fairly easily and thoroughly answer that question. Likewise, if any other teams around the league come out to say the Patriots have done the same thing in their stadiums, it would help prove things one way or another. (If this were a new commitment to filming sidelines, using the 2019 Cincinnati Bengals as the jumping-off point would be a curious decision.)
So, outside of takes lighting up the internet skies, here’s what’s needed next:
One, the story must be advanced in some way. Which is to say, outside of millions of people talking about it, the league is going to have to do something about it. The gears of NFL justice grind slowly, as we all know, but without official word on anything, it will just be bits and pieces and innuendo that slowly trickles out.
Secondly, and most importantly, the footage must be released.
Until both of those things happen, it’s challenging to definitively state exactly what’s going on. Right now, it’s a matter of believing what you choose to believe, no matter where you might stand.
We’ve all been down this road before. For the sake of maintaining everybody’s sanity in this great nation, the NFL taking a proactive, transparent approach to solving it would be the best course of action. That would be a break from standard protocol for the NFL under Goodell, but, well, perhaps it’s time for a change.