By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — When news first broke that a Patriots employee was caught red-handed filming the Bengals’ sideline in early December, the sharks came out immediately. Sensing some blood in the water, and knowing there’s no meatier story than a Patriots CHEATING scandal, all of the league’s heavy hitter reporters threw up their dorsal fins and went on some deep dives looking for some juice.

They came up empty.

And now, almost eight weeks later, the story has barely advanced an inch since Jay Glazer got a hold of the footage — footage which was exactly what the Patriots admitted to having just a day after the story initially broke. To anyone with any sense at all, the videographer clearly made a mistake. Had he been surreptitiously and deviously SPYING on an opponent, he would not have moved from the back row of the press box to the front row of the press box, seated directly in front of about a dozen Bengals employees, and taken wide shots of the Bengals’ sideline … from behind.

If one were to engage in an elaborate CHEATING enterprise, this would not be the way to do it. (Buying a ticket in the 300 level on the opposite sideline and busting out an iPhone in the stands would be much more effective.)

In a surprise of all surprises, against all conspiratorial odds, the Patriots’ story checked out. They broke a rule, and the matter of “Spygate 2.0” — which so many people wanted to be real — was nothing more than what was initially reported. Those who understand football on even the most basic level could easily understand that to be the reality.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced loudly and clearly on Wednesday that he is not one of those people.

In a question perfectly phrased by The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin, shouldn’t this be an open-and-shut case, one that does not require months upon months of “investigation,” whatever that may entail?

Well,” Goodell immediately replied, “the answer to that question is no, it shouldn’t.

Oh.

All right, then.

As a reminder: When the initial Spygate took place back in 2007, it involved Eric Mangini and the Jets kicking a Patriots camera crew off the sideline in the Meadowlands on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2007. Goodell gathered information on the matter and decided on the team’s punishment four days later. It was Thursday, Sept. 13, when Goodell announced that the Patriots would be feeling the pain of his jurisdictional hammer: A first-round pick in 2008, a massive $500,000 fine to Bill Belichick, and a $250,000 fine to the Patriots organization.

Despite the continued narrative that the Patriots “got off light” with Spygate, this was the first ever instance of a team being stripped of a first-round pick for any violation. This was a massive punishment, and it took Goodell all of three days to determine it.

Now a dozen years later, with an infraction much more minor, Goodell’s NFL investigation is entering its third month.

Given the unbelievably shoddy and slanted investigative methods put forth by the NFL during the yearslong saga known affably as DeflateGate, this lengthy review process likely does not have many folks in Foxboro feeling too comfortable. Those feelings of unease had to have been amplified when Goodell dropped a borderline gibberish line like this:

“We have responsibility … [to] make sure that something that we don’t know happened, didn’t happen.”

While it was a statement that was surely difficult to decipher, it was an announcement from Goodell that the NFL is effectively trying its damnedest to find a more severe violation by the Patriots, even if there’s no evidence or inkling of any further violation having been committed.

Goodell also uttered a statement that became almost rote for him whenever talking about DeflateGate from 2015-17.

Our responsibility is to make sure we are being extremely thorough. We have the responsibility to 31 other clubs, we have responsibility to partners,” Goodell stated, just before his jabberwocky line about things they didn’t know happened … not happening. “So, from our standpoint, we want to make sure that we are being thorough. Our team has been on it. We have been focused on this. I think it has not been that lengthy a period of time.

Of course, here in New England, we’ve been in tune with how quickly such matters tend to be dealt with when other teams are involved. Through DeflateGate, we learned of numerous comparable violations — use of Stickum, warming footballs with a heater on the sideline, etc. — that resulted only in warnings sent by the league. After DeflateGate, the Giants accused the Steelers of using underinflated footballs and even sent evidence to the league office. The NFL promptly and immediately stifled the story, saying the accusations were untrue. There was no investigation, there was no multi-million dollar investment from the league, and there was no drawn-out legal battle tying up courts at multiple levels. It was over before it even could get a cute nickname. (The same happened when a potential DeflateGate THREE-POINT-OH cropped up in the 2018 preseason!)

Bring the story to the present day, a photo went viral this past December showing a Ravens employee wearing a Bluetooth earpiece on the sideline, standing directly behind Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh during a game.

Such communication devices are strictly forbidden on team’s sidelines, for obvious reasons. The Ravens admitted to the violation (because, well, it aired on television), calling it “a mistake.” A Ravens spokesperson even said, “The Bluetooth was removed as soon as he noticed he was wearing it.”

Comparably, when the Bengals caught the videographer working for the Patriots, that videographer offered to delete the footage, which was clearly intended to serve as B-roll in the feature being produced on the Patriots’ scout. This offering was somehow interpreted as an admission of deeper guilt, which does not appear to have been applied to the Ravens’ situation.

Now, it would be disingenuous to treat all matters as apples-to-apples, so the fact that the Patriots — under the same head coach and with the same owner — got into trouble with cameras and tapes in the past should play a role in weighing any potential future offenses more heavily. Understood.

However …. this particular violation in Baltimore made the Ravens repeat offenders, after the team was fined $200,000 for violating the coach-to-player communication rules in 2018. So, one might reasonably assume that the NFL would feel a responsibility to the other 31 club and to league partners to be thorough about this egregious example of cheating during an NFL game. Instead, the story faded away as soon as it arrived, like a comet in the NFL’s cheating skies.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have to be anxiously awaiting their fate for a case that, despite Goodell’s insistence, is as open-and-shut as possible.

In an even more contemporary case, consider this reporting from The Athletic’s David Kaplan, regarding the accusations that the Saints somehow were involved with helping to manage the PR crisis of the local Catholic church’s sexual abuse crisis:

The NFL is not investigating the New Orleans Saints over advising the local Catholic church’s messaging in response to a lawsuit accusing the archdiocese of covering up allegations of sexual abuse, a league source said. Nor does the league plan to do so in the future unless Saints emails show troublesome actions.

That is a case of the NFL not really having an interest in making sure that something that they don’t know happened didn’t happen, does it? The Patriots are clearly getting a slightly different treatment.

This commentary from Goodell on a matter that really should have been resolved within days does lend credence to this report by Mike Florio just before Christmas:

“There’s a sense that investigators want to make that connection, and a perception that they are showing frustration when unable to tie the video crew to the football employees.”

Now take that report, and reconsider Wednesday’s commentary from Goodell:

“We have a responsibility … to understand all of what happened and make sure that something that we don’t know happened didn’t happen.”

Goodell and the NFL clearly are still out for blood. Considering we learned in 2015 that the league can find whatever it wants to find, that doesn’t bode particularly well for the Patriots at this moment in time.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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