I want to hug and kiss this beautiful story from ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham and take it out to a fancy dinner. Splendidly reported and brutally damning of both the New England Patriots and Roger Goodell, it alleges that the Patriots’ Spygate scandal was worse than anyone imagined—and was actively swept under the rug by the commissioner and the NFL.

Advertisement

You should read the story immediately, but the thrust is this—citing interviews with 90 sources in and around football as well as primary documents, ESPN reports that Bill Belichick and the Patriots videotaped opposing teams’ signals from 40 different games from 2000 through 2007. And when the scandal broke, Goodell did everything in his power to protect Robert Kraft, who was one of his strongest supporters and without whom he would not have been named commissioner. The thesis statement in this story is that the cover-up—and if this report is accurate, the league’s actions can’t be called anything else but a cover-up—so rankled other owners that Goodell came down extra-hard on New England and Tom Brady for Ballghazi as “a makeup call.”

The Patriots’ defense for Spygate—when they were caught taping Jets coaches’ signals—has always been that it was an honest mistake, that they had misinterpreted the rules. Their track record implies otherwise. Belichick reportedly placed his complex spying program in the hands of Ernie Adams, the Patriots’ mysterious “director of football research.” It began way back in 2000, Belichick’s first year as New England coach, and only became more efficient as time went on.

Advertisement

As the Patriots became a dynasty and Belichick became the first coach to win three Super Bowls in four years, an entire system of covert videotaping was developed and a secret library created. “It got out of control,” a former Patriots assistant coach says. Sources with knowledge of the system say an advance scout would attend the games of upcoming Patriots opponents and assemble a spreadsheet of all the signals and corresponding plays. The scout would give it to Adams, who would spend most of the week in his office with the door closed, matching the notes to the tapes filmed from the sideline. Files were created, organized by opponent and by coach. During games, Walsh later told investigators, the Patriots’ videographers were told to look like media members, to tape over their team logos or turn their sweatshirt inside out, to wear credentials that said Patriots TV or Kraft Productions. The videographers also were provided with excuses for what to tell NFL security if asked what they were doing: Tell them you’re filming the quarterbacks. Or the kickers. Or footage for a team show.

Former Patriots coaches and employees say the videotaping was just the tip of the iceberg.

Several of them 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. 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 Patriots’ taping apparently went undetected until 2006, when Packers security caught cameraman Matt Estrella filming illegally. (He claimed he was merely taking scenic shots for “Kraft Productions.”) That offseason, the NFL warned the Patriots in writing. Before the next year’s opener the Jets set up a sting operation, with the assistance of team and NFL security, to catch the Patriots in the act.

Sponsored

They caught Estrella filming, and actively trying to hide his employer.

During the first half, Jets security monitored Estrella, who held a camera and wore a polo shirt with a taped-over Patriots logo under a red media vest that said: NFL PHOTOGRAPHER 138. With the backing of Jets owner Woody Johnson and Tannenbaum, Jets security alerted NFL security, a step Mangini acknowledged publicly later that he never wanted. Shortly before halftime, security encircled and then confronted Estrella. He said he was with “Kraft Productions.”

That’s when the NFL stepped in, and by all accounts, never had any interest in anything other than making it all go away.

Advertisement

On Monday, the day after the game, the tape arrived at NFL headquarters. On Wednesday, Goodell spoke to Belichick over the phone, and the Pats coach assured the commissioner he had misinterpreted the rules and that it was a small mistake that didn’t give the team a significant edge. In this conversation, according to ESPN’s sources, Goodell “did not believe” the Patriots’ explanation, but did not press for details. “Goodell didn’t want to know how many games were taped,” another source said.

On Thursday, the NFL announced the Patriots punishment. The entire official investigation had taken three days.

Advertisement

Privately, the NFL continued to act. The next week the league dispatched three executives, including general counsel Jeff Pash, to Foxborough. There they obtained eight videotapes of opposing teams and a stack of documents containing notes on other teams’ signals. Goodell ordered all the evidence to be destroyed.

This part of the report is unimpeachable—it comes directly from the Patriots’ counsel.

Inside a room accessible only to Belichick and a few others, they found a library of scouting material containing videotapes of opponents’ signals, with detailed notes matching signals to plays for many teams going back seven seasons. Among them were handwritten diagrams of the defensive signals of the Pittsburgh Steelers, including the notes used in the January 2002 AFC Championship Game won by the Patriots 24-17. Yet almost as quickly as the tapes and notes were found, they were destroyed, on Goodell’s orders: League executives stomped the tapes into pieces and shredded the papers inside a Gillette Stadium conference room.

Jeff Pash stomped the tapes!

Advertisement

The next step was to get the controversy to blow over. Coaches and executives from the Steelers (who believed they had been taped prior to their 2002 AFC championship loss) and Eagles (the 2005 Super Bowl) put out public statements denying that the spying had anything to do with the games’ outcomes and supporting the NFL’s investigation. We do not know if they were pressured to do so, but former Rams coach Mike Martz says Roger Goodell called him personally and urged him to do the same regarding the 2002 Super Bowl.

During a five-minute conversation, Martz recalls that the commissioner sounded panicked about Specter’s calls for a wider investigation. Martz also recalls that Goodell asked him to write a statement, saying that he was satisfied with the NFL’s Spygate investigation and was certain the Patriots had not cheated and asking everyone to move on — like leaders of the Steelers and Eagles had done.

“He told me, ‘The league doesn’t need this. We’re asking you to come out with a couple lines exonerating us and saying we did our due diligence,’” says Martz.

Martz believes the statement he gave was later changed by the NFL before being released.

Advertisement

Shown a copy of his statement this past July, Martz was stunned to read several sentences about Walsh that he says he’s certain he did not write. “It shocked me,” he says. “It appears embellished quite a bit — some lines I know I didn’t write. Who changed it? I don’t know.”

With the NFL’s power brokers in lockstep, the league managed to avoid a congressional investigation. It appeared to be the end of things, but, apparently, not in the minds of the other owners.

Advertisement

ESPN’s interviews with owners and executives paint a picture of an NFL as resentful of the Patriots’ special treatment as they were jealous of the team’s onfield success. So when the Patriots were accused of illegally deflating footballs—an overblown scandal if there ever was one—Goodell decided to bring down the hammer. The massive investigation, the unprecedented penalties, the preemptive court filing? All were apparently efforts to assuage other owners sick and tired of the Patriots getting away with things. One NFL owner declared Goodell’s heavy-handed response was his “makeup call.”

Ballghazi looks very different in this context. Not merely the NFL’s usual clownish mishandling, it’s the culmination of 15 years of the Patriots bending and breaking the rules, and of pent-up acrimony accrued by Goodell’s chummy relationship with Kraft. The NFL, attempting to trump up the charges against Tom Brady, relied largely on his destruction of evidence—a tactic, it turns out, with which the league’s investigators had firsthand familiarity.

And after all that, the NFL couldn’t even get it to stick.

Advertisement

The Patriots have issued a statement in response to ESPN’s report. It manages to sound strong and deny nothing.

Spygate to Deflategate: Inside what split the NFL and Patriots apart [ESPN]

Advertisement

Advertisement

Image via AP.