What Did The Patriots' Alleged Spygate Guru Actually Do?

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In ESPN’s motherlode about the Patriots’ hilarious history of cheating over the last decade and a half, you’ll notice a mysterious character at the heart of the videotaping operation: “football research director” Ernie Adams. To close observers of the Patriots organization, Adams has been a matter of curiosity for years, a frequent subject of speculation about just what the hell his job actually is. According to the ESPN report, it wasn’t actually all that complicated: Adams was the Spygate mastermind. And also, he might have been very bad at the job.

Here’s the basic introduction to Adams by ESPN:

The shared view of Belichick and Adams, according to many who’ve worked with them, is this: The league is lazy and incompetent, so why not push every boundary? “You’d want Bill and Ernie doing your taxes,” says a former Patriots assistant coach. “They would find all the loopholes, and then when the IRS would close them, they’d find more.”


And here’s what that looked like in action:

During games, Adams sat in the coaches’ box, with binoculars and notes of decoded signals, wearing a headset with a direct audio line to Belichick. Whenever Adams saw an opposing coach’s signal he recognized, he’d say something like, “Watch for the Two Deep Blitz,” and either that information was relayed to Brady or a play designed specifically to exploit the defense was called. A former Patriots employee who was directly involved in the taping system says “it helped our offense a lot,” especially in divisional games in which there was a short amount of time between the first and second matchups, making it harder for opposing coaches to change signals.

Still, some of the coaches who were with the Patriots during the Spygate years debate the system’s effectiveness. One coach who was in the booth with Adams says it didn’t work because Adams was “horrible” and “never had the calls right.” Another former coach says “Ernie is the guy who you watch football with and says, ‘It’s going to be a run!’ And it’s a pass. ‘It’s going to be a pass!’ And it’s a run. ‘It’s going to be a run!’ It’s a run. ‘I told you!’”


That last part is important. The story explains that the system worked best against “unsophisticated” teams—the Dolphins and Bills are named—and less so against organizations that had their shit together. This makes sense, but it runs counter to Adams’s folk hero status, which, incidentally, existed primarily as a wink-and-nod double bird, a solid fit for a hypothetical Spygate operation, if that sort of thing would have gone on in New England, which, who can really say?

Look at this, from Wright Thompson’s 2008 profile of Adams:

On game day, Adams wears a headset in the press box, a direct line to Belichick. Adams advises Belichick on which plays to challenge, and charts trends. “The one thing the Patriots do better than anyone else is they adjust and make halftime adjustments,” Sturges says. “Ernie Adams is the guy who does that.”

Are there other game-day duties? While it is commonly accepted that most teams try to steal signals, and New England was actually caught in the well-publicized Spygate incident, one former Patriots insider said a videotape of signals wouldn’t help the other 31 teams nearly as much because they wouldn’t have Ernie Adams there to quickly analyze and process the information.

You’ll find some version of this the Beautiful Football Mind thread in every story written about Adams. Here’s a Northwestern magazine story from around 2008:

“He had an incredible football mind,” says Randy Dean (McC77, KSM90), Northwestern’s quarterback in the mid- to late 1970s, who was drafted by the New York Giants in 1977 and reunited with Adams when he joined the team in 1979. “He was one of the premier resources for anything in film. And even then he had a real passion for the game.”


The basics of Adams and his relationship with Belichick are recited in every write-around, much of it originating from David Halberstam’s biography of the coach. The two met in 1970, when Adams recognized the Belichick name from a profoundly little-read football book Bill’s father had written; in 1979, after spending three years with the Patriots, Adams joined the Giants staff where Belichick was working as an assistant; the two reunited in 1991 when Adams went to work with Belichick in Cleveland; and now the two are reunited in New England, where the media guide lists Adams’s job description as “researching special assignments for both the coaching staff and the personnel department.” Beyond Halberstam—with whom Adams negotiated a deal where he got to ask one question about Vietnam for every three he answered about football (Halberstam wrote the comprehensive, and comprehensively turgid, The Best and the Brightest)—one of the only immediately accessible interviews with Adams about his role comes from Northwestern magazine, where he feeds the sausage back into the thresher:

“The truth is, I’ve always preferred to fly under the radar,” he says matter-of-factly. “I just don’t need a lot of notice. I love what I do, and that’s enough. And there’s a lot of stuff about being in the spotlight that I just don’t want.” He gives a quick laugh. “Let someone else worry about the media and the second-guessing and all the pressure.”


Otherwise, talking points are piped from one story to the next. Here’s (us quoting) the New York Post quoting a source far enough removed that it’s cited the way you would a Lombardi bumper sticker:

But no one is quite sure exactly what Adams really does, it seems, outside of Adams and Belichick. In Cleveland, Browns owner Art Modell once said, “I’ll pay anyone here $10,000 if they can tell me what Ernie Adams does.”


This is coachspeak as biography. Through unchecked reticence, Adams has fashioned his life story into a one-game-at-a-time soundbite, which is exactly the sort of cover you cook dream up for a lackey who operates as a dedicated codebreaker/sign-stealer, and who you’d prefer not field many questions.

That’s all good and Belichickian and everything, but the money laundering front only makes sense if he’s getting results. If his analysis was as spray-and-pray as those former coaches made it out to be, the obfuscation operation is funny in an entirely different way, with Belichick’s crony being propped up as a double-layered patsy while the real work of cheating happened by sending interns to swipe play sheets from opponents’ hotels.


It’s clear that Adams has some version of the goods—those quotes about talking circles around the Northwestern head coach or coaching up Phil Simms during his stay with the Giants don’t come out of nowhere. But the job outlined by ESPN—synthesizing a complex series of calls, tendencies, and packages in real time, from handwritten notes and photorealistic memory—is presented without the context of how absurd this would be as an endeavor. This is essentially Adams working as a one-man database and human algorithm. If that’s true, it’s deeply impressive, and deeply inefficient. ESPN quotes one player who met with Adams after having been cut from an upcoming Pats opponent; when Adams ran through the signals that he’d deciphered from film, he had “about 50 percent” correct.

What happened from there—and ideally, what we’ll find out in the aftermath of the ESPN dump—is the part where your opinion of the Patriots’ sophistication shapes how much you think any of this shit actually helped the team win games. If you’re working at “about 50 percent,” and just feeding that into the machine, that’s going to return results a lot like the “It’s gonna be a run!” line up above. But that’s the dumbest possible way to look at data like this. More probably, you’d shade some heightened possibility that the next play will be the stolen call and plug it into your other tactical materials—like, say, illicitly recorded footage—and work from there. I can’t tell you what the Patriots did, but I’d hazard that the principals aren’t quite dense enough to spend all that time on a secret, comprehensive video program to treat it as a deterministic football prediction engine.


Which is all to say, it’s probably safe to shunt most of the But the cheating didn’t even help that muchhhhh defense off to the side, unless you are very sure that Bill Belichick and his clandestine cronies are the dumbest men working in football.

Image credit: AP Photo/David Duprey