"Interviews by ESPN The Magazine and Outside the Lines with more than 90 league officials, owners, team executives and coaches, current and former Patriots coaches, staffers and players, and reviews of previously undisclosed private notes from key meetings, show that Spygate is the centerpiece of a long, secret history between Goodell's NFL, which declined comment for this story, and Kraft's Patriots. The diametrically opposed way the inquiries were managed by Goodell -- and, more importantly, perceived by his bosses -- reveals much about how and why NFL punishment is often dispensed. The widespread perception that Goodell gave the Patriots a break on Spygate, followed by the NFL's stonewalling of a potential congressional investigation into the matter, shaped owners' expectations of what needed to be done by 345 Park Ave. on Deflategate. It was, one owner says, time for 'a makeup call.'"ESPN:
SpygateHis bosses were furious. Roger Goodell knew it. So on April 1, 2008, the NFL commissioner convened an emergency session of the league's spring meeting at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. Attendance was limited to each team's owner and head coach. A palpable anger and frustration had rumbled inside club front offices since the opening Sunday of the 2007 season. During the first half of the New England Patriots' game against the New York Jets at Giants Stadium, a 26-year-old Patriots video assistant named Matt Estrella had been caught on the sideline, illegally videotaping Jets coaches' defensive signals, beginning the scandal known as Spygate.
The practice of decoding signals was universal in football -- a single stolen signal can change a game -- with advance scouts jotting down notes, then matching the signal to the play. The Patriots created a novel spying system that made the decoding more dependable.
Behind closed doors, Goodell addressed what he called "the elephant in the room" and, according to sources at the meeting, turned over the floor to Robert Kraft. Then 66, the billionaire Patriots owner stood and apologized for the damage his team had done to the league and the public's confidence in pro football. Kraft talked about the deep respect he had for his 31 fellow owners and their shared interest in protecting the NFL's shield. Witnesses would later say Kraft's remarks were heartfelt, his demeanor chastened. For a moment, he seemed to well up.
Then the Patriots' coach, Bill Belichick, the cheating program's mastermind, spoke. He said he had merely misinterpreted a league rule, explaining that he thought it was legal to videotape opposing teams' signals as long as the material wasn't used in real time. Few in the room bought it. Belichick said he had made a mistake -- "my mistake."
Now it was Goodell's turn. The league office lifer, then 49 years old, had been commissioner just 18 months, promoted, in part, because of Kraft's support. His audience wanted to know why he had managed his first crisis in a manner at once hasty and strangely secretive. Goodell had imposed a $500,000 fine on Belichick, a $250,000 fine on the team and the loss of a first-round draft pick just four days after league security officials had caught the Patriots and before he'd even sent a team of investigators to Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Those investigators hadn't come up empty: 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.
And that was it. The inquiry was over, with only Belichick and Adams knowing the true scope of the taping. (After the season, Belichick would acknowledge the Patriots taped a "significant number" of games, and according to documents and sources, they recorded signals in at least 40 games during the Spygate era.) The quick resolution mollified some owners and executives, who say they admired the speed -- and limited transparency -- in which Goodell carried out the investigation. "This is the way things should be done ... the way they were done under Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue," a former executive now says. "Keep the dirty laundry in the family."
To many owners and coaches, the expediency of the NFL's investigation -- and the Patriots' and Goodell's insistence that no games were tilted by the spying -- seemed dubious. It reminded them of something they had seen before from the league and Patriots: At least two teams had caught New England videotaping their coaches' signals in 2006, yet the league did nothing. Further, NFL competition committee members had, over the years, fielded numerous allegations about New England breaking an array of rules. Still nothing. Now the stakes had gotten much higher: Spygate's unanswered questions and destroyed evidence had managed to seize the attention of a hard-charging U.S. senator, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who was threatening a congressional investigation. This would put everyone -- players, coaches, owners and the commissioner -- under oath, a prospect that some in that room at The Breakers believed could threaten the foundation of the NFL.
But other owners, coaches, team executives and players were outraged by how little the league investigated what the Patriots' cheating had accomplished in games. The NFL refused to volunteer information -- teams that had been videotaped were not officially notified by the league office, sources say -- and some executives were told that the tapes were burned in a dumpster, not crushed into pieces in a conference room. The NFL's explanation of why it was destroyed -- "So that our clubs would know they no longer exist and cannot be used by anyone," the league said at the time -- only made it worse for those who were critical. "I wish the evidence had not been destroyed because at least we would know what had been done," Polian says. "Lack of specificity just leads to speculation, and that serves no one's purpose -- the Patriots included."
The view around much of the league was that Goodell had done a major favor for Kraft, one of his closest confidants who had extended critical support when he became the commissioner the previous summer. Kraft is a member of the NFL's three-person compensation committee, which each year determines Goodell's salary and bonuses -- $35 million in 2013, and nearly $44.2 million in 2012. "It felt like this enormous break was given to the Patriots," a former exec says.
They were also angry at Belichick -- partly, some admit, out of jealousy for his success but also because of the widespread rumors that he was always pushing the envelope. The narrative that paralleled the Patriots' rise -- a team mostly void of superstars, built not to blow out opponents but to win the game's handful of decisive plays -- only increased rivals' suspicions. After all, the Patriots had won three Super Bowls by a total of nine points. Although Belichick admitted to Kraft that the taping had helped them only 1 percent of the time ("Then you're a real schmuck," Kraft told him), the spying very well could have affected a game, opponents say. "Why would they go to such great lengths for so long to do it and hide it if it didn't work?" a longtime former executive says. "It made no sense."
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 Belichick's consigliere Ernie 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, employee Matt 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.
As much as the Patriots tried to keep the circle of those who knew about the taping small, sometimes the team would add recently cut players from upcoming opponents and pay them only to help decipher signals, former Patriots staffers say. In 2005, for instance, they signed a defensive player from a team they were going to play in the upcoming season. Before that game, the player was led to a room where Adams was waiting. They closed the door, and Adams played a compilation tape that matched the signals to the plays from the player's former team, and asked how many were accurate. "He had about 50 percent of them right," the player says now.
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."
In fact, many former New England coaches and employees insist that the taping of signals wasn't even the most effective cheating method the Patriots deployed in that era. 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.
But the truth is, only one man truly knows how much Spygate, or any other suspect method, affected games: Belichick.
It didn't matter that the Patriots went 18-1 in 2007. Or that they would average more wins a season after Spygate than before. Or that Belichick would come to be universally recognized as his generation's greatest coach. Or that many with the Patriots remain mystified at the notion that a historic penalty was somehow perceived to be lenient. The Patriots were forever branded as cheaters -- an asterisk, in the view of many fans, forever affixed to their wins. The NFL was all too aware of the damage baseball had suffered because of the steroids scandal, its biggest stars and most cherished records tarnished. After Spygate made headlines, rumors that had existed for years around the NFL that the Patriots had cheated in the Super Bowl that had propelled their run, against the Rams, were beginning to boil to the surface, threatening everything. "I don't think fans really want to know this -- they just want to watch football," the Panthers source says. "But if you tell them that the games aren't on the level, they'll care. Boy, will they care."
At his pre-Super Bowl news conference on Feb. 1, 2008, Goodell insisted the Patriots' taping was "quite limited" and "not something done on a widespread basis," contradicting what Belichick had told him. Goodell was asked how many tapes the league had reviewed, and destroyed, the previous September. "I believe there were six tapes," the commissioner replied, "and I believe some were from the preseason in 2007, and the rest were primarily in the late 2006 season."
All the negative headlines certainly haven't affected the league's bottom line -- total revenues and TV ratings continue to shatter records. The NFL's annual revenue, racing toward $15 billion, is the most important metric that Goodell's bosses use to judge his performance, several owners and executives say.
DeflategateGoodell had just upheld the four-game suspension he had leveled in early May against quarterback Tom Brady for a new Patriots cheating scandal known as Deflategate. An NFL-commissioned investigation, led by lawyer Ted Wells, after four months had concluded it "was more probable than not" that Brady had been "at least generally aware" that the Patriots' footballs used in the AFC Championship Game held this year had been deflated to air pressure levels below what the league allowed. Goodell deemed the Patriots and Brady "guilty of conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of football," the league's highest crime, and punished the franchise and its marquee player.
From the beginning, though, Goodell managed Deflategate in the opposite way he tried to dispose of Spygate. He announced a lengthy investigation and, in solidarity with many owners, outsourced it to Wells, whose law firm had defended the NFL during the mammoth concussions litigation. In an inquiry lasting four months and costing at least $5 million, according to sources, Ted Wells and his team conducted 66 interviews with Patriots staffers and league officials. Wells, who declined to comment, also plumbed cellphone records and text messages.
In his 40-page decision on Sept. 3 that vacated Brady's suspension over Deflategate, Judge Richard M. Berman rebuked Goodell and the NFL, saying that the commissioner had "dispensed his own brand of industrial justice." Columnists, analysts and even some NFL players immediately pounced, racing to proclaim that Goodell finally had suffered a crushing, perhaps legacy-defining defeat. From the Saints' Bountygate scandal through Deflategate, Goodell is 0-5 on appeals of his high-profile disciplinary decisions.
After an investigation, the NFL determined Brady and two ball boys conspired to deflate footballs in New England's 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts in last season's AFC Championship Game. Brady was suspended four games, then appealed the suspension to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who upheld the suspension. Brady is now appealing the decision in federal court.
During the appeal hearing, it was revealed that Brady, instead of turning his cellphone over to investigators, handed over emails and texts but destroyed the actual phone shortly before he was scheduled to be questioned in the probe.
Houston Texans owner Bob McNair also shared his impressions of various parties' roles in the Deflategate investigation.
"I think we could have handled it better, I think the Patriots could have handled it better, I think Brady could have handled it better," he said.
"You know, when you look back on it, if Brady had just said, 'Look, my guys know I like a softer ball, and that's what I like, and so they do it. But I don't go out and check the pressure of the balls.' ... I don't think there would have been an issue," McNair continued. "It would have been a problem with the guys on the training staff who deflated the balls, and the Patriots would have got some kind of minor penalty; it wouldn't have been a big deal."
A nearly $5 million investigation, the introduction of climate science and a public tirade by Patriots owner Bob Kraft only added to the confusion. Those with a bit of distance -- i.e., NFL players from other teams -- appear to see it as a wild overreaction, even if every bit of it is true.
ESPN's NFL Nation reporters and ESPN The Magazine contributors polled more than 100 players (not every player answered every question) and found a similarly sensible consensus. While 72 percent of respondents believe the Patriots were responsible for lowering air pressure of the footballs, only 16 percent said they were "upset" by it and 68 percent said they think other teams do the same thing. Sixty percent said the Patriots aren't "cheaters."
Quarterback Tom Brady's four-game suspension would be too long, according to nearly 80 percent of the players. So it's no surprise that 88 percent said league discipline should not be determined solely by commissioner Roger Goodell. Deflategate landed in federal court largely because the NFL, Brady and the Patriots couldn't agree on how serious it was.
» BeliCheat.com: "After All These Years"
» ESPN: "The Persecution of Patriots Nation"
» Sporting News: Deflategate Timeline
» Sporting News: "Miss America winner claims Tom Brady was a cheater" (not exactly)
» CNN: Tom Brady Endorses Donald Trump