The Patriots' use of illegal videotapes of opposing teams' defensive signals, which formed the basis of the Spygate scandal in 2007, was far more widespread than initially thought and was a major reason the NFL so intensely pursued the team's alleged use of purposely deflated footballs in last season's AFC Championship Game, according to an ESPN "Outside The Lines" report.
The report, which was published on ESPN's website Tuesday morning, said the Patriots had an elaborate system of spying on opposing teams since Bill Belichick became the team's head coach in 2000. The report also said low-level employees were told to videotape opposing teams' signals and go through visiting team's locker rooms to steal play sheets to be used in games.
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"Outside The Lines" reporters wrote that the Patriots videotaped signals from opposing teams in at least 40 games between 2000 and the season-opening game in 2007 against the Jets. It was in that game that the Jets reported the illegal taping, prompting an investigation in which the Patriots were found to have violated the league's prohibition against the practice. Belichick was fined $500,000, the most ever for an NFL head coach, and the Patriots were stripped of a first-round draft choice.
The article also indicates that, because of the perception that the NFL didn't act as forcefully on Spygate as it could have, it "shaped [Goodell's] dogged insistence that Brady be suspended for deflating footballs in last year's AFC title game."
Other items from the report, which was based on interviews 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":
-- After the NFL discovered eight tapes containing game footage, as well as several "notes of signals and other scouting information," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell "ordered everything to be destroyed, with [league attorney Jeff] Pash and the other executives stomping on the tapes in a Gillette Stadium office and feeding the scouting notes into a shredder."
-- According to ESPN sources, several "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."
-- Goodell pressured then Rams head coach Mike Martz, who had lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, to issue a statement in 2008 indicating that he was satisfied with the league's investigation. Martz told ESPN for the article that he believes he did not write at least a portion of the statement. Martz also said, "Even to this day, I think something happened," a reference to speculation that the Patriots had illegally taped a Rams' walk-through practice before the Super Bowl.
-- Goodell ordered the destruction of the tapes because he didn't want them to be exploited again, but ESPN suggested that some owners felt that Goodell, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Belichick "had acted like partners, complicit in trying to sweep the scandal's details under the rug while the rest of the league was left wondering how much glory the Patriots' cheating had cost their teams." According to ESPN, "Goodell didn't want anybody to know that his gold franchise had won Super Bowls by cheating," a senior executive whose team lost to the Patriots in a Super Bowl now says. "If that gets out, that hurts your business."
Goodell said in an interview on ESPN's "Mike & Mike" radio show on Tuesday morning that there was no connection between how he pursued the DeflateGate situation and his handling of Spygate.
"I'm not aware of any connection between the SpyGate procedures and the procedures we went through here," Goodell said. "No connection in my mind."
In a statement, the Patriots said they have done nothing wrong.
"This type of reporting over the past seven years has led to additional unfounded, unwarranted and, quite frankly, unbelievable allegations by former players, coaches and executives," the statement read. "None of which have ever been substantiated, but many of which continue to be propagated ... It is disappointing that some choose to believe in myths, conjecture and rumors rather than giving credit for the team's successes to Coach Belichick, his staff and the players for their hard work, attention to detail, methodical weekly preparation, diligence and overall performance."
SI.com reported on Tuesday that teams continue to be wary of the Patriots because of their alleged history of stretching -- and sometimes breaking -- the rules when it comes to gathering information about opponents.
The website reported that several teams contacted the Seahawks before their Super Bowl matchup with the Patriots to warn them about securing their practices in the week leading up to the game.
"Their message was clear: You're not playing John Fox's Broncos again," according to the article. "You're facing Bill Belichick and the Patriots. You never know who might be watching." The article said several teams routinely sweep their locker rooms for an evidence of wrongdoing when they face the Patriots.
One team went so far as to put a padlock on the locker room doors when it arrived the day before a game. According to the article, the Patriots threatened to call the fire chief. When the visiting team challenged them to do it, the Pats backed down and the padlock remained."
Patriots spokesman Stacey James told the website, "There has never been a time when we have knowingly allowed a team to padlock doors. That's a fire code violation."