When the Ballghazi scandal-in-the-Clinton-Rules-sense completely collapsed — that is, not only was it always a massively overblown story about what at worst was trivial and immaterial misconduct that maybe warranted a five-figure fine, but it turns out the NFL couldn’t even come close to proving the trivial misconduct even happened — the story among many people for the Patriots to be guilty of something changed to a claim that it was rough justice because they got away with SpyGate. But, really, that won’t fly either. Even in theory, I never understood how videotaping another teams signals (as opposed to just recording them in real time) was supposed to confer some sort of major advantage. And, as Barnwell observes, one really obvious problem with the theory that SpyGate played a huge role in the Pats winning is that 1)their best team happened after SpyGate and 2)they continue to win every year:
Neither side has much of a point; as always, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. In terms of on-field impact, it’s hard to argue Spygate wasn’t horribly overblown. It’s exceedingly unlikely that the Patriots were the only team stealing signals. As recently as this year, Tony Dungy talked about how the Colts and other teams from his past stole the other team’s defensive signals, albeit without recording them on videotape.
Jets coach Eric Mangini, a former Patriots defensive coordinator under Belichick, might very well have been lobbing the complaint as an annoyance after the Patriots accused the Jets of tampering with New England’s attempt to trade Deion Branch the previous year, a claim that was denied. In 2011, Mangini went on NFL Live and said he regretted ever making the complaint and that it didn’t offer any kind of “significant advantage.”
The story was basically used as a catch-all to discredit the Patriots’ run toward the top of the NFL. Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers was concerned that the Patriots might have been taping sidelines to gain an advantage during Pittsburgh’s prior playoff losses to New England, which is plausible.
Less logical were the arguments from fans and NFL executives at the time, most notably 1972 Dolphins coach Don Shula, that the Patriots’ 2007 season was tainted or aided by the taping. That doesn’t make any sense. The Patriots certainly weren’t taping any sidelines after the Jets reported them in Week 1, given that every single one of their opponents would have been looking out toward the sideline for anything untoward. They never had a chance to use the signals they taped from the Jets. And while they might very well have had tapes from years past before they were submitted to Roger Goodell and subsequently destroyed, every single team playing the Patriots from Week 2 on that season would have changed its signals to avoid any possibility that New England would have a competitive edge. Anything less would have been suicidally lazy.
Spygate was overblown in a similar way to the subsequent Deflategate scandal several years later, with Tom Brady likely expressing a preference for deflated footballs in a similar vein to Aaron Rodgers‘ preference for inflated footballs. The most meaningful case of the Patriots’ stretching the rules was the eligible receiver trick they ran out as part of their playoff comeback victory over the Baltimore Ravens, but that wasn’t actually illegal. (It was unfair to the Ravens, but that was the officiating crew’s fault for not giving them appropriate time to substitute.)
Obviously, the taping might have provided some small edge. But was it material to the rise and sustained success of the Patriots? Nah. For a while, people determined to overblow the minor scandal could point to the fact that Bill BeliCHEAT hadn’t won a Super Bowl since SpyGate was revealed. Even before 2014, the argument was silly, the kind of illogic that can lead you to think replacing Marty Schottenheimer with Norv Turner because some doofus decided to run back what otherwise be a game-clinching INT is a good idea. That the Pats lost two coin-flip Super Bowls after winning three coin-flip Super Bowls demonstrates nothing about anything, and in any case the talking point is now inoperative as the end-of-game breaks have started going their way again. (Probably because Belichick used technological ratfucking to force Darrell Bevell and Kyle Shanahan to make astoundingly stupid play calls.)
It’s evidently comforting for the Ryan Grigsons of the world to think the Pats are better not because they’re better at evaluating and developing and deploying talent than you are, but because they cheat. Comforting, and also the kind of thinking that will ensure they keep beating your brains out. SpyGate was really not a big deal.