News this week of the NFL investigating the Patriots for competitive misconduct, this time for its videotaping at a Bengals-Browns game, has brought to mind a history of accusations against the franchise that date back more than a decade.
Fair or not, New England’s run of six Super Bowl victories in 18 seasons has been accompanied by sharp criticism and suspicion from rivals. The team cites its doubters as motivation for continued success. But many of the key controversies of one of the best dynasties in NFL history remain misunderstood.
Here is the backstory to each of the major Patriots-related incidents that have occurred under Bill Belichick — some proven to be innocuous or not even illegal in the first place, and others more devious.
2001 AFC divisional playoff game: Tuck rule sends home Raiders
To be clear: New England did nothing wrong here. Yet for some NFL fans, the controversial call-aided AFC divisional round win over the Raiders birthed dislike toward the team that continues on in 2019.
The Patriots entered the contest led by then-unknown quarterback Tom Brady, still trying to assert themselves in a muddled AFC field. They seemed bound for a swift playoff exit when Brady appeared to fumble with less than two minutes remaining and the Raiders up 13-10. Video review controversially deemed his attempt to pull the ball back to his body (or tuck it) to be an incomplete pass rather than a turnover, as stipulated under the rulebook at that time.
The call did not immediately lead the NFL to alter its rules regarding what constitutes a quarterback fumble vs. incomplete pass. In 2013, however, the tuck rule was finally abolished.
2007 Spygate scandal
New England signal-stealing was discovered during a 2007 regular-season game against the Jets. Video assistant Matt Estrella’s camera and film were seized by NFL security staff, and the team admitted to wrongdoing that week. Further investigation by the NFL revealed handwritten diagrams of Steelers defensive signals at New England headquarters, which according to ESPN included notes used in the 2001 AFC championship game, won by the Patriots, 24-17.
The NFL docked Belichick the maximum amount under NFL bylaws ($50,000), fined the Patriots organization $250,000 and took away a 2008 first-round draft pick. No one was suspended.
Part of what made Spygate such a big story were false accusations regarding Patriots actions before Super Bowl 36 against the Rams. The Boston Herald published and ultimately retracted a report that New England videotaped St. Louis’ walkthrough. While there was no basis for the assertion, the incorrect report has lingered and marred the team’s reputation.
2014 falsified injury report allegations
After becoming free agents, two former Patriots players in 2014 alleged they received false injury designations during their time in New England.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes said his IR placement for a knee injury just before the playoffs was bogus. He felt he could have easily played through the issue and that the team wanted an excuse to keep him off the field.
“The team’s decision to place Brandon on injured reserve was not a mutual decision, nor need it be,” his agent Gary Uberstine said at the time. “Brandon had every intention to keep playing throughout the playoffs, despite the pain he was experiencing throughout the season. We never had a single conversation with the Patriots in which they threatened to release him if he didn’t accept the injured reserve designation.”
Cornerback Aqib Talib, meanwhile, said his hip injury designation in 2013 was incorrect. He claimed his quad was the actual source of pain, but said “that’s how they do things” in reference to the Patriots.
2014 AFC divisional playoff game: Sneaky formation baffles Ravens
Like the tuck rule play, the Patriots did not do anything illegal here. Instead, one could argue it was a prime example of the team’s ingenuity and understanding of the rulebook.
In a 35-31 divisional round win over the Ravens, Belichick tricked Baltimore by disguising an eligible receiver as a tackle on the line of scrimmage while placing an ineligible receiver in the slot. Three times, the setup moved the chains, upsetting Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
“Maybe those guys gotta study the rulebook and figure it out,” Brady retorted to reporters. “We obviously knew what we were doing, and we made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us.”
After the season, the NFL changed its rules to make it illegal for an offensive player wearing an eligible number to report as ineligible and line up out wide.
2014 AFC championship game: Deflategate scandal begins
From a 45-7 AFC championship game thumping of the Colts came a bizarre, drawn-out story based on the premise New England intentionally deflated footballs against Indianapolis to assist quarterback Tom Brady and then covered up evidence.
An initial report stated Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson felt one of the footballs he snagged for an interception was under-inflated, and alerted his coaching staff which then informed the league. Jackson later denied coming to that conclusion, and Indianapolis never publicly identified who first noticed the ball’s air pressure.
NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash and attorney Ted Wells led a 14-week probe into the matter, eventually producing a 243-page report on their findings. That investigation concluded it was “more probable than not” that the Patriots deliberately used under-inflated footballs. They also wrote that Brady likely was at least generally aware of the alleged scheme. Following the report, the NFL suspended Brady four games, fined the Patriots $1 million and docked the franchise two draft picks.
New England, which vehemently denied accusations throughout the investigative process, released a detailed statement on a website it created disputing each point of the NFL’s report.
While the Patriots ultimately accepted their own punishment, Brady went on to appeal his suspension, and after the NFL upheld its penalty, he took the league to court. The case was appealed up to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the four-game suspension was valid. More than a year-and-a-half after accusations were first levied, Brady dropped his case, opting not to appeal it to the Supreme Court.
2015 headset malfunctions anger Steelers
In the first game of the 2015 season, the Steelers’ headsets malfunctioned during a game against the Patriots in Foxboro, leading to accusations of intentional sabotage from the Pittsburgh camp. Steelers coaches afterward indicated their sound was muffled by the New England radio broadcast, which impaired communication.
It wasn’t the first time a team had been suspicious of the Patriots messing with their equipment at Gillette Stadium, but because the 2015 game was on prime time and in the middle of the Deflategate saga, it drew added attention.
The NFL deemed the issue to be the result of a technical glitch and inclement weather. Despite open irritation from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin toward New England following the game, Pittsburgh did not lodge a formal complaint with the league, and the matter was dropped.
2019 play clock trick reveals rulebook loophole
Here’s another example of the Patriots finding a loophole in the rulebook, this time against the Jets this season. New England held a 33-0 lead when it realized it could take a fourth-down delay of game, have it declined to keep the clock moving, and take an intentional false start to run a total of one minute and 22 seconds off the clock without snapping the ball.
Belichick did not do anything illegal, and no harm was done given the wide score margin. It was pretty funny, though.
“It was just the way the rules are set up,” Belichick told reporters. “We were able to run quite a bit of time off the clock without really having to do anything. That’s probably a loophole that will be closed and probably should be closed but right now it’s open.”
2019 Bengals video scandal
That all brings us to the latest Patriots controversy, which the team called a big misunderstanding, but the NFL continues to investigate.
On Dec. 8, 2019, one week before New England’s matchup with the Bengals, a Patriots staffer was found in the press box of the Bengals-Browns game taking video that reportedly included extended shots of the Cincinnati sideline. While the Patriots said the production crew was there to shoot a day-in-the-life feature of an advanced scout for their “Do Your Job” series, they acknowledged they did not inform the Bengals nor the NFL ahead of time about the plan and that they “inappropriately filmed the field.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday said he does not know when the league’s investigation will conclude and that his priority is to be thorough. When asked whether New England’s previous incidents will be taken into account during the inquiry, Goodell said “of course.”