From 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 :
IN AUGUST 2000, before a Patriots preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jimmy Dee, the head of New England's video department, approached one of his charges, Matt Walsh, with a strange assignment: He wanted Walsh to film the Bucs' offensive and defensive signals, the arm waving and hand folding that team coaches use to communicate plays and formations to the men on the field. Walsh later told investigators that, at the time, he didn't know the NFL game operations manual forbade taping signals.
Not coincidentally, the Bucs were also New England's opponent in the regular-season opener. A few days before the game, Walsh told Senate investigators, according to notes of the interview, a backup quarterback named John Friesz was summoned to Belichick's office. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and a professorial, quirky man named Ernie Adams were present. Adams, known to have a photographic memory, was -- and still is -- a mystery in the Patriots building.
Adams' title was football research director, the only known person with that title in the NFL.
Days before the Tampa Bay game, in Belichick's office, Friesz was told that the Patriots had a tape of the Bucs' signals. He was instructed to memorize them, and during the game, to watch Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and tell Weis the defensive play, which Weis would relay over the radio headset system to quarterback Drew Bledsoe. That Sunday against the Bucs, Walsh later told investigators, the Patriots played more no-huddle than usual, forcing Kiffin to signal in plays quickly, allowing Weis sufficient time to relay the information.
Walsh later told investigators Friesz told him after the game that the Patriots knew 75 percent of the Bucs' defenses before the snap.
Now, the Patriots realized that they were on to something, a schematic edge that could allow their best minds more control on the field. Taping from the sideline increased efficiency and minimized confusion. And so, as Walsh later told investigators, the system improved, becoming more streamlined -- and more secretive. The quarterbacks were cut out of the process. The only people involved were a few coaches, the video staff and, of course, Adams. Belichick, almost five years after being fired by the Browns and fully aware that this was his last best shot as a head coach, placed an innovative system of cheating in the hands of his most trusted friend.
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 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, 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.
The cameramen's assignments differed depending on the opponent. For instance, Walsh told investigators that against Indianapolis he was directed to take close-ups of the Colts' offensive signals, then of Peyton Manning's hand signals. Mostly, though, the tapes were of defensive signals.
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.
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."
Several former New England coaches and employees say that the taping of signals wasn't even the only cheating method the Patriots deployed. 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. 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 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.
A former member of the NFL competition committee says the committee spent much of 2001-06 "discussing ways in which the Patriots cheated," even if nothing could be proved. Theories ran wild and nothing -- the notion of bugging locker rooms or of Brady having a second frequency in his helmet to help decipher the defense -- was out of the realm of possibility. There were regular rumors that the Patriots had taped the Rams' walk-through practice before Super Bowl XXXVI in February 2002, one of the greatest upsets in NFL history, a game won by the Patriots 20-17 on a last-second Adam Vinatieri field goal.
The rumors and speculation reached a fever pitch in 2006. The allegations against the Patriots prompted NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson to send a letter to all 32 team owners, general managers and head coaches on Sept. 6, 2006, reminding them that "videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent's offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited from the sidelines."
But the Patriots kept doing it. In November 2006, Green Bay Packers security officials caught Matt Estrella shooting unauthorized footage at Lambeau Field. When asked what he was doing, according to notes from the Senate investigation of Spygate that had not previously been disclosed, Estrella said he was with Kraft Productions and was taping panoramic shots of the stadium. He was removed by Packers security. That same year, according to former Colts GM Bill Polian, who served for years on the competition committee and is now an analyst for ESPN, several teams complained that the Patriots had videotaped signals of their coaches. And so the Patriots -- and the rest of the NFL -- were warned again, in writing, before the 2007 season, sources say.
ON SEPT. 9, 2007, in the first game of the season, Estrella aimed a video camera at the New York Jets' sideline, unaware he was the target of a sting operation. Eric Mangini was entering his second year as the Jets' coach. Belichick had practically invented Mangini: In January 1995, he saw potential in a 24-year-old Browns PR intern and moved the fellow Wesleyan alum into football operations. In 2000, Belichick brought Mangini to New England as defensive backs coach, promoting him to defensive coordinator in 2005.
Mangini knew the Patriots inside and out. Mangini knew the Patriots videotaped, so he would have three Jets coaches signal in plays: One coach's signal would alert the players to which coach was actually signaling in the play. Still, Mangini saw it as a sign of disrespect that Belichick taped their signals -- "He's pissing in my face," he told a confidant -- and wanted it to end. Before the 2007 opener, sources say, he warned various Patriots staffers, "We know you do this. Don't do it in our house." Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, one of Mangini's best friends, told team security to remove any unauthorized cameramen on the field.
During the first half, Jets security monitored Estrella, who held a camera and wore a polo shirt with a taped-over Patriots logo under a red media vest that said: NFL PHOTOGRAPHER 138. With the backing of Jets owner Woody Johnson and Tannenbaum, Jets security alerted NFL security. Shortly before halftime, security encircled and then confronted Estrella. He said he was with "Kraft Productions." They took him into a small room off the stadium's tunnel, confiscated his camera and tape, and made him wait. He was sweating. Someone gave Estrella water, and he was shaking so severely that he spilled it. "He was s---ting a brick," a source says.
On Monday morning, Estrella's camera and the spy tape were at NFL headquarters on Park Avenue.
CONSIDERING HOW THE NFL currently conducts its investigations or reviews of its investigations -- outsourcing the legwork, allowing it to take months to complete, making the findings public, and almost always losing if the inevitable appeal is heard by an independent arbitrator -- it's striking that the Spygate inquiry lasted only a little over a week, and that Goodell's findings stuck. The day after the game, Sept. 10, the Jets sent a letter to the Patriots asking them to preserve any evidence because they had sent an official grievance about the Patriots' spying to the NFL. On Sept. 12, Goodell spoke on the phone with Belichick for 30 minutes, sources say, Belichick admitting that he had been engaged in the practice of taping signals for "some time." Belichick didn't volunteer the total number of games at which the Patriots had recorded signals, sources say, and the commissioner didn't ask. "Goodell didn't want to know how many games were taped," another source with firsthand knowledge of the investigation says, "and Belichick didn't want to tell him."
The next day, the league announced its historic punishment against the Patriots, including an NFL maximum fine for Belichick. Goodell and league executives hoped Spygate would be over.