Before we had Deflategate, there was Spygate.
Has any professional coach — a hugely successful professional coach, mind you — ever been so tied to cheating or bending the rules? Bill Belichick is the "gate" coach, linked more closely to Richard Nixon than Vince Lombardi.
From the tuck rule game in 2002 through to the ineligible receiver confusion in 2015, Belichick's Patriots have continually forced viewers to consult the rule book. Accused of spying on opponents and now deflating the football, the Patriots are nefarious in the eyes of many throughout the country.
The truth is that some of this started before the Belichick era. Let's rewind 34 years and start with the first Patriots controversy, before Belichick was coach.
The Snowplow Game: It was cold and snowy at Schaefer Stadium on Dec. 12, 1982. The artificial turf was saturated by rain so the surface was frozen and slippery at gametime. It was a scoreless tie heading into the final five minutes when the Patriots were driving into Dolphins territory. With 4:45 left and the ball on the Miami 16, Patriots coach Ron Meyer sent John Smith in to attempt a 33-yard field goal. Before the kick, Meyer sent stadium snowplow driver Mark Henderson in to clear a spot on the field. Henderson, who was working at the stadium as part of a work-release program at a prison, drove the John Deere machine to the line of scrimmage, which was considered acceptable, because officials were calling for a snowplow to locate the line of scrimmage — but he turned left and also cleared the spot where Smith would be kicking. Smith converted the field goal and the Patriots won, 3-0.
Miami coach Don Shula called it the most "unfair act" ever in league history and he petitioned the NFL to have the outcome overturned, but commissioner Pete Rozelle refused because the Patriots had not broken any rules. Shula, by the way, recently referred to Belichick as "Beli-cheat" in a South Florida Sun-Sentinel story.
The Tuck Rule Game: Another bad weather game in the final game at the old Foxboro Stadium, this one kicked off the Belichick-Tom Brady era. The Patriots were facing the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional playoffs on the snowy night of Jan. 19, 2002. After trailing 13-3, the Patriots began a fourth-quarter comeback when Brady scored on a touchdown run. With less than two minutes left, Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson blitzed Brady and appeared to knock the ball out of the quarterback's hand. Linebacker Greg Biekert recovered at the Oakland 47.
After the play was reviewed on replay, it was ruled that it was, in fact, an incomplete pass. With the drive alive, Brady moved the Patriots into field goal range and Adam Vinatieri tied it with a 45-yard field goal with 27 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, Vinatieri kicked a 23-yarder to win the game, 16-13.
The tuck rule, which was born in 1999, lasted another decade before it was finally removed from the rule book. The Patriots went on to win their first Super Bowl and the game kick-started Brady's Hall of Fame-level career. Of course, the controversy surrounding the game hasn't died. ESPN's Ray Lewis recently said "the only reason we know Tom Brady is, is because of the tuck rule."
Spygate: No story defines Belichick like this one. With the Patriots already established as an NFL dynasty after winning three Super Bowls, Belichick's reputation was tarnished when New England was punished by the NFL for videotaping the signals of Jets' defensive coaches during a Sept. 9, 2007 game. It all began when New York coach Eric Mangini — a former New England assistant who was raised in Hartford — reported the accusation to NFL security. The league investigated and found that the Patriots broke NFL rules. Belichick was fined $500,000, the team was docked $250,000 and the Patriots lost their first-round draft pick in the 2008 NFL draft.
There was later a Boston Herald report that the Patriots videotaped the St. Louis Rams' practice before the 2002 Super Bowl, a story later retracted. Former New England video assistant Matt Walsh, a Coventry native, spoke to the NFL about the team's video practices and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter became vocal while the story played out. The Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since.
The Deception: There were no rules broken, but the Patriots seemed to rattle the Baltimore Ravens during the AFC Divisional Playoff game two weeks ago. New England continually sent extra receivers into the game, declaring them ineligible. The Patriots were running a "hurry-up" offense while changing formations, confusing the Ravens and — at times — officials. After New England completed a 35-31 comeback victory, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh called it a "deception" because "[Brady] would take it to the line right away and snap the ball before [we] even figured out who was lined up where ... it was clearly deception."
Were the Patriots breaking rules? No, although there have been reports that the team did not alert on-field officials before the game. That's not necessary, but it is considered the accepted practice. For his part, Brady said the Ravens should "study the rule book and figure it out."
Deflategate: The latest controversy broke just hours after New England completed a 45-7 AFC Championship Game win against the Indianapolis Colts. The NFL investigated a report that the Patriots deflated game balls, which would assist Brady with his grip on a wet night. Each team is responsible for supplying its footballs, and regulation balls are supposed to be inflated to between 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch.
Officials check the ball a few hours before kickoff and game officials are continually holding the ball between plays. Would an official notice if a ball is deflated? Reports now indicate that the Colts became suspicious during an earlier game and the team alerted officials during the game, perhaps after linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted Brady in the second quarter. Belichick said the team was cooperating with the NFL, and Brady laughed about the story and then offered falt denials back in January. Wonder what he's saying today?