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Patriots' winning ways put Spygate hand-wringing to rest

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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Do you remember the extreme insanity of Spygate?

"I am very concerned about the underlying facts on the taping," Sen. Arlen Specter said in May 2008. Despite increasing job losses, a looming housing crisis and two costly wars, the veteran Pennsylvania lawmaker wanted a Senate investigation.

Do you remember the fury, the paranoia? A Patriot with a video camera around every corner?

Bill Belichick hasn't stopped winning since the Spygate scandal back in 2007. (AP)  
Bill Belichick hasn't stopped winning since the Spygate scandal back in 2007. (AP)  
"I think everybody wonders to what extent did they [illegally tape opponents]?" said Cardinal QB Kurt Warner. The former St. Louis quarterback was reacting to a story that the Patriots may have taped Rams practices in 2002 in the days prior to both teams' appearance in Super Bowl XXXVI. (The story was later retracted.) "Was this something that was just done on game day, or was it something they did throughout the week? [Did] they go to practice facilities?"

Remember?

"All coaches look for an edge. But Belichick's pursuit of that edge is relentless, arrogant, secretive, Nixonian. The edge is his white whale. No advantage is ever enough," Fox Sports' Mark Kriegel wrote at the time.

How insane it got?

"Oh, they knew," Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward said, referring to New England's knowledge of the Steelers' play calls in the two AFC title games the Pats won in Pittsburgh in 2002 and 2005. "They were calling our stuff out. They knew, especially that first championship game here at Heinz Field. They knew a lot of our calls. There's no question some of their players were calling out some of our stuff."

How hysterical it became?

"I think they should forfeit," said running back Reno Mahe, whose Philadelphia Eagles lost to the Patriots in the 2005 Super Bowl. "We won the Super Bowl. I think we should get it. I'm going to go trade my NFC championship ring for a Super Bowl ring."

Spygate was even referred to in an episode of South Park. Perhaps that is the ultimate sign of just how Gulliverian the story became.

After the craziness, time passed. As is often the case, time proved the antidote to the weakness of immediacy.

Now, years later, and with the Patriots again the favorites to reach yet another Super Bowl -- the fifth in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era and second post-Spygate -- we can put the Pats' taping controversy in perspective and offer the following as an infallible truth. The Patriots are making Spygate irrelevant, a minor note in history, just a short time after it was portrayed as a national calamity. They are proving it was a completely overblown story.

Spygate broke following the opening week of 2007 season. Excluding that game, and including playoffs, the Patriots are 52-14 with one Super Bowl trip and an undefeated regular season.

At one point, the Patriots' winning percentage before getting caught was .690; in early December this season, years after the scandal, it was .766, according to Sports Illustrated. The team's average points per game also increased. The fact is, since Spygate the Patriots have gotten better. Drastically better.

This isn't to excuse the Patriots' cheating. Let me repeat that for the hard-of-reading. This isn't an excuse for New England. What the Patriots did was wrong.

Yet what has happened since demonstrates the scandal was less scandal and more blip. Spygate was highly political and indicative how Belichick operates overall. He cheated but his cheating, in the end, likely gave him little or no advantage, because since the so-called scandal, it's been business as usual -- winning -- for his organization.

Looking back, Spygate was the perfect storm of football insanity. Part of it was media retribution for the fact Belichick sometimes acts ogre-ish with us. Part of it was league retribution for tarnishing the sport's image. Part of it was political pressure from the likes of Specter and others. All of those things super-collided and created the big bang of sports scandals.

The most interesting thing is this: Clearly Belichick didn't need to cheat. The numbers prove this. His system is one of the more infallible in all of sports. When Brady missed an entire season because of torn knee ligaments, the Patriots inserted Matt Cassel, who hadn't started a game since high school -- and New England still won 11 games.

Belichick's then over-cheating is part of his makeup. Leave nothing to chance. All great coaches and organizations take the same approach.

"This is exactly how I was told to do it 18 years ago by a Kansas City Chiefs scout. I tried it, but I didn't think it helped us," said former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson, speaking of the videotaping. "Bill Belichick was wrong because he videotaped signals after a memo was sent out to all of the teams saying not to do it. But what irritates me is hearing some reactions from players and coaches. These players don't know what their coaches are doing. And some of the coaches have selective amnesia, because I know for a fact there were various teams doing this. That's why the memo was sent to everybody. That doesn't make [Belichick] right, but a lot of teams are doing this."

"Everyone does it" isn't an excuse.

Still, all these years later, it's becoming clear Spygate wasn't the massive scandal we all thought.

Not even close.

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