We'll never know how much Spygate helped the Patriots win their three Super Bowls during the early 2000s. But several prominent members of the Steelers during that era feel that it played a major role in the outcomes of two AFC title games.
Former Steelers Joey Porter and Hines Ward have previously shared how they feel Spygate impacted those games, which were both won by New England. This week, former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis reignited the conversation. The topic was broached after Bettis recalled his initial thoughts when then-rookie Roethlisberger vowed during the final seconds of Pittsburgh's 2004 title game loss to New England that he would get Bettis to the following year's Super Bowl if he didn't retire.
"To be fair, the Patriots cheated," Roethlisberger said in return.
"For sure they did," Bettis said. "There's not even a question in my mind."
Bettis then provided an example of the Patriots' alleged cheating. It occurred on a pivotal fourth-and-1 play with the Patriots ahead 3-0 midway through the first quarter. After third down, Bettis said that the Patriots called a timeout after they saw the Steelers' hand signal from their sideline. Bettis said that the Patriots knew the meaning of the signal, which was a counter run.
After calling the timeout, Bettis noticed that nose tackle Ted Washington went back to the Patriots' sideline, which further added to his belief that New England knew Pittsburgh's signals.
"Who normally goes to the sideline on a timeout? The defensive tackles right? They told the nose guard, Washington, they pulled him to the sideline," Bettis said. "Big 400-pound guy, he doesn't wanna go the sideline and go all the way back. What does he want to go to the sideline for? They're yelling, making him go the sideline and come back.
"Then, we run the play, he loops into the hole, Washington does, they stop us on fourth down. That's a critical play in the game. They had our signs, and they called a timeout to get them ready for that play because they knew it was coming. No question in my mind. I remember vividly, I thought, 'Why is this big dude going to the sideline?' But I'm not mad about that."
As Bettis alluded to, the Patriots stuffed the play, then capitalized on the stop one play later when Tom Brady hit Deion Branch for a 60-yard score. The lead swelled to 24-3 before the Steelers began a modest comeback that ultimately fell short. New England won 41-27, then successfully defended its title with a 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Bettis ultimately chose to return in 2005, and he was rewarded after Roethlisberger made good on his promise to get him to a Super Bowl. Bettis then retired on the podium after the Steelers defeated the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
Despite that win, Bettis is clearly still miffed by the Patriots and the role that Spygate may have played in two of his three AFC title game losses. While we don't know how much it impacted the 2004 title game, a 2015 story by ESPN revealed that handwritten diagrams of Steelers hand signals from the 2001 season were discovered inside Patriots headquarters during the NFL's 2007 investigation that resulted in major fines as well as a loss of a first-round draft pick.
That is probably why several prominent Steelers are still questioning the legitimacy of the outcomes in those games. Conversely, former Steelers coach and 2020 Hall of Fame inductee Bill Cowher does not use Spygate as an excuse for his team coming up short in those games.
"It's only cheating if you get caught," Cowher said in a 2021 interview with The Athletic. "Like any player, if you're going to hold him, don't get caught. If you get caught, you're wrong, if you don't, you're right. I always thought we never lost the games to New England because of Spygate. If [Bill Belichick] got the calls because we didn't do a very good job of making sure we signaled those in, that's on us, it's not on him. Because we're always looking for competitive edges.
"I think as any coach whether it's someone's stance, someone's split, someone's formation. You're looking at someone's eyes, how are they coming out of a huddle? You're always looking for those little things that give you a competitive edge and that to me is what that was."