A little over three years ago, the New England Patriots were fined $1 million and stripped of first- and fourth-round picks due to specious-at-best evidence that they improperly inflated footballs in an AFC Championship Game.
Personally, I believe that "Deflategate" was one of the most overblown and misconstrued stories of the last 20 years, with those penalties and Tom Brady's four-game suspension quite extreme in my estimation. What is indisputable is that the NFL – after already fining and stripping the Patriots of a first-round pick for the "Spygate" allegations from 2007 and having to investigate allegations they illegally recorded a Rams Super Bowl walkthrough even prior to that – seemed to be throwing down the gauntlet.
The message from Roger Goodell and the NFL office to Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and the Patriots organization was that the league won't be cutting them much slack, and will be watching them closely. The message, it seems to me, was that there shouldn't be anything coming across the commissioner's desk ever again about any Patriots infractions involving video tapes, or improper game day operations or, frankly, anything suspicious at all. The message – despite having to strip the franchise of a first-round pick yet again – just may not have gotten through. Somehow.
If the reporting in The Athletic is accurate – and I have no reason to believe it is not, especially given the Patriots statement released on Monday – and Patriots/Kraft team employees recorded eight minutes of the Bengals sidelines showing signals and signs from the Cleveland press box on Sunday – then it might be time for the NFL to take its punishment to a new level. It's probably time for unprecedented penalties. And I'm not talking fines.
Another million or two out of a billionaire owner's pocket, or a multi-millionaire head coach, doesn't matter at all. And, if the idea of stripping what has amounted to one of the final picks of the first round hasn't managed to curb the worst tendencies of the Patriots organization, then maybe losing two first-round picks just might? We'll see where the investigation goes, and what he NFL determines, but this is the last of these 32 organizations that can afford to find itself in this position, and this punishment should reflect as much.
The Patriots are involved in another controversy and there's a lot to go over. Brady Quinn and Ryan Wilson join Will Brinson to break it down, along with culture issues in Cleveland, the 2020 draft and more. Listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.
Even if there is no smoking gun email or text linking the individuals who recorded this tape – some of them the Patriots contend were "independent contractors" – directly to Belichick or Kraft, the mere fact that it occurred, again, and the Patriots were at fault, should lead to serious consequences. The benefit of the doubt has long been sacrificed. Things don't just keep somehow happening to the Patriots … they keep getting caught doing things, which in many cases are blatantly afoul of the rules and stipulations. Regardless of intent. With their history with this stuff, they should be erring, always, on the side of caution.
When the Patriots mention in their statement that they received permission from the Browns to have a video crew in their press box as part of a feature on their scouts, but "our failure to inform the Bengals and the League was an unintended oversight," eyebrows should be raised. Given their sordid history with this stuff with the NFL, and given the fact that they were facing the Bengals the following week, this franchise is going to be second guessed on intent. How can it not be?
If "the sole purpose of filming was to provide an illustration of an advance scout at work on the road," as New England's statement purports, then why would a Patriots/Kraft camera ever be pointed at the field in the first place? Given a scout's placement in the press box, cast far from the field with binoculars needed to get a decent view of the action below, why would you have a camera pointed anywhere near the field? Ever? Even for 30 seconds? Much less for eight minutes, as The Athletic reported?
Maybe they were just freelancers out of college, kids who didn't know any better. Okay, then the Patriots video department had better have made sure there was a producer with them who knew the nuances of every single rule and stipulation about videotaping from the press box, the same way that Belichick and his right-hand man Ernie Adams know the league's playing rules inside out. Because everyone in the Pats organization knows how high the stakes are from their past transgressions.
And if you are going to have people shooting in that press box in an unusual manner at a stadium on a game day on which the Patriots were not playing, then someone in management with the team or Kraft has to be smart enough to notify the NFL and the Bengals to make absolutely certain why you are there and what you will be shooting, and then you'd best follow every protocol to the T. Because otherwise you give the appearance that perhaps your motives aren't sincere. History and all.
If you are sending a crew to shoot in another team's press box, to get footage for a "Do Your Job" episode for Patriots.com, then the Patriots, of all organizations, had best be damn sure that the people being sent to "Do Their Job'' knew exactly how to do it and are capable of executing the game plan the way Belichick would demand of his Super Bowl teams. You are already making an unusual request merely by having anyone other than an advance scout at that game in the first place. The people who sent them to Cleveland had best Do Their Job, too, and make sure you don't get into a scenario where the Bengals are reporting you to the league and video tapes are being confiscated and the Bengals head coach is being asked about your video crew in his postgame press conference.
It's great to point out that the football staff "had no involvement whatsoever," about the filming taking place, as the statement does, but that doesn't ensure that the illegal video, no matter how or why it was shot, wouldn't have ended up on someone's desk there. When you have already been down this road before, multiple times, people are going to make assumptions.
The Patriots, at this point, have no choice but to "accept full responsibility for the actions of our production crew," because, well, the Patriots organization sent them there. This wasn't a rogue mission, and if someone was working for them in Cleveland under even the most benign of assignments, and took it upon himself to go rogue and shoot the sideline anyway, well, guess what, that ultimately ends up falling on Kraft, too.
Either way, it's a terrible look, and one this franchise simply must avoid at all costs. Otherwise the costs will be very real, indeed.
Perhaps there will be evidence that proves this was all just some rookie mistake. But those come with consequences, too. And no matter which low-level employee fixed that camera on the Bengals sideline – if that indeed is what happened – even if he or she was outsourced, the consequences for a repeat offender should be substantial. They should start with yet another sacrificed first-round pick.