Commentary

Is Broncos' 'Little Spygate' over?

Updated: November 29, 2010, 12:40 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

First of all, and I have to get this out of the way: The Broncos secretly taped the 49ers' offense? Seriously? The Mike Singletary-led, two-yards-and-a-dirt-clod, punch-'em-in-the-mouth 49ers' offense?

It's like hatching an elaborate plot to rob the dollar store.

Six minutes of video of San Francisco's pregame walk-through is about four minutes more than you need. Good grief, Charlie Brown. Frank Gore leads the team in rushing and also has caught the most passes. Memo to Josh McDaniels: Next time just ask, you know … anybody.

Still, there is no question that the Denver case has grown scaly legs and begun lurching around the living room. What an ugly troll of a story it is. The NFL can't move away from the whole deal quickly enough, but this already has the feel of one of those tales to which a new chapter may be added every few days.

[+] EnlargeJosh McDaniels
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesThe head coach is supposed to carry a big stick. In Denver's case, Josh McDaniels spoke so softly nobody heard him raise a question about the taping.

Bad news for the Broncos: They stink, and they're suspect.

The league attempted to tie a bow around Little Spygate almost as soon The Denver Post made some of its unsavory details public. According to those in charge, the NFL has concluded its investigation -- and basically, if I'm reading its statements accurately, the league has found nooooothing beyond "an employee who acted entirely on his own," the lone Denver videotaper, Steve Scarnecchia.

This is a neat little theory, the one-man wrecking crew. It accepts as gospel the Broncos' collective response that no one at any level knew what Scarnecchia, the team's former video operations director, was up to, including the man who hired him, head coach McDaniels. How could they? He only worked there every day.

(Bonus points go to those who know the history of the two men, who both were hired in 2001 by the New England Patriots. Scarnecchia later was named as one of the people involved in the Pats' long-standing practice of recording opponents' hand signals; McDaniels, in a presaging of events to come in 2010, said he had no knowledge of what was going on at the time.)

In fact, NFL investigators say they got Scarnecchia's and McDaniels' stories independently of each other and way too quickly for the men to have collaborated, and the stories matched up in their details: Scarnecchia taped a segment of the 49ers' walk-through at Wembley Stadium in London on Oct. 30; he acted alone; he offered McDaniels the footage later that same day; the coach declined.

After that, the paperwork got lost, directions got all fouled up and McDaniels wound up not telling anybody, not even Pat Bowlen, the Broncos' owner. Bowlen and his top aides were not informed until Nov. 8, and then it was not by McDaniels but by an unidentified whistle-blower.

The NFL fined McDaniels $50,000 for not 'fessing up what his assistant coach had done. The Broncos got fined $50,000 for being the team of record. The 49ers got an avalanche of official apologies, which they accepted with all the magnanimity of a team that had gone ahead and won the London game 24-16 anyway.

And the truth?

Well, the truth can be a slippery sucker. You make a stab at it, as the NFL did with its follow-up into Little Spygate, and you get whatever you get. Boiled down to its essence, the position of league investigators is this: We asked a bunch of questions around the Denver offices and got nothin', so this is all we have for you. Nobody else seems to know anything.

[+] Enlarge49ers/Broncos
Getty ImagesThe NFL's international spectacle has unexpectedly gained shelf life as a cheating venue.

That is the part that feels like an unfinished novel. You'll recall that in 2007, the year of the original Spygate case involving Bill Belichick's cheatin' Patriots, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell initially made it clear he regarded the Pats' spying on the Jets as an isolated incident.

It didn't work out that way. By the time a few more layers of the onion were peeled back, the Patriots stood accused of illegally taping opponents' signals over a period of several years. Isolated it wasn't. It just took a while longer for the rest of the story to make itself known.

This, the Denver debacle, could be like that. Speaking from his pulpit at CBS on Sunday, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher rather loudly doubted the notion that Scarnecchia was all on his own. "I know they say he acted independently," Cowher said. "I don't agree with that, because I think in every room, in every building, the dynamics, you always have to answer to a superior. I have a hard time believing this was done independently."

And if it wasn't independent, it also may not be isolated. Scarnecchia, who was officially fired by the Broncos on Saturday, is now considered a two-time offender by the NFL and may be banned from the league -- but not before he meets with the investigators or Goodell himself in the weeks to come.

While that appointment sits on the calendar, Goodell said in his letter to Bowlen, "If further information comes to our attention, we will reopen the investigation and, if the facts warrant, will impose additional discipline as appropriate." You can't say the commissioner hasn't learned on the job.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work "Six Good Innings" was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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