Commentary

Legal spying -- not videotaping -- widespread in NFL

The NFL is full of legal spy tactics, but sources say only the Patriots are known to have used illegal videotaping procedures.

Originally Published: September 13, 2007
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner laid out the ground rules when he addressed his team on Monday, one day after beating the Bears in the season opener.

Spy issue almost avoided

Nearly six months before the NFL's season-opening weekend turned into the latest spy story, Saints coach Sean Payton saw it coming.

It happened March 27 during the league meetings in Phoenix. Coaches on both sides of the ball were lobbying to approve a proposal to allow one defensive player to hear signals through a wireless helmet, much like the quarterback's ability to receive hands-free signals from his coaches.

As an offensive-minded coach, Payton was asked why he would want to help the defense.

"Then we don't have to worry about the whole espionage stuff," Payton explained.

Since offenses were granted the wireless connection in 1994, it has become much harder to steal plays. Today, the only precaution coaches usually take is to shield their mouths with those massive playcards. But on defense, where teams still rely on elaborate hand signals, it's more difficult to protect sensitive information.

That's why most franchises supported the idea of wireless defensive communication -- in fact, 22 of the league's 32 teams voted in favor of the proposal. But in the NFL, a rule change must garner at least 75 percent of the votes.

Thus, if just two more teams had supported the measure, it would have passed, meaning there would've been one less cameraman needed on the Patriots' sideline Sunday.

The concern of the teams voting down the proposal: What would happen if the defensive player designated as the wireless communicator was injured and had to come off the field? Since only one participating player can have a wired helmet, his backup might not be the first choice to be that designated player.

The solution? Prepare backup helmets, wired for sound, for the next players in line if the first player is hurt.

An NFL spokesman said the concept of wiring defensive huddles is likely to return to the table at next year's owners' meetings in West Palm Beach, Fla. After the Patriots' episode, odds are good that defenders will be wired in 2008.

-- Greg Garber

In shifting his team's focus to the next opponent on the schedule -- the New England Patriots this Sunday -- Turner didn't want his players speaking of revenge for last season's playoff loss. He didn't want anybody dwelling on the anger that swelled after a few Patriots mocked the post-sack celebration of Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman following that defeat.

Most of all, he didn't want his players to take a lackadaisical approach in terms of protecting the Chargers' game plan. To that end, Turner told the players that their playbooks would be locked up during their Saturday afternoon walk-through at Gillette Stadium. That was a guarantee.

Normally, Turner might not be so overly paranoid about entering another team's stadium. But ever since news spread that the Patriots were videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets during New England's 38-14 win last Sunday, extra precautions were being made.

"Norv wanted us to know that he was going to be careful," one Chargers player said. "We'd already heard a lot of things about the Patriots in the past. But what happened this week has made everybody a lot more cautious. He was even talking about keeping Patriots employees from entering our hotel."

But will Turner and the Chargers be as cautious in the Week 3 game at Green Bay? Or before upcoming games against AFC West foes Kansas City, Denver and Oakland? Just how widespread is the illegal videotaping of signals?

Not very, according to numerous league and team officials contacted this week. Legal spying, stealing signals, the cat-and-mouse gamesmanship -- that's done by every team. But illegal spying through the use of videotape? Not common at all, according to sources who wished to remain anonymous. Most teams adhere to the strict policies in the league's Game Operations Manual that prohibit video recording devices on the field, in the coaches' booth and in the locker room during games.

"There isn't a team in the league that doesn't try to steal signals [but] I haven't heard about teams recording footage like the Patriots were," said one longtime NFL assistant coach. "But you can bet everybody is trying to steal in some way. In fact, you can go to any NFL game and you'll find some coach whose sole job is to look for defensive signals."

Added one NFC personnel director: "What the Patriots did is extremely rare because it's against the rules. It's one of those things that if it's not Bill Belichick involved, you wonder if the coach survives something like that. What is more normal is something like a guy sitting in a press box trying to steal signs by looking at the coaches. That's why the home team usually has its back to the press box when they're in their own stadium."

While it may be difficult to believe Belichick's Patriots are the only ones using the latest video technology to their advantage, the fact is they're the only ones who have been caught. If other teams knew opponents were illegally videotaping their signals, they'd likely alert league and stadium security, much like the Jets did Sunday at the Meadowlands.

"This is the first time I've heard of somebody doing what New England did," one AFC personnel director said. "It wouldn't surprise me if somebody else has tried it in the past but the bottom line is that it's illegal. We all get the same memos from the league each season telling us what we can't do."

Added an NFC general manager: "The accusation far outweighs what is actually happening. This isn't rampant throughout the league. Now, the arrogance of thinking you could get away with it? That is the beauty of this. … It's the height of arrogance."

An AFC executive suggested that Belichick "probably got greedy and let whatever issues he has with [Jets coach Eric] Mangini get the best of him."

Another current assistant coach said the legal stealing of signals is just "good coaching. But when you start using video equipment to steal signs, you're off the reservation. I think that's a whole different matter. That goes against everything we've been taught as coaches."

That's one reason illegal videotaping of signals isn't widespread. Here's another reason: It may not be worth the risk of getting caught.

Sources say there is only so much that can be gained by stealing signals. Generally, coaches want to know only two things about the defense: (1) When a blitz is coming; and (2) What kind of coverage the defense is going to play. That type of information can be gleaned easily from other forms -- legal forms -- of spying.

Bill Belichick
Mark Brettingen/WireImage.comBill Belichick's Patriots might be flying solo in this spy story.

Along with using an assistant coach to chart signals during games, there is only one other common way teams steal signs -- by having somebody do it in advance. An NFC scout said that in scouting games of future opponents, all teams look for a number of things including injuries, personnel moves and signals. However, just as with having an assistant watch for signals during a game, that information is used generally for future preparation, not for current contests as the Patriots were apparently trying to do at halftime Sunday.

And even when teams do pick up those hints for future games, the impact may be minimal once the contest is under way.

"New England realistically may have been able to catch one or two plays from doing that and they could've had somebody in the press box getting the same information," said former Atlanta Falcons general manager Ken Herock, who also worked as an executive in Oakland and Green Bay. "And what you're actually talking about is one or two plays out of about 60 snaps a game. That really isn't a great advantage."

Plus, there is no guarantee a team will capitalize when it knows what plays are coming. A pass can be dropped, a block missed or a snap fumbled. There also are these likelihoods: A team can change its signs frequently, which often happens in the NFL, or a coach can confuse his own players with too much information about opponents.

Besides, it's not as though the defense isn't taking its own precautions.

Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards said stealing signals -- the legal way -- has become so widespread that most defensive coaches use elaborate systems to communicate with players.

"Just look at some of the middle linebackers now playing," Edwards said. "They're wearing huge wristbands with plays on them just like quarterbacks do. That's so they can look at a number on their wrists and know what the coach on the sideline wants to run. And of course, you have three different people sending in different signals so nobody can pick up on what you're doing. That's how crazy it has gotten."

Added former NFL coach Chuck Knox: "I never had that feeling that somebody was spying from one side to the other because most of the time you give a dummy signal. You keep changing them up. Then you have two guys on the sidelines giving them. I think it's a whole lot about nothing."

Despite whatever penalties are handed down to the Patriots, expect the legal spy games to continue, at least until the NFL institutes an audio headset for the defense similar to the system used by quarterbacks get plays from the sidelines. And if you're thinking of doing something illegal? Seeing the Patriots get caught should act as a deterrent to any team contemplating such an action.

"In the NFL, in football in general, when you have all the players and somebody is doing that, it gets out," Knox said. "There are no secrets."

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Matt Mosley and Mike Sando also contributed to this report.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.