Commentary

What's legal, what's illegal in NFL spy game

NFL scouts and spies can watch defensive signals, jot down notes, even speak into recorders. But no videotaping allowed.

Originally Published: September 13, 2007
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Week after week, NFL scouts seated in stadium press boxes train their binoculars on coaches responsible for sending in defensive plays via hand signals. They watch intently and whisper what they see into small audio recorders.

"Ten minutes left in the second quarter, third-and-7, right hand to shoulder, back down to hip, up to hat."

NFL's no-video rule

The "Game Operations Manual" states that "no video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game." The manual states that "all video shooting locations must be enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead." NFL security officials confiscated a camera and videotape from a New England video assistant on the Patriots' sideline when it was suspected he was recording the Jets' defensive signals. Taping any signals is prohibited.

Scouts funnel these observations to their teams' offensive coaching staffs, hoping to link the opponents' defensive signals to specific blitzes, fronts and coverages.

It's all legal under NFL rules, with one stipulation: absolutely no video recordings allowed.

The illegal tactics the New England Patriots evidently employed Sunday against the New York Jets -- capturing signals and corresponding audio with a sideline camera -- might have allowed the Patriots to sniff out blitzes had security officials not intervened, scouts and coaches said.

"With the computer and video technology, you can dial it up at halftime," an AFC personnel evaluator said. "You can say, 'This is their such-and-such blitz. We'll give you the signal, the code word, and let you know it's coming.'"

Others weren't so sure.

"Would you trust the information?" an NFC general manager asked. "There is so much room for error. Why bother?"

Still, there has been a concern in the league for the past couple of years about the escalation of spying based on the technology available.

Take, for example, the use of radio helmet technology that is supposed to cut off the communications between the sidelines and the quarterback when there are 15 seconds left on the play clock. Teams might seek to illegally extend that communication time through use of a walkie-talkie that taps into the radio frequency of the helmet. Thus, a late shift in defensive coverage could be relayed to the quarterback, who could then audible to an appropriate play.

And while teams can legally take still photos on each play that help in the in-game analysis of formations and alignments, the addition of illegal video might enhance that analysis and provide a faster processing time.

However New England was planning to use its video, it allegedly wasn't the first time.

Green Bay officials removed a New England cameraman from the sideline during the Patriots' 35-0 victory at Lambeau Field last season. As word filtered through league channels, Indianapolis officials were suspicious enough to remove all non-network cameras from the RCA Dome before the Colts and Patriots played in the most recent AFC title game, scouts said.

Against that backdrop, the NFL nearly voted for arming select defensive players with radio headsets, removing the need for hand signals. The matter may be brought up again in the wake of the Patriots controversy.

Existing rules entitle scouts to press box seats for games involving their teams' next two opponents. Scouts monitor hand signals for information that could help their coaching staffs during games, but it's unclear how much the information impacts the outcome of games.

"You can only talk [into the recorder] so fast and then to try to come up with the gestures they are doing, it's tough," an NFC scout said. "They do it fast. They are used to doing it, the linebackers are used to seeing it. Half the time I didn't get it."

Capturing hand signals on video would facilitate a more thorough analysis. Teams could more confidently differentiate between dummy signals and real ones by determining over time which ones correlated with on-field actions. Teams could show the video to players as a teaching tool. And they could make more informed adjustments, at least in theory.

Late last season, the Miami Dolphins claimed to have solved the Patriots' audibles by studying audio tapes of quarterback Tom Brady making calls at the line of scrimmage. Brady branded those claims a "crock" at the time and said the Dolphins wouldn't have gained an advantage anyway.

Scouts familiar with the recent spy controversy said New England's camera featured a small but powerful microphone designed to pick up audio from the Jets' defensive huddle. The NFC scout said the Patriots also could have gained an additional advantage by piping the audio and video into their offensive coaches' booth.

Some coaching staffs take greater care to disguise their signals, scouts said. Others show less concern, holding up two fingers to indicate Cover 2, for example. Scouts have noticed some defensive coaches sending in two numbers, one for the front alignment and the other for the coverage or blitz.

"We are just looking for blitzes or games up front," the NFC scout said, echoing what others said. "Some guys hide it, some guys do not. Maybe they switch it up a little, but these [players] aren't all rocket scientists. It takes some of them six weeks to get down one signal."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com. John Clayton also contributed to this report.