The latest punishment of the New England Patriots came with no press release or other announcement from the NFL. Although the league confirmed reports regarding the price to be paid by the Patriots for the taping of the Cincinnati sideline a week before the Patriots were scheduled to play the Bengals, the league hasn’t done what it’s done in many other instances of discipline: Review the evidence, disclose the penalty, and explain the connection between the conduct and the consequences.
Throw in the fact that the Patriots deftly leaked their agreement with Cam Newton just before the news of the punishment emerged on the Sunday evening of one of the quietest weeks of the year, and this case has gone largely unexplored. So let’s explore it now.
The Patriots had a film crew at the December 8 game between the Browns and the Bengals, ostensibly to record footage for an episode of the team’s “Do Your Job” series regarding the team’s scouting department. The Patriots promptly admitted that the film crew “inappropriately filmed the field from the press box.”
The obvious question regarding the league’s investigation related to whether the video crew had any connection to New England football operations. Reports from the aftermath of the incident indicated that the league had not found any connection between the video crew and football operations. We had learned at the time that league investigators were showing signs of irritation and frustration during interviews with relevant employees, when no proof of a link between the video crew and football operations could be developed.
At no point has anyone suggested the existence of a link between the video crew and football operations. The league, by simply confirming the reports regarding the penalties, has avoided saying whether evidence of a link was ever found. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, there was no link and no proof of a link.
So why did the Patriots receive a $1.1 million fine and lose a third-round draft pick? On multiple occasions earlier this year, reporters suggested that, absent proof of a link between the video crew and football operations, the situation would be treated like similar infractions from recent years. Adam Schefter of ESPN, for example, cited two prior incidents as providing the basis for eventual discipline: The suspension of Browns G.M. Ray Farmer for four games and a $250,000 fine for the team due to in-game texting to the sidelines; and the forfeiture of a fifth-round pick, a $350,000 team fine, and a suspension of team president Rich McKay from the Competition Committee after the Falcons used fake crowd noise at the Georgia Dome.
Other incidents cited by Mark Maske of the Washington Post as comparable to the current situation at the time were former Giants coach Ben McAdoo improperly using a walkie-talkie on the sideline ($150,000 fine, fourth-round pick reduced), the original #DeflateGate penalty ($1 million fine, first-round and fourth-round pick stripped), and the Ravens having two defensive players on the field with coach-to-player communication devices in their helmets ($200,000 fine).
As PFT pointed out at the time, a key difference exists between each of those incidents and the Patriots’ filming of the Cincinnati sidelines: The Patriots’ recording of the Cincinnati sideline, unlike the other examples, didn’t happen with any specific effort or desire to gain a competitive advantage. Given the absence of any link between the video crew and football operations, there was no a mechanism for turning the footage into a strategic benefit.
The league nevertheless whacked the Patriots, presumably because of their history — and possibly because (as one source with another team opined to PFT) certain league officials don’t like the Patriots and/or their head coach. Regardless, the league owes it to the Patriots and the other 31 franchises to explain what the league found and why the league converted that evidence into a fairly significant punishment.
If nothing else, details regarding the basis for punishing the Patriots become relevant precedent that would deter all teams from engaging in similar behavior. Without those details, the deterrence is vague and fuzzy. Other teams don’t know where the line is, because the league didn’t bother to explain where the line was.
Thus, on behalf of all teams (whether they want us to speak for them or not), we make this request to the league office: Release all details as to what the investigation found, and provide an explanation connecting the evidence to the consequence. Alternatively, if that information isn’t going to be provided, explain the reason for the lack of transparency.