In the long history of the NFL, players, coaches and team executives have found the most aggressive, incredible, slick and futuristic ways to cheat. In some cases, it borders on NASA engineer-type stuff.
Whether it's in the composition of the human body, inside the football itself or in a blade of grass, cheating and accusations of cheating have happened across the spectrum in football.
Using silicone to make jerseys slippery. Opening doors to create windy conditions as an opponent attempts a field goal. Using performance-enhancing drugs. Circumventing the salary cap. Videotaping signals. Fudging the injury report. Using a snowplow or lawn mower to slow down or speed up a game. The list goes on.
And the reality is this: The cheaters have always prospered.
This all leads to Deflategate. The Patriots are not the only cheaters in football. Far from it. But several team executives said in interviews this week that the Patriots have long been considered—throughout the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady regime—the best cheaters.
None of this is actually provable. There could be a dozen teams that cheat better than the Patriots ever have. But what's important to remember here is narrative. There is a mass belief—strong, almost bordering on fanatical—that New England cheats better than any team maybe in all of sports.
This is also important to remember when it comes to the Colts. Three different team executives (none of whom work for Indianapolis) said the Colts were among the teams that had expressed the strongest belief that New England was a perennial cheater. (The other teams identified as strong believers in Patriots hijinks were the Jets and Jaguars.)
This belief by Indianapolis is what led to it originally investigating the footballs. Then, an amazing thing happened: The Colts became a proxy for teams that believed the Patriots had used deflated footballs against them. According to several league sources, once word was out that the Colts were looking into the footballs, teams began to contact them to relay their own tales of deflated Patriots footballs.
It's unclear if any of this information made its way to Ted Wells.
But when one team executive read the Wells Report, he said that he stood up and exclaimed to a colleague: "The league finally got those motherf-----s."
Other team officials said they cheered the Colts from afar. Data analyst Warren Sharp's now-famous analysis of the Patriots' lack of fumbles, I'm told, made the rounds from team to team.
Again, there is no proof of uber-cheating by the Patriots. There's no proof that they are bigger offenders than any other team. But what is clear is that almost every team in football believes the Patriots are, and that belief was one of the impetuses behind the chain reaction that got this entire sordid case started.
In some ways, the league's fight against cheating started after the Patriots' first high-profile case of the modern era: Spygate. In an effort to crack down on cheating in 2008, Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote a memo to the league's competition committee. One of the things he did was lower the burden of proof to prove cheating. Goodell wrote, via The Washington Post's Mark Maske:
Too often, competitive violations have gone unpunished because conclusive proof of the violation was lacking. I believe we should reconsider the standard of proof to be applied in such cases, and make it easier for a competitive violation to be established. And where a violation is shown, I intend to impose more stringent penalties on both the club and the responsible individual(s). I will also be prepared to make greater use of draft choice forfeiture in appropriate cases. I believe this will have the effect of deterring violations and making people more willing to report violations on a timely basis.
All of these things led to this moment where a great and historic player, coach and franchise all face potential legacy-shifting penalties.
While other sports like NASCAR and baseball are known for their cheating scandals, they have nothing on the NFL. A few more for the list: fake crowd noise. Fake injuries. Stickum. Deer antler spray. Stolen radio signals. Bugged phones.
The Patriots have been accused of being the best cheaters, the most prolific. There's no proof of that. Only that many teams believe it.
What we do know for sure is that when it comes to cheating, the Patriots aren't alone.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.