How the NFL Cheats: Spy Games

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistSeptember 30, 2016

** FILE ** New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick coaches his team against the Miami Dolphins during a football game in Foxborough, Mass., in this Dec. 23, 2007 file photo. Spygate developed after the first game of the season, when tapes of the New York Jets' defensive signals were confiscated from a Patriots employee on the sideline. Belichick was fined $500,000, the team was fined $250,000 and was stripped of its first-round draft choice. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, file)
Associated Press

Whether you call it breaking the rules, bending the rules or just getting creative with the rules, cheating has always been a part of the NFL and always will be. This is Part 4 in a Bleacher Report series on how NFL players and teams seek out some advantage, any advantage, over their competition. Part 1 was on the use of foreign substances, Part 2 on gaining an extra edge at home, Part 3 on what goes on at the bottom of a pile.


Bill Belichick is an NFL historian who presides over maybe the largest library of football books in the world. So after his Patriots were accused of spying on the Jets in a 2007 game, it would not have been implausible if he defended himself by saying he merely was honoring his football forefathers.

Spying—and the suspicion of spying—has been a part of the NFL for longer than helmets.

Go all the way back to the league's formative years. Former Packers coach Curly Lambeau was so convinced that George Halas was spying on his team that he told his players to avoid talking to people they did not know the week before Halas' Bears came to town. Halas, he suspected, had spies planted in hotel lobbies, at the YMCA and at bars in town, according to the book Mudbaths and Bloodbaths by Cliff Christl and Gary D'Amato.

Gene Ronzani knew Halas better than most, having played for him and coached for him. When he became head coach of the Packers in 1950, Ronzani took extra precautions to prevent classified information from crossing the Wisconsin-Illinois border. Instead of giving physical playbooks to his players, he showed them drawings of plays for 10 seconds and 10 seconds only—not long enough for them to digest the responsibilities of the entire unit.

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"An airplane would fly over, he'd stop practice," former Packers linebacker Deral Teteak revealed in the book. "He was really paranoid. He used to always say, '[Bears spies] are around here somewhere. I know they are.'"

Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame head coach Vince Lombardi adn backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski (12) watch the team warm up before Super Bowl I, a 35-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on January 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los A
Vic Stein/Getty Images

In later years, Packers coach Vince Lombardi reportedly had his players switch jersey numbers during practices in the event that Bears moles were watching.

The suspicions ran both ways in the rivalry.

"During Packers week, and just that week, we'd come to Wrigley Field for the first practice," says former Bears defensive end Ed O'Bradovich, who played for Halas in the 1960s. "And there would be guards. They were up on the scoreboard. We saw them peeking their head out of the scoreboard. They were in the balcony, two of them, maybe three. And they were on the side door where we got in. [Halas] shut everything down for the Packers. It was tight as a drum. It was like we were hiding the A-bomb formula."

This was not unusual behavior. Former Jets coach Weeb Ewbank would send employees through the corridors at Shea Stadium to search for spies. Former Redskins coach George Allen had the trees inspected for enemy agents at the team's training camp in Dickinson College.

Whether or not Halas, Ewbank and Allen had legitimate reason for concern is debatable. But in those eras, Roger Goodell was not doling out $500,000 fines to coaches who ran afoul of the rules.

Browns coach Paul Brown was known to have spies pose as newspaper reporters and attend opponents' practices. It was duly noted around the league, and to this day many teams have a media policy that prohibits out-of-town reporters from observing practices.

According to legend, the Browns taught a scout to climb telephone poles for surveillance missions.

Brown also took precautions to make sure he wasn't on the other end of the spy game. When the Browns visited Wrigley Field, Brown suspected the locker room was bugged. So his pregame locker room speeches looked like something from a Marcel Marceau routine.

That wasn't enough to prevent the Giants from stealing Brown's play calls in a 1956 game, though. Shortly after Brown pioneered the ability to radio in plays to his quarterback, the Giants figured out a way to intercept the signals with a receiver stationed on their bench.

The league didn't even clarify that videotaping signals was illegal until 2006. Stealing other teams' signals the old-fashioned way—with binoculars and a notepad—never has been frowned upon. Some scouts and coaches have specialized in it, and sometimes players even get involved.

Former quarterback Rich Gannon recalls a game when he was with the Chiefs in which he was helping his defense as much as his offense. Gannon previously had spent time with the Redskins, as had Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries. So when the Chiefs played the Chargers, Gannon noticed San Diego was using some of the signals from the Redskins playbook.

"I remember running down to [Chiefs] secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer, who was signaling the coverages to the secondary," Gannon says. "'Here comes the double move.' 'Here comes the hitch.' 'Here comes the seam route.' I'll bet you half the time I was getting them."

20 Sep 1998: Quarterback Rich Gannon #12 of the Kansas City Chiefs huddles with teammates during the game against the San Diego Chargers at  Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. The Chiefs defeated the Chargers 23-7.Dunn  /Allsport
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The advent of sideline-to-player headsets has cut down on signal interceptions. But technology advances, and spying just becomes more sophisticated.

The NFL is expected to enable teams to use videotape on the sidelines, perhaps as early as 2017. That will open up another avenue for foul play. 

"The league will police things and make sure it stays competitive," Rams coach Jeff Fisher says. "If something is hacked and used to gain a competitive advantage and that is proven, the punitive damages will be extremely significant. So I don't really have concerns about it."

Many teams are heavily dependent on tablets, and potential cyber security breaches already are an issue.

"They track our iPads and make sure they stay in the right hands," Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway says. "At times they pull your iPad so you can't take it with you in case someone was to grab it from you, or you lose it and it ends up in the wrong hands."

Teams long have taken similar precautions with playbooks. Tiki Barber says former Giants coach Tom Coughlin threatened a $25,000 fine for anyone who lost a playbook.

"At the end of the game, there is always a big bin where you turn in the playbook for the week," Ravens tight end Ben Watson says. "You aren't allowed to leave sheets in the trash can, because there are trash divers who will find the sheets. You also can't leave them in the hotel. People in the hotel are fans of their teams, so we can't leave things in the meeting room, in your hotel room or in the cafeteria. You have to carry those things with you at all times, especially on the road because you are in enemy territory."

A little subterfuge is one way to fight back. Watson, with a slight smile, says he would venture to say some teams leave behind a fake playsheet to be found—or "forget" to erase a play from a greaseboard that an employee from another team might stumble upon.

Watson was a member of the Patriots during Spygate. His memory is foggy about the affair, which resulted in a $500,000 fine for Belichick, a $250,000 fine for the Patriots and the loss of a first-round draft pick. The team's reputation also took a hit. Last October, the Dolphins took extra equipment managers to New England to guard their possessions, according to the Miami Herald.

"When I was with the Raiders, everybody thought we were spying with Al Davis," Matt Millen says. "Anytime somebody came to play us, they swore things were bugged. Now, everybody suspects the Patriots and Bill. Then, no matter what happened, it was Al. Now, it's Bill."

There is little evidence to suggest that the Patriots' dominating run under Belichick would not have been possible had the team not been spying. In fact, since the Patriots were told to stop videotaping, they have won 76.1 percent of 163 games. When they supposedly were taping opponents, they won 69.3 percent of 127 games, as FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine pointed out.

The Patriots weren't the only team in the business of spying in the new millennium, according to Mike Martz. During Martz's heyday as head coach of the Rams, he said two NFC teams sent spies to watch his team practice at its Earth City facility. He did not want to name the teams.

"I caught two guys filming us," he says. "You could see the cameras from the field. They were outside the practice field and thought they were covered up. One guy had a home camera kind of deal. He might have been a fan trying to help his team. We just told him to pack his stuff and get out. The other guy was in a building adjacent to the practice field. He took off by the time security got there. We beat the hell out of both of their teams, so it didn't matter."

Fisher says he has caught people watching practice from nearby parked cars. He would send a security guard to say hello and suggest they move along. The guard also would run the license plate number of the observer and find out a little about him.

Fisher says his teams never have caught spies red-handed, but they have taken precautions. When he was coach of the Titans, he kept an eye on Maxwell House Hotel, which is adjacent to the team's practice fields.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press/Associated Press

"We were in touch with hotel management," Fisher says. "And if somebody came in and requested a window room on the practice field, we would do background checks on them."

Another way of procuring opponents' secrets is signing a recently cut player to pick his brain.

As former NFLer Matt Bowen wrote on Bleacher Report, "The practice squad is a revolving door in the NFL, and while there are young guys developing on it, there is also a reason a team will sign an opposing team's practice squad player. Teams will gladly hand out a practice squad check for the week to get some new info."

"We did it all the time," Millen says. "You can ask why they did a particular thing and what they were thinking on a certain play. But it really isn't helpful. You still have to execute."

The benefits of trying to gain an advantage by bending the rules on spying can certainly be debated. The intrigue cannot be.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.