Trying to steal signals is nothing new in the NFL. All teams have advance scouts who watch and log opponents' personnel groupings and record the signals they see from the sideline. The Patriots, however, took things to another level with their videotaping of opposing coaches.
The speed of the game makes it hard for a scout to pay attention to everything going on, and between personnel, formations, play calls, special-teams alignments and sub packages on both offense and defense, a scout has no chance of getting everything about every play down on paper. Having all that information on video would certainly make it easier to connect the dots and compare notes.
In the video released by the NFL, it is apparent that Matt Walsh's taping skills improved with time. In the earliest videotape handed over (Patriots-Dolphins in September 2000), Walsh focused only on the coach who sent in the personnel grouping, but that alone wouldn't have offered any extra advantage because an advance scout can do the same thing with pen and paper. In 2001, though, Walsh was able to film home games against Buffalo and Cleveland from an end-zone view that allowed him to first show field position, followed by down and distance, then defensive signals and finally the actual play. Having that information in sequence on one tape certainly makes it easier to connect the dots between everything that's happening.
However, these videotapes likely were not used to make in-game adjustments because there simply is not enough time during game action and a 12-minute halftime to decipher and decode what those tapes contain. At halftime coaches and personnel staff are barely able to get a drink, use the restroom and relay to players the most basic things they saw in the first half, before the team heads back onto the field. Where the advantage lies is in the time it takes to prepare for the next game against the particular opponent being filmed: What would normally require watching and splicing hours of tape was already done in one fell swoop during a previous game.
And based on what the league released, there seems to be little X's-and-O's information that would tip the scales unfairly. Again, going only on what is seen in the Walsh tapes, it is doubtful Scouts Inc. would be able to give our team information that advance scouts had not already provided. For example, if a team shows a two-deep pass coverage in its pre-snap defensive look, the inclination for the offense is to audible out of a pass into a run. There is the chance that one safety will cheat to the line at the last second, but that is something advance scouting and previous film study of the opponent against other teams would already have revealed. Therefore, this kind of video would not be essential to revealing that disguised coverage.
The tape Walsh made of Cleveland in 2001 is the highest-quality segment we saw, and even that video would afford a group of scouts only a small advantage. They might be able to identify when a particular zone-fire or coverage is coming and check off at the line, but again, that is something that would have been apparent anyway thanks to the kind of due diligence NFL teams employ when preparing for opponents. The advantage is even slighter when talking about division rivals because the Patriots and every other team have two chances per season to study and chart each team in their division.
We don't know for sure whether more tapes ever existed in New England, or how these tapes were broken down and used. But after reviewing the material released by the league, this much is clear: We saw nothing in that video that would allow us as a scouting department to provide a team with an unfair advantage over an opponent.
Yes, preparation time was reduced and film study was streamlined, but not in a way that single-handedly turned the Patriots into one of the premier teams in the league. In the end, the Patriots' success comes down to having better players who make full use of the information provided to them.
Scouts Inc. analysts Jeremy Green, Keith Kidd, Doug Kretz, Ken Moll and Matt Williamson all contributed to this story.